by Samuel Nunez
Upon writing this piece I am reminded of Michael Kiwanuka’s song “I’m a black man in a White World”. It’s why I altered the title slightly but I feel that it will cover more than being an actor. Acting is what I do, not who I am. The mood reflects the same spirit of the song. To be a black male, in a white world is to be upbeat with your energy, your rhythm. Bringing to the surface your joy, artistry and effervescence whilst hiding your internalised pain, the understanding of injustice and that target on your back that you’ve lived with for so long.
I’ll preface this by saying that I can’t speak for all black people or the “community”. I can’t speak for all black men. I haven’t met all of them, don’t know their experiences or their opinions. We are far and wide in this world. I can’t speak on what it is like to be a Black Woman, however; my voice, my presence, my standing can and will be used in support whenever and wherever I can. I hope that this piece is received within the context of my intention which is to lend my voice on issues that I feel we as black people have all faced at some point in our lives. I can only comment on my life experiences, and the conclusions I have drawn, some of which are highly likely to be shared experiences from other black people but i can’t be sure. I speak on what I have found and understood to be true about being in these spaces and also how I have tried to navigate this.
I can say that it is lonely, it is difficult at times, rage inducing at certain points. It is the refreshing relief when an ally appears and a definitive sense of safety when you can finally see yourself reflected in a room where you alone once stood.
To be black in the West, particularly if you are black and in a position of power, influence or even if you’re just visible enough to stand out from the crowd, automatically thrusts you into a representative or ambassador role for your entire race (and gender). The “black community” if you will. Whether you want to be or not. Your presence becomes the cornerstone of how other people who look like you are judged through the lens of the observers. Your actions have great ramifications and not just for yourself. This is heightened if you are the only one, a situation that i have found myself in more than once. I feel that this is the curse of being a “minority” in all walks of life. And somehow if you’re black, and more recently if you’re Muslim (or look Muslim, which….what?!) the watchful eye feels amplified. Muted celebration for your success. Heightened derision and anger for your transgressions. You’re watched with caution or fear, with judgemental intrigue. There is a detachment, the othering and the isolation of an entire race of people. Tarred with the same brush. To be black, is to be “other”. An afterthought. It boils down to this: there is never room at the table for you. You don’t have a seat, a plate, hell you barely get the menu.
To be Black in a White World is to be told that White Privilege isn’t a thing when you see it every single day. It’s the privilege of existing without constant harassment. It’s the privilege of existing without watchful eyes, it’s the privilege of existing without the tag of criminal or its existing without “threat” being the first thought in people’s minds when they see you. This isn’t a paranoia. It shows in people’s attitudes and their behaviour with their interactions with you. An example of this is me walking down a street in a town near Oxford and having people see me, get startled and hurriedly crossing the road holding their precious belongings. It was even more comical when a man would stand in between me and whoever their female companion who was with them at that moment, puffing their chest out as of they were a bouncer. None of this caused me physical or mental anguish. But it serves as an example. These were not isolated incidents either. The watchful eye was ever present that day.
To be Black in the West, is to constantly be reminded that you are the ‘other’ regardless of the situation. I’ll give a general example. It’s the name Thomas Edison living on but the name Lewis Latimer being left out of 90% of the conversation. When it comes to the lightbulb both had incredible impact, Lewis Latimer’s contributions (one could argue) have had a greater bearing on the world today than Edison did in that although Edison did invent the lightbulb, Latimer invented the filament meaning that the light could last longer than Edison’s paper filament. Both are incredible feats. But one got glorified and the other left behind. This is an example of two things. 1) Racism from the past. 2) How past racism affects us now.
It’s through following history and understanding history that I have come to see the UK with the eyes I wear now. We can talk about the Windrush Scandal being a demonstration of Tory Britain’s view on black people but we need to also remember that it was the Labour Prime Minister at the time who wanted to divert Windrush to West Africa because they didn’t want them here in the first place. That feeling of being unwanted remains. That feeling that you are judged separately, more harshly or with different goalposts than everyone else around you is constantly being confirmed. It is the feeling of being targeted.
Growing up, I knew this to be true and have done for as long as I can remember. It starts at school. It starts with being accused of cheating in your math class because you constantly get the highest score in your maths test, not by the students but by the teacher and being made to take the test again just to be sure. Because you “looked guilty”. It starts with being held back at lunch time because your table was talking too loudly during class but then the rest of the table get to leave with the whole class and its only you kept behind. Because you ‘need to learn your place’. Its the being called “ni■■■r” and “c■■n” and being beaten up everyday in year 3 and not being believed, but when the blonde haired girl tells her parents and you have to threaten to bring the press down, suddenly action is taken and the students are asked to write apology letters to you. The trade-off being that now you have to be on your best behaviour, because 98% of the teachers at the school are watching you like a hawk and calling home every time you speak too loudly in class, because you dared to speak out about the school doing nothing about the racism. My mum kept those messages on the answer machine until it broke, just so she could remember how I was treated. This treatment in Primary School, coupled with the necessary but endless preparatory talks from your parent(s) of how to survive in this world laid the groundwork for a survivalist mentality. I have a specific set of skills for surviving in a space that is predominantly white, these skills I exercise every day. If you want to know what they are, imagine you’re in an animal enclosure with a bear. Keep calm, no sudden movement, lower your voice, be reasonable etc. I think most if not all Black people do. Our collective superpower is this phrase:
You need to work twice as hard to get half as far.
It’s a staple in many households. It’s a black proverb. To be black in this country is to know that many times you can be better at something than someone else but your skin colour predetermines how far you can fly. It’s not just a quote from @santandave, it’s a lived experience.
This othering leads you to become a target which leads to the feeling of injustice. At every hurdle; you could become the spokesperson for a whole diaspora, you could match a description, you could be confirming a comical stereotype or, ‘acting white’. The phrase “you act/talk/sound white” is one of the most damaging phrase I have heard in my life. It has always been directed at me when I showcase my wide ranging vocabulary. I used to read so much as a kid and learnt so many words because if it. I used words a lot more than I do now. I loved words. It was a conscious (wrong) decision to stop doing this somewhere during my late teens and early twenties. I definitely wasn’t as headstrong as I am now. This phrase is insidious. When a black person is told they are acting white, in my experience, it’s usually because their intelligence is on show. It’s usually meant to mock, deride someone. The white part being the intelligent part. The non-white is somehow to be devoid of intelligence. It’s an immediate lessering, diminishing of a whole people and the inherent racism from such a small phrase is staggering. It’s because of this phrase that a lot of my mum’s generation (who emigrated here) actively gave up their accents adopting a customer service voice. My grandmas generation, for the most part, didn’t. My generation, well, we adopt an English, African and Caribbean (from all the islands) Patois, as well as their customer service voice. And I love it.
Ultimately I think being (a) black (man) in a white world is restrictive. You have to small up yourself. So many times I’ve had to walk through my day to day on eggshells, constantly considering my presence and its effect on others and God forbid one day I allow myself to express myself freely.
Anyone who knows me knows I am one to go off on tangents.
This article is meant to focus on life as a black actor and I haven’t as yet, so I’ll give it a go.
*Sidebar first. Can we get rid of BAME. ‘Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic’. It compounds the “othering” of non whites by making it seem like we’re one big collective homogeneous group.
As actors, we always want to put the best foot forward, we all dream of picking dream parts to play to further our careers. We all dream of creating that masterpiece, being part of something bigger than ourselves. Pure Magic. As black people, we also have the added pressures I’ve mentioned above. Representing all black men when we lend our bodies, our minds, our creativity to a project. Promoting a stereotype or general conception. Or, not being black enough. This last one I reckon many, many of us have heard more than once throughout our career. “Can you act more, i don’t know…more <insert synonym for Black here>?” We have to think about how we are promoting ourselves and how that reflects in the wider world. We understand that our presence creates a narrative. At least, I know that I think about that. A lot. It’s walking into the audition room to read for the role of “thug 1”, “drug pusher”, if i was in America “pimp”. For other demographics it’s the defining role of “terrorist” for the third film in a row. It is tiring. But it links to one of my first observations, there simply hasn’t been space at the table for black stories, or black voices that tell our stories or blackness in general. Unless it’s another movie about slaves. Sometimes i feel like it is wasted energy and it detracts from my ambitions and my goals in my actor life. It’s working twice as hard because showcasing who you are isn’t the accepted narrative, but perpetuating a stereotype is. I know that in the last few years I have started to shed this hang up! I know that it has come through having to navigate predominantly white spaces that has made me a lot more conscious of it though.
The criticism I constantly hear is that “black people make everything about race” or that we’re playing “race card”. When people see your blackness in a negative light and have done for the majority of the time you have been alive, it becomes a point of survivability, the need to defend it. When we feel like we’re being attacked because of our skin colour, then yes, we defend it. And the more we defend ourselves and bring light to our oppression the more likely we are to gain allies in this fight, but the more likely the bigoted ones will reveal themselves.
But there is a parallel conversation to be had too. I think it is important to look for the best feeling-thought at every moment. At the same time I talk about the negative things, I also look to and seek the positive outcomes. For which there are many. Unless you’ve been oppressed, you will never understand the euphoria you feel when you see someone who has been oppressed just like you, for the same reasons as you, succeed. To be a black man in a white world is to know that there are other people out there experiencing the same things that you are. When Issa Rae said “i’m rooting for everybody black” i understood instinctively what she meant. I always have. From the youngest age, when I first understood how negatively I was being viewed because of my skin colour, I understood how important people like Will Smith were. I remember how Serena and Venus were treated early in their careers. As I got older I started to seek out the likes of Mr Sidney Poitier and Mr Denzel Washington. The success of these men, their presence along with many others was the cornerstone for me wanting to do this craft. This is the parallel conversation. They may not be able to speak for me but their success inspired me. Their presence gave me hope. Their presence inspired a generation of black men to seek out greatness in this industry. To see someone like Sidney be at the top of his game at the time that he was, you know he had to be good. The lack of space is as prevalent now as it was back then. I remember my older sister telling me about her time as an actor in the 90s and the problems she faced then, being a black female performing Shakespeare and the negative reactions she got just because of her skin colour. Assumptions perpetuated by stereotypes. Stereotypes perpetuated from movies that were our only access to do the craft we love. They used to talk of breaking down walls in the 80s and 90s. Those walls are still there. Just look at Viola Davis. She is the top actress (in my humble opinion) and yet in comparison to her white counterparts look at how she is treated. Where is the respect?
It is changing. Taking its time but it is changing For me as a young black man living in England, seeing the work of Lenny Henry CBE, Noel Clarke, Ashley Walters, Sophie Okonedo CBE (when I first found out she was British I flipped out) and countless others was great. But looking back, I know that they were only a few in a sea of talented individuals. But now we have this new generation that are an inspiration.
I am so proud that the younger British generation have people like Leticia Wright, John Boyega, Damson Idris, Daniel Kaluuya, Micaela Coel, Michael Ward and so many more that have emerged since my late teens and my twenties. Hell, I look up to these people. I was so proud when Idris broke into America. This generation of Black British Actors are cleaning up. And they’re good! They’re really really good! They are using their platform to inspire and tell stories, perspectives that weren’t told before, and have literally ripped up the narrative that black movies don’t sell. More and more there is space at the table. More and more we know that we can make our own table and succeed. Tyler Perry’s film studios opened up an avenue in my mind that I didn’t even know was blocked.
To be black, male or female, when you see other people who look like you doing well it is second nature to root for them. Because you know that with their success, you can succeed too. That unspoken camaraderie is so powerful. It’s the opposite side of being the spokesperson for your entire race. When you do good, and when we support each other, it can lift us all up. It is a little as ‘the nod’ and as big as being in that person’s corner, loudly supporting whoever you can whenever you can. It’s celebrating our cultural and national differences but social similarities. This celebration, comradeship, that’s community. This is why it is important to note what happened when Anthony Joshua spoke about supporting black business. Did you notice the immediate hate he received?
To be a black actor in a white world now, is to seek out a brotherhood for yourself, a support network and build each other up as best we can. Isolated togetherness. To be a black man in a white world is to know that when you succeed, you shine a light, a beacon for countless other black men, to blaze a trail and to open doors for others’ success. When I hear the phrase “black community” I think of a Support Group for Black People. I witnessed this first hand this year when I was lucky enough to attend an event called A Social: For Artists of Colour organised by Yolanda Mercy. It was small. It was powerful. And it had a profound effect on me. Covid stopped round 2, but I’m hopeful it will come back around. It is so important to keep this positive momentum going especially since this industry is going to be in need of rebuilding. It goes without saying though, that none of this is about hating white people. It would be remiss of me if I didn’t say that I have so many white allies in my circle of friends with whom I have created so many wonderful things. This isn’t about excluding them. It is about empowerment and making sure that there is space for all of us.
To be a black man in a white world is still dangerous, but to succeed is to be fearless and be a beacon for future generations. I think for me, the sense of community came from the persecution and targeting that we all as individuals have faced in our lives. We are wide ranging, differing in culture but what we all have in common is that our black skin is seen as a threat. Worldwide. I put “community” up in quotes because of this. But I shine light on the fact that this same persecution has given rise to abundance of strength, creativity and powerful people in this industry and in other walks of life too. When we support each other we can only grow tall. But we are tired of being seen as the enemy and we are tired of having doors closed in our faces. We are the ‘small’ axe. I am so happy and feel so blessed to be a black man. The injustices make me more determined to succeed. Watch us fly!
About Samuel: Samuel has been melanated since 1991. He is an Actor, writer and a part time Philosopher among many other things. He is currently preparing to tour the UK from Mid August – Late September as part of musical Shakespeare Troupe the Three Inch Fools where they will be putting on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Samuel is currently writing is own play(s) and is also collaborating on a project that aims to speak about mental health.
As a helping hand, his book recommendation list contains but is not limited to:
‘Black, Listed’ by Jeffrey Boakye
‘Natives’ by Akala
‘Brit(ish)’ by Afua Hirsch