Tell us about yourself? What is your heritage/race?
My name is Iyabo Taiwo and I am an 18 year old mixed race black woman. My dad grew up in Lagos, Nigeria and came to the UK at aged 17 to study medicine, where he met my mum, a white Scottish woman, also studying medicine at the time. Growing up in a predominantly white area and spending lots of time with my mums side of the family, I am definitely ‘in touch’ with my white roots and I recognise the subtle privilege that I carry with that, being a lightskin woman in a world where it seems the darker your skin the darker the world around you becomes. However I would say quite confidently that I feel more connected to my black roots which of course, have shaped me as a person growing up and have given me the opportunity to learn and recognise the history and significance behind my race.
What are you most proud of about your heritage?
First and foremost, I am simply proud to be black. Without having to open my mouth, my skin colour tells a story of pain, perseverance, strength and power that my ancestors fought and suffered for in order to give me this platform and freedom today. Arguably black history holds more weight and significance than any other historical topic as it has become MORE relevant and more NEEDED today than ever before. As painful as the death of George Floyd was for the black community, it’s impact showed the sheer strength and unity we hold as a community. Our voices and our protests have quite literally woken the world up from a sleep that has lasted over 400 years and I am proud to be able to say that I was part of that movement and part of that fight for justice.
Let’s talk a bit about your family. Have they been the ones to teach you about your histories? Are you comfortable talking about any hardships they have faced over the years?
My surname “Taiwo” translates to “crown” or “royalty” which stems from my late Grandad’s title as a leader of a small village in Lagos where my dad grew up. He used his voice and position to promote justice and unity and in his presence, I often felt guided by his intelligence and warmth. Inspired by him, I have always made the conscious effort to learn about my background and have engaged in many conversations with my family about their experiences and opinions on race and equality as a whole. In terms of hardships and setbacks what I have learnt is that often when racially motivated, they can be subtle. Subtle enough that you don’t feel explicitly discriminated against, but not well hidden enough to not notice that you stand out. Whether that’s somebody crossing the road when they see you or following you around a shop or questioning your name or hairstyle or culture. - These are just a few examples of experiences faced by POC daily, that make you realise that your skin colour alone has instantly become your whole identity.
Tell us a bit about your childhood. What was your school/university experience like? How was it overall?
I grew up in a predominantly white, affluent area of Liverpool. As pretty much the only black girl in my year group, maybe 1/5 black students in the whole school at the time I had my fair share of racism. I became used to the frequent racially motivated jokes. I heard everything from “Go back to your own country” to “Take some tips from Michael Jackson and bleach your skin”. I remember distinctly the “Pirates of the Caribbean” theme tune being played whenever I walked into a classroom to mock my box braids. The N word was not an uncommon jab during any argument or disagreement. My family was frequently targeted, my Nigerian dad of course being the centre of each insult whether that was calling him an “immigrant” or mocking his accent or his background. I remember rumours of 3 or 4 boys my age threatening to beat up my younger brother who was probably 10 or 11 at the time. And whilst many would read that and be quite shocked, disgusted even, by the explicit racism it’s almost more shocking to think that I became quite used to those insults, numb even. By Year 9 I had mastered the art of holding in my tears when faced with comments of such nature. Prior to Year 9 however I could not tell you how many times I cried in my bedroom. I hated that I was different. I hated my name, I hated my afro hair, I hated my skin...I remember quite vividly at age 13 looking in the mirror after yet another incident at school and wishing I was white.
One of the most difficult aspects of school for me however was the lack of support from people in positions of authority. I sighed in disappointment when I was the one removed from class for being “disruptive” when I asked the boys to stop throwing chewing gum in my afro during an english lesson. I frequently found myself in the councillors office for “reacting badly” to the constant abuse that would pretty much echo through the corridors every time I passed the boys in my year group. It became quite evident early on that I was by myself.
Overall my experiences were difficult. I learnt a lot about myself in those years and I look back on them now, now in a position where I am happy and confident in my skin, and I can’t help but feel outrage towards the system and the people that stood back and watched as I was made to hate myself simply because I was different.
Do you feel like your race and culture was a topic covered in school?
Whilst race and culture was definitely touched on to some extent in subjects of the likes of English and history, I learnt a lot of my history through my own interest and research, focusing many of my school essays and projects on racially related topics such as the emerging and ever growing #blacklivesmatter campaign, alongside black activists such as MLK, Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela. I remember distinctly learning about the Civil Rights movement in the USA in y11 history and finding the whole topic utterly fascinating. I pretty much used every opportunity possible to broaden my knowledge on race and racism as I recognised, probably more than my fellow classmates, how much of an impact such topics have on society as a whole today. As here we are in 2020, quite literally living in a chapter of history that our kids will read and write about!
Saying that, I do feel as though the education system in general lacks the material and content needed to inspire and educate young people of ALL races to learn about their backgrounds and heritage, especially against the backdrop of a growing racial- political climate.
Have you ever encountered any difficulties in your working career?
As a young black female working in a Law firm, I am aware of the lack of diversity that the legal world represents. The justice industry, heavily dominated by older, white males is exactly the reason why black people are dying at the hands of a system that is so deeply entrenched in discrimination and hatred that it takes WORLDWIDE protest and disruption to arrest and prosecute the likes of Mr Floyd’s murderers in Minneapolis earlier this week or Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers late last month.
Luckily, I am yet to personally experience any difficulties in my workplace that are racially motivated in any way. It was in-fact refreshing to sit in my job interview last year and be able to discuss passionately, my thoughts and feelings on the difficulties faced as a black woman. I was greeted with a shared interest of the importance in diversifying the justice system and making sure that POC are represented fairly and equally in positions of authority and status.
When it comes to relationships, do you find there any challenges that you face?
In terms of relationships, I feel as though difficulties are most likely to arise when you feel a lack of support or understanding from the other. On a topic like race, which I feel so strongly about, I would find it very difficult to maintain a relationship with someone who didn’t have the same mindset or opinion as me on the topic. Even if they are not as knowledgeable as you are surrounding the topic of race both historically and present day, a willingness and genuine desire to learn about and support my opinions towards the same, is a necessity for me in any of my relationships.
Do you feel you have been denied any opportunities in your life?
I perhaps speak from a place of privilege when I say that I feel I have never been denied any opportunities in my life so far. Whilst I have been a victim of discrimination and racism throughout my life, I have been lucky enough to have access to the educational tools and support that I have needed in order to progress to the places and positions I want to be in at this stage of my life. I would however be naive to think that this is the case for everybody. We see the denial of opportunity for black people almost every day in society. From the film industry casting lighter skinned actresses to portray black females, to the music industry promoting white artists and condemning black artists. We see tabloid newspapers targeting POC from young successful footballers to Meghan Markle in clear attempts to tarnish their names and reputations.
I pray for the sake of my children that I can provide them with the tools that they need in order to reach their goals, regardless of their ethnicity and background.
Have you ever experienced a time where you felt someone of a different race has stood up for you and actively shown solidarity?
I have most definitely felt solidarity and support from other races throughout my lifetime which is something I admire greatly. In light of the #blacklivesmatter movement, I recently shared some of my experiences with racism and was overwhelmed with the love and support I received from my peers and strangers alike of all races and backgrounds. Their support not only showed an understanding and awareness of the racial issues I discussed, but also showed that they actively supported the change that I was promoting. Change does not happen without the recognition and support of others, and black people can certainly not make this change alone. What I and every other black person across the world need right now is solidarity, and I was both proud but also extremely moved to see this on my own platform.
How do you think we can better educate ourselves in the UK about race and equality?
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests taking place across the United States and the world, and the subsequent outpouring of activist sentiment on social media, it is more imperative than ever to continue momentum to make this a true moment of change. For the white community, in a position of privilege it is essential that you must begin to face up to your own failings as a country – racism, both overt and institutionalised, this is not just an American problem. For the reality of the matter is- if you don’t feel that same outrage and numbness that the black community feel right now, then you are part of the problem. Rather than divert the responsibility to someone else or dismiss racism as something that you cannot change, stop and think about how you CAN contribute. I urge you to read around the subject matter, have as many discussions as you can. Sign the relevant petitions and even attend peaceful protests.
I have taken the time to learn and understand what it means to be black. I am PROUD of my skin colour and I would not change it for the world... but I am hurting right now. You should be too!