What It’s Like to Be Black in: London

BET.com explores the nuances of Black identity in different parts of the U.S. and the world.

Posted: 02/24/2012 12:52 PM EST

(Photo: Yvonne Kramo)

Yvonne is a graduate student who has lived her entire life in England. She was born and raised in London, holds two degrees from impressive universities (she’s working on a third at Oxford) and, if you heard her speak, she would sound like your typical Londoner. But, as a Black woman, her impeccable accent is one thing that makes her sometimes feel like an outsider in the only country she has ever called home.

 

“When I speak, people always ask me where I’m from,” she said. “I’ll say 'London,' but that’s never enough.”

 

Yvonne, like many Black people in London and across the U.K., is the child of immigrants from Africa — Ghana, to be exact.

 

But, although England is her country, Yvonne says it's hard for many Black people in England to rally behind a title like “Black British” in the same way many in America have adopted the title of African-American.

 

“We can’t really see ourselves as British when people are always asking us where we’re from,” she said of the constant questions she receives when white British people are surprised to hear her accent. Even more annoying than the surprise over her accent, she says, are demeaning comments on how well she speaks.

 

“They’ll say things like ‘oh, you speak English so well,’” she said.

 

Although Black people have been recorded as living in England, specifically London, since the 16th century, today, most Black people in the country can trace their heritage back to another country in Africa or the Caribbean within a few generations. Growing up in North London, Yvonne says that although there were many different ethnic groups and nationalities, including a significant Black population, “you certainly did feel your color.”

 

With so many different types of Black people, the term “Black community” can often be a precarious choice of words — as one Black member of Parliament recently found out. When a journalist called out the media for using the term, MP Diane Abbott suggested that London’s Black communities’ propensity to divide among ethnic distinctions was a “divide and rule” tactic of white people “as old as colonialism,” and ignited a firestorm of controversy.

 

While Yvonne said she agrees that the blanket term "Black community" is too broad to use in the context of London, she does feel that more unity among Black communities is needed.

 

“Times have changed, but it's still quite divided, so, to talk of the Black community — there is no singular Black community.”

 

Still, she said that there is room for more unity among Black people, despite their many differences.

 

“I think it would make sense for Black communities to come together … there is a big issue in terms of gangs and stabbings on the street and it's said to be very much a Black problem,” she said.

 

“… Before, people (Black Africans) would say ‘no, it's not us, its more Black Caribbeans, so we really don’t need to engage with it’, whereas, now, if you look at the victims and also the perpetrators, they’re coming from across the whole Black community, regardless of whether they’re of African or Caribbean background.”

 

But there’s more to the U.K.’s usage of the descriptor "Black" than you would think. For Britons, “Black,” in the political sense, includes not only people with origins in Africa and the Caribbean, but also people with backgrounds in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Even the U.K.’s Black History Month (which is celebrated in October) includes celebrations of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures along with Black history in the American sense.

 

In addition to youth violence, Yvonne mentioned several other issues that London’s Black communities are struggling with, which may not sound too unfamiliar to Black people in the U.S.: problems with low voter engagement and an achievement gap between Black male students and their white counterparts.

 

And there is one more thing that Yvonne said is universal among London’s Black communities: the search for a “good” Black man.

 

“They’re are a lot of Black female professionals, but not many Black males,” she said. “… Everyone’s always saying, ‘Oh, you need to move to America, because that’s where you’ll meet all the Black guys.”

 

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