Racism, Sexism, and Binaries. A personal History.

I’ve always found the term ‘black’ to signify difference problematic. Maybe because I was a student of art, to me black is a very specific colour when compared to other colours. Yet, of course, it isn’t really a single colour at all. Apparently colour is something the brain invents, and not every culture refers to every shade of colour the way one specific country, or region does. The term blue In French, and probably in other cultures too, refers to several shades of blue; there is no purple in French. In German, the word for purple is Lila.

The term ‘black’ refers to many people of many different colours; therefore it seems to be a term to signify difference.

As a child, my first experience of myself as ‘Other’ (a term coined by E. Said in the comparatively recent work in the history of Imperialism, Orientalism to illustrate the Oriental and Occidental dichotomy), was when someone at my junior school pointed out that my skin was “olive”. I was shocked by this reference, and realized that this child at my school saw me as different and did this by reference to the colour of my skin.

As I got older, my skin became whiter. I stayed out of the sun to avoid skin cancer, as there was a big campaign against skin cancer in the 1980s (which raised my awareness of skin cancer), when sunbed use was prevalent here in the UK and I was a teenager, although I’ve never been on a sunbed; yet I had thick, black curly hair and people often asked me whether I was Spanish. (I am told that my great grandmother might have been Spanish, but I have never had a DNA test, so I really do not know.) Anyway there are rumours, aren’t there, that we all hail from Africa originally, and we are all related, so what is all the fuss about?

Well, the treatment of people that we deem different from ourselves, and the abuse of those people.

Perhaps, more because of other people’s reactions to me, and less anything to do with my own examination of my feelings about my identity, I’ve never felt ‘white’. I’ve always felt ‘Other’ and I’ve always felt angry at history, which was partly why I wrote a literary sequel to Jane Eyre (‘Bertha’s Journal: A Perfect Immelman Turn’), a novella or short story, which attempted to look at the psyche of Bertha, the Creole woman locked away in Thornfield Hall; the secret wife of Rochester.

I have been vocal about my anger at the self-congratulatory attitude of the country I have grown up in (as people who have witnessed this know); for example, questioning visitors to a Raj exhibition at the V&A in 2010 or 2011, about their feelings about what I called the ‘rape’ of India, to this exhibition which glorified the British Empire and exhibited a Rolls Royce as if that were something to aspire to, when there were rooms of beautiful and delicate Indian artifacts leading towards this final display of opulence, which were lost to history. The resulting feeling of the experience of this exhibition was that I felt sickened by the inference, which was that we were civilised and had civilised a people. Fellow citizens seemed oblivious to the obvious ignorance of displaying opulence and wealth gained through the subjugation and slavery of others. They told me we (meaning the British, so that includes you, if you are British), had given them our language.

I am aware that there were many people, in all cultures affected by colonialism, who benefited from working with their oppressors at the time, and you can go to your history books if you are interested in reading about this. But, regardless of this, it is still wrong to continue to revel in something which was long ago (over 200 years ago in 1807 in Great Britain; I will upload further research on this at a later date as notes since this was not a uniform abolition, worldwide), abolished. For this reason, I was heartened and moved to tears this morning when I heard that monuments celebrating prominent slave trade beneficiaries were being torn down and revised. It is confusing for our children that we revere people who have traded in lives of other people. There can be no other way to describe it.As a descendant of an Irish grandmother who was born in Wexford in the 1900s, I grew up in 1960s and 70s Britain being acutely aware that the British projected the Irish as stupid, and cracked jokes about them. I always thought this was interesting, since I knew I was not stupid. (I missed a first at university because I was a single mum with a sick 9 year old at home and handed in two essays late, which reduced my mark by a couple of points to just below the mark for a first; I did fight this, but concessions were not allowed retrospectively, you had to know you were going to get sick.)

Still, although I was bemused by the treatment of the Irish (the knowledge that Ulster was once a colony not being lost on me), I was slightly angry too, which made me pick up another book alongside the standard reading of our Postcolonial Studies module as an undergraduate. That book was Inventing Ireland by the Irish writer Declan Kiberd. That book taught me about what it is like to be in captivity and how playing dumb often pleases those people who are in charge of you. It’s a device that the Irish used to confound the British.

Other research has taught me that there were similarities between the abuses that were meted out to countries and regions that were colonised. Their customs and dress was the subject of ridicule. (Customs and dress tend to be categorised using the term ethnicity.)There are cross overs between abuses of any colonised people and the subjugation of women.

It seems to me that women who behave differently from men, dress differently and sometimes have different or even, as we are learning, the same needs as men, are often derided for this by men. Instead those men should celebrate the difference the opposite sex brings to their business, or table, and see this difference as an asset.Any form of slavery is wrong. The slavery of women in this country is wrong. Paying women lower salaries than men and not taking account of their responsibilities to their children, or accommodating these is wrong. This is a form of subjugation and slavery, and along with all slavery it should be eradicated.

Personally, growing up, I did not find binaries helpful, the binaries of ‘black’ and ‘white’, and ‘male’ and ‘female’ seem to me to be tools of segregation.

Women as slaves and subjects:

Recently, as a means of educating myself about the literature that my forefathers grew up with, I’ve been reading a work by Robert Browning called ‘The Ring and The Book’. This work highlights the attitudes to women who were born out of wedlock in history. Women were thought of as ‘bastards’ and of lower worth.Even as recently as the 1970s, I recall a child telling me (when I was still a child), that she was a ‘bastard’ because she was born out of wedlock. The attitudes portrayed in The Ring and the Book are truly shocking. Both the woman who adopts a child, and passes her off as her own, and the child protagonist of the story are viewed as at fault for being involved in such a scheme, although they are really unwitting players in it; although there are several viewpoints. (The story is retold from several different standpoints.)Nowadays, adoption would be seen as a kind and caring act of charity. I’ve always thought that it is important to step outside of received wisdom and work out what seems right and true, and not to go along blindly with it.

The Other?

Since the absence of love is fear, it probably stands to reason that fear drives people who see themselves as in some way different to you or I to focus on the difference. Yet, any demeaning of another human being as of lower worth than oneself is barbaric.

Statues of reverence like Ozymanidias will one day fall anyway. A chip here a scratch there, not what they once were; a means of immortalizing someone for something great that they did that outweighs all the terrible?

Perhaps we should erect statues to show gratitude to the people in our communities who volunteer or who dedicate themselves to family life, and who do not profit from their work, except perhaps through personal growth which enables them to further enrich the lives of others.

Research:The following researched writing discusses different experiences of abolition:

The abolition of slavery in the French Antilles on 27 April 1848 led to a modification of the legal and judicial systems: the changing legal status of former slaves gave them new opportunities to move around the colonies, at least on paper. In theory, after 1848, everyone should have had freedom of social and spatial mobility and access to the urban centres and their institutions; what happened in practice, however, still needs to be researched.(“Freedom of Movement, Access to the Urban Centres, and Abolition of Slavery in the French Caribbean, “Fatah-Black, Karwan, and Marion Pluskota).https://ku-primo.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/permalink/f/45nsh0/TN_cambridgeS0020859020000103accessed 11-06-2020

The following researched writing discusses different experiences of abolition:

in reaction to slave-trade abolition-Great Britain’s 1807 legislation and the United States’ ban in 1808-cultural producers began bifurcating constitutional from personal freedom in their iterations of Columbia. Anti-slavery advocates still used Columbia as an iconic syncretism of political and personal liberty to critique slavery. Others, however, threatened by the possibility of black freedom associated with slave-trade abolition, staged Columbia to represent political but not personal liberty.(“Columbia the Goddess of Liberty and Slave-Trade Abolition (1807–1820s)”, Jenna M. Gibbs; (see bibliography for full references)https://ku-primo.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/permalink/f/45nsh0/TN_doaj_soai_doaj_org_article_fd994b9dd7804c878ce802a2bd786c21Accessed 11-06-2020


1. Fatah-Black, Karwan, and Marion Pluskota. “Freedom of Movement, Access to the Urban Centres, and Abolition of Slavery in the French Caribbean.” 65.S28 (2020): 93-115. Web.

2.Jenna M. Gibbs. “Columbia the Goddess of Liberty and Slave-Trade Abolition (1807–1820s).” Sjuttonhundratal 8 (2011): Sjuttonhundratal, 01 October 2011, Vol.8. Web.

Apologies for the formatting on this essay, as I am having issues with formatting this week. Thank you for your patience.Notes:This essay will be updated with further links, quotes and research as are all the essays on this site. Thank you for your likes and time. All best, Hermione Laake (also writes as Wilds).


Published by hermionelaake - Awards-nominated writer and associate editor O:JA&L

Whilst working on long fiction, Laake/Wilds write short stories, poetry, essays and blogs weekly. Laake appeared on Blog Talk Radio in 2016 in an interview across continents with Susan Wingate. Laake is an awards nominee, Jointly-published and Indie writer. Nominated for the Avon and Authonomy First Lines prize, 2014 and the H. G. Wells Grand Prize for Fiction, 2013 for the original #MYFRIENDALIEN out on AMAZON BOOKS in 2022. Flash fiction is published with Open: Journal of Arts and Letters. Laake has an MA from KU with distinction and a BA in English Literature.

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