From Slurs To Successes, My First Frank Conversation With My Mum About Race

Jazmin Kopotsha

We all love our mums. Some of us are lucky enough to be super close with our mums. But there are a million things that most of us would rather die than talk to them about. What you did after that third bottle of wine on Friday night? Hell no. Either of your sex lives? Absolutely not.

There are conversational safe zones for which we all have our boundaries. And though discussions about race had never been off the table in our household – far from it, in fact – when I came to have a purposeful chat about blackness with my mum I realised that, beyond anecdotal stories or off-the-cuff commentary, we’d never really spoken about our perspectives on black womanhood before. Broaching new territory with your mum in your 20s, when you’ve just about got a handle on your post-teenage relationship, is pretty scary.

My nerves were unjustified, though. I asked questions that I wasn’t aware I wanted answers to and she responded with more wisdom than I’d braced myself to take on. I expected a few lols (which we had) and maybe a little awkwardness (which we didn’t) as I fired off questions about her experiences growing up as a black woman a whole generation before me.

What I got was a different perspective on white boys who like to tell you that “they’ve never been with a black girl before”, the surprise revelation that her first direct experience of racism came later than mine did, and a stark reminder of what it sometimes takes to be successful in a world that doesn’t expect you to be. Here’s our (surprisingly) frank conversation about race, and all the nuanced experiences that come with being black.

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Jazmin: Do you think that black women are celebrated enough generally?

Mum: No, I don’t think so. I think what we’re getting good at now, is celebrating our own successes. I think that we have some very powerful figureheads at the moment, like Michelle Obama.

I agree with what you’re saying about celebrating ourselves more.

I think that’s good! Personally, I don’t need to be validated because I’m black. I need to be validated because I’m me. And the fact that my sisters will celebrate what black women and black men have achieved, to me, is excellent. To me, that tops just having validation from some random.

That was something you taught me to do when I was little; to celebrate the stuff that I achieved. I remember having conversations like, “Yeah, you’re gonna have to work harder, because yes, you’re surrounded by white people, who’ve probably had it a bit easier.”

And I think that’s the reality. The horrible thing about it now is that it’s more of an unconscious bias. You’ll have nobody admitting it because it’s not the done thing. You can’t be anti-black publicly but you may still be anti-black, you know what I mean? As a professional, you may not get an interview because your name’s Kopotsha, or you have an African name. I can give you an example where I applied [to an organisation] twice – once with my name as Kopotsha and once with a Western name – with the same CV and I got an interview with the false name. That should not be the case. Had I not applied twice, I’d never have known.

What was it like for you to have these conversations with me when I was going into new schools and whatever? Was it difficult or a matter of “Well, I have to prepare Jaz for what it’s going to be like”?

It was more important that you were aware of your journey so that you could equip yourself in the right way. In a positive way, right? So for me to actually speak to you about what it’s like to be black, some of the challenges and obstacles that you may find, and also reinforce how special it is and what a blessing it is to actually be black and be from Africa and have the type of history that our people have, was not a challenge. It was actually that my child needs to be equipped for life, and for her journey, and there is no shortcut to the things that you will experience as a person of colour. It’s the same as anything, I guess. You have to address it at some point, you have to confront yourself.

As a mother, that’s the piece that I believe was important and that’s a piece that Mum and Dad gave to me. And it’s, for me, about understanding yourself. Being proud and holding your head up high. I embrace my blackness anyway because I just love it. There’s something really special about being black and having a history and for you to see your colour and your heritage through those eyes was the only gift I could give you. But you jumped on it anyway…

Yes, very true!

[laughs] Yeah, baby! We’re black and we’re proud!

But even the way we talk and the music that you’d play. Us dancing to gospel in the kitchen and singing NWA in the car [laughs], those are my early memories of celebrating black culture.

And the African music that comes from Nanny and Grandad, we would mix it up and dance with our people! Look how beautiful we are! Make sure you write that down in your article, really.

Yes, Mum, I will. Next question…

We are!

Do you think your teens were really different from my teens?

I think you guys had a better and a more fulfilling experience being a black person growing up through the ages because people are more accepting and understanding. In my day and age, I have to be honest this is a very interesting paradox, before we moved to a middle class area, I’d never heard the word [racial slur]. I’d never heard those derogatory black words. When I moved to the middle class area, and I think I must have been 11 or 12, that was the first time I heard it.

Really?! I’m sure I was younger when I did.

Yeah, I didn’t even know what it was! It’s surprising that that’s kind of like a reverse weirdness, because you actually would have thought that living in the more deprived area, that’s where you’re going to get the racism, but no. When we moved up to middle class suburbia, that is when I started to experience what racism was all about.

It’s funny that you say that because I was definitely hyper-aware of being the ‘black girl’ when I was in private schools, which are generally more white anyway. It was something that I was probably more paranoid of there than when I went to comp school.

Oh… Really?

Yeah, I suppose at my last couple of schools there were just more ethnicities. People still made stupid comments and stuff but, yeah… I was aware.

That’s disappointing. But you’re probably right. When we took you out of private school and into more of a diverse area, you will have experienced that diversity. And if everybody’s different then everybody’s the same because they share one thing in common, and that’s that they’re different. Which is refreshing I think, baby girl. What do you think?

One hundred percent! One more question then I’ll leave you alone.

Don’t leave me alone yet… Black History Month! Yay! Let’s go!

Jesus okay, next question. Did you have any black female role models when you were growing up?

I used to like, who’s that girl from the Fugees? Lauryn Hill. I adored her. I also used to like Salt-N-Pepa [sings the intro to “Push It”]. I used to listen! Do they count? “Push it! Baby, baby!” I might download that actually.

They can count. You go ahead and download it.

Apart from that, not really anyone else I can think of.

I’ve said that you’re my role model before.

Oh, I like that. I’m a role model! I can’t wait to tell people.

What advice would you give if I were about to have a little girl?

Be absolutely honest with your child. Love your child deeply and ensure your little girl has that inner belief in themselves firstly and secondly in the world around them because if you don’t look at things from the inside out, you’ll never succeed. And be proud to be black, you are who you are.

Aww, Mum, that’s really nice!

You have to though! I’m a nice person!

It’s hard though, because you know that you should celebrate yourself and be proud but you can’t help but have moments where you really don’t feel great about anything.

You have to have those moments in order to appreciate the moments that you do feel good. If you felt good about yourself 50 zillion times, you’d forget how lucky you are.

But it’s hard when that’s decided by other people. Like, there’s that classic thing of going on a date with a white guy and you get the “I don’t usually date black girls” thing and it’s like, WHY is this a thing we’re talking about?

It’s interesting, actually, because I do the reverse psychology. I’m obviously not at all averse to anything, but I would happily say to a white guy, “I like white guys. But there’s a disparity between my beliefs and your beliefs. You’re never going to get it because you’re not going to feel what I feel and you’re not going to feel what my children feel every day because you’re classed as the ‘norm’.” It’s part of being robust and actually reconciling yourself to the fact that, although the world’s a better place [than it used to be], honestly Jaz, you’re always going to have to acknowledge it and I think you get strength from acknowledging it. It then becomes a ‘thing’ and not an issue. It’s a matter of fact that it’s going to be stated, it’s somehow become acceptable for people to say it.

It’s easy to take it as a negative judgement, though.

Oh yeah! Jesus! I think if I was a little less confident about who I am and if I wasn’t so strong with my blackness, if someone said that to me I’d be thinking, What are you trying to say? It’s not always accepting the stuff that people do, it’s about not sweating the small stuff, shrugging away the ignorance and dealing with the big fundamental stuff that impacts you as a black person. It’s being able to compartmentalise that as opposed to taking it on. Something like that is the other person’s problem; the problem of whoever is stupid enough to say that…

Wow, so much wisdom, Mum. Okay, thanks. I’m gonna have to love you and leave you and get back to work.

Why are you going to work? Wait, is that the end of my interview?

Love you, bye.

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