Ministry of Justice
My thoughts on what it means to be Black and British in 2019
My name is Karen Minta. I joined the Civil Service about three months ago as a Business Manager in the Ministry of Justice Digital and Technology team.
Carving the discourse surrounding Black British identity has always been a contested feature of my existence. Since primary school, I have constantly been presented with a warped history interlaced with American faces from slaves to rappers, basketball players and even the leader of the free world. Being black in Britain to me has always meant being on the outskirts of a profound influential history of this country. Why do I say this? I say this because being a Black British person when I was growing up wasn’t really a thing. I don’t say that to insult anyone who built the Brixton that we see today, who stood and walked alongside Claudia Jones as she built Notting Hill Carnival from a Church hall celebration to be the biggest street party in Britain today or those who have patiently waited to see Diane Abbott become the longest serving black MP in the House of Commons. But to highlight that the Black British identity is now being appreciated in a way that I have never seen before.
The growth and acceptance of the Black British identity has far reaching benefits contributing to all areas of society. From the entertainment industry to the corporate world to the interesting reality of politics. We now see Black British individuals making their marks and being noticed as the best in their specialism all around us. When I was growing up black in the late 90’s early 00’s, black success was limited and dominated by the American entertainment industry. Whenever I did see a successful Black British individual it was limited to the odd sports player or entertainer. As a child, I thought to identify as a Black British person meant living on an overcrowded council estate in a space of an inner city surrounded by austerity and crime. Our culture was shameful hence why my parents decided to change my first name from Etornam to Karen (Which is a Ewe name from Ghanaian tribe and means God has answered my prayers) to stop the bullying in school. My mum relaxed my hair so it could be permanently straight at all times to look professional and neat and if you dared tried to perform well in school or were articulate you were labelled as an oreo.
Fifteen years ago, it just wasn’t cool to be a Black British person and as a young black girl, this had a detrimental effect on my perception of success and scaled back my aspirations and the spaces that I envisaged myself in. Now I can come to work and see people in high-flying positions that look like me. A Black British man named Dr. Tunde Okewale MBE can be acknowledged as a leading barrister, the Black British author named Malorie Blackman’s literature can be studied in schools and Cheryl Avery can be Commercial Director at the Ministry of Justice (Big up yourself Cheryl!). We can all watch Stormzy headline this year’s Glastonbury Festival, Notting Hill Carnival is the UK’s largest street party for all people from all walks of life and different backgrounds and Afrobeats music is heard on mainstream radio.
I am not going to pretend that society is perfect and racism doesn’t exist because a black person, in particular, a black man, can still get stopped and searched by the police due to racial profiling (this did actually happen to my boyfriend and I a few months ago). Black British citizens who were born and bred in this country can still be ‘sent back’ due to the loss’ of paperwork, a black woman can still be denied a job due to the texture of her hair and why are we still asking #WhyIsMyCurriculumSoWhite? Because it still seems that when Black History is taught in schools it only touches on slavery which erases and degrades the history of a Black British person and there is so much more to share and learn than that! Society has a long way to go therefore Black History month is still essential because there are still aspects of the Black British identity which I believe society does not want to face the challenge of accepting or is just plain oblivious to it.
Do I still feel like an outsider in the UK as a Black British 25 years old? Hmm sometimes because I will still be asked what country I am from originally (which I do not mind answering at all!). However, I and other Black British people are proud and comfortable to share our identity because we feel that our culture and therefore our identity can be appreciated and recognised in a positive light rather than discouraged.
We should continue to celebrate Black British people because when one demographic is appreciated society becomes even more enriched.
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