Growing up as a mixed Black girl in the heart of west London had its pros and cons. On one hand I grew up in what the ‘woke’ generation would call a cultural and creative hub. A 10-minute walk away from the bustling Shepherd’s Bush, and in the other direction a 15-minute walk to the beautiful Kyoto Gardens of Holland Park. The sounds of Koffi Olomide — who my father would argue is the best Congolese artist of our time — blasted through the speakers of my house on a Sunday morning, and my grandmother’s crisp Belgian French echoed through the speakerphone.
In a way, I was caught between two worlds I didn’t even know existed. One, inside my home where I was just Leah. My brother was just Alex. My parents were Maman and Papa. We were all proudly Congolese; my mother, brother, and I proudly Belgian, with the flag hanging outside our window every World Cup. But most importantly, we were Canadians who had landed in the UK.
It was not until the age of eight or nine, however, that I realized that wasn’t the world everyone else was living in. “How can you be from more than two countries?” one classmate asked me once. “Just because you’re Black, doesn’t mean you have to have attitude,” another one chimed. “What’s your connection to Belgium again?” And the most prominent of all, “So if you’re from Canada, then where are you ‘originally’ from?” I, of course, was oblivious to what this actually meant.
The world around me was actually built in binary code. Black and white. Majority or minority. Kindred or other. I had been sheltered from this at home. With my family, I was surrounded by many people who were just like me. My parents and a lot of their friends were just like us. So why was this so strange to many people?
I started taking an interest in politics during my last two years of high school and began to delve deeper into Congolese history and politics — which I had been largely estranged from for the majority of my life, since I had only visited once in 2014, and neither of my parents had been back for 20 years.
And no, my parents were not political or war-torn refugees; they left to study in Montréal where my dad pursued a degree in economics and my mother took a college course in early years foundation stages education. Unfortunately, marriage, kids, mortgages, distance, moving, and more moving tended to halt homecoming plans.
Point being, my life in the public was dictated by stereotypes of what it is to be Congolese, what it looks like to be mixed, and what it looks like and means to be Black.
Then it happens — you’re in a nightclub, dancing with a bunch of your friends and get asked the dreaded question, most likely by a white male counterpart trying to shoot his shot. “So, you know how to dance, huh?” There it is: the essence of what I’m talking about.
You want to tell me where I’m from, what I should look like, what my family should look like, all while wanting to know how I learned how to dance so well.
But we live in a world where university halls are filled with white girls who listen to hip-hop, wear big hoops, and say they “only do Black guys,” and please let us not forget the white guys who go to trap music festivals, call you “shawty,” and tell you about their one Black best friend.
Dance the dance of feeling like you’re always second-guessed or second choice because of the colour of your skin. Dance the dance of feeling like you would be prettier if you just had straighter hair. Dance the dance of wanting smaller lips just so you look like the other kids in your class. Dance to the beat of fetishization.
I want to make it clear that you’re not an ally when you tell me you’re ‘pretty chill’ for a white person, when your one, or even two Black friends give you a pass to say the n-word, or when you tell me Meghan Markle “doesn’t look” Black. When you keep us as your secret friend that you don’t want your girlfriend to find out about, or pick us up when you need particular parts of our identities and drop us afterward, or when you say I’m anti-cause because your version of feminism doesn’t align with the needs and experiences of racialized women.
Those who dance with us, hear us. They know they cannot be us, mimic us, or intimidate us into feeling lesser than everyone else. Those who dance with us accept us for who we are and what we say we are. Those who can dance and will dance with us are the ones who accept that the power and discourse nexus, which has never been in our favour, will take centuries to deconstruct.
They help to carry us home when the blisters on our feet have formed, the music has stopped playing, and Ubers are being called. So, if you think you can dance, listen to the beat we’re playing you and dance to that. Dance to the sound of a world where we are more than rappers, athletes, and entertainers to you. Dance to us being who we want to be, regardless of the world telling us who we are.