by Travis Alabanza
Subtle, Subtlety, Subtly—as a British man, these words saturate my conversations by the thousands. From my mother: “remember, be subtle in your wisdom.” From my friends: “yeah, sneak me in that party, but be subtle about it.” From my primary teacher: “Travis, your work has subtle hints of promise.” And from the oppressor AND oppressed when talking about racism in the UK: “Yeah, it exists, but it’s so subtle compared to what they go through in the US.” If you are a person of colour in Britain who has discussed systematic racism, you have probably said, or been on the receiving end of, that very sentence. I have been on both and, eventually, I started to believe it.
For a long time, I nodded along every time I heard it. Maybe, I was nodding in gratitude that our cops don’t carry guns, that Black Men aren’t shot as openly or frequently (as they are in the US), that our free healthcare creates a less noticeable gap of poverty, or maybe just to brush the conversation into a bin. However, this year, after participating in Black Girl Dangerous’ “Get Free: A Summer Program for QTPOC Youth,” I began the difficult task of embracing the possibilities of honesty, of no longer lying to myself about how blatantly systematic oppression affects the way I create relationships, interact with others and deal with emotions. Being more accountable to myself, to my community and to my integrity has made me truly realize the detrimental effects being “subtle” about oppression has on all of us; how it suppresses progression, liberation and healing; how the word was co-opted into oppressor language and used to validate centuries of racialized hierarchy; and how it’s been used to prevent us from verbalizing our deepest pains and vulnerabilities.
This is dangerous on so many levels.
One: If we perceive our oppression as “subtle,” we will feel silly when speaking about it and, consequently, silence ourselves. After telling a friend about a recent experience of being racially profiled in a supermarket, they immediately reminded me of how my experience was “subtle” compared to the murderous shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Being reminded of the horror and evil of Mike Brown’s murder, in that moment, my sadness and demand for dignity was invalidated. I felt ashamed, that I should never share that experience again. My experience, my hurt, my oppression is and was erased by anything more tragic, anything less “subtle”. These reminders allow for the continued perpetuation of racial profiling against other Black men and affirm society’s nefarious perception of our villainy. Hence, the oppressor stays oppressing.
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Two: If we consistently call racist actions and legislation “subtle,” we are not actively engaging the pain someone is experiencing. I see a fear among QTPOC Brits in sharing their pain; a fear that has grown from being told, like I have been, that their pain is “subtle” compared to others. Yet the pain resulting from systematic racism is still true, real and FAR from subtle. The fact that every single QTPOC friend I am blessed to have experiences daily micro-aggressions is far from subtle. The fact that Black British Boys are the least likely to progress to Higher Education, yet the most likely to be sentenced to prison is not subtle. So when our first reaction to someone’s story of pain is to compare it to something “far less subtle,” we are ignoring the violence and not recognising the unsubtle impacts it has. We are harming our community and stopping liberation. Hence, the oppressor stays oppressing.
Three: If we consider our problems to be subtle, our responses to said problems will be subtle. A revolution will never come from “subtle” movements or changes. So why in the name of my British-Backside are we insisting on teaching anyone who shares their experience of racism that said racism is “subtle”? The US creates #hashtags that trend in moments, articles and online spaces that call out systematic bullsquishy, organizations that examine the multiple aspects of our identity and movements of marginalized people that are consistently uprising against the oppressor. I am not saying the UK doesn’t have beautiful, strong, resilient souls or organisations of marginalized folk rising up—but I am noting that there isn’t enough. And as long as we persist in considering our racial oppressions as subtle, there will never be enough. Hence, the oppressor stays oppressing.
I have begun challenging myself to stop responding to my QTPOC pals in a certain way. I vowed to be wary of how, when and why I mention US struggles and stories. I believe comparison of cultures, countries and continents is important in gaining understanding of how this systematic-bullsquishy works; what I don’t believe in is quantifying someone’s pain or being comparative in someone’s hurt. The word “subtle” absolutely and aggressively does this, thus keeping the oppressor oppressing. I understand the real fear in those who remain “subtle” but I am really ready for my liberation to be anything but “subtle” and with that: I ban that word from MY lexicon.
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Travis is a Black-mixed pot of browness from the UK. A student by day, and an erotic-political poet by night, shouting unapologetically about his brown-queer love. Recently performing his one man show #storiesofaqueerbrownmuddykid , Travis wants 2015 to be a year British QTPOC takeover the art scene.