I was born and raised in the Caribbean-British Community in Tottenham, North London in 1969. For the earliest part of my adulthood I socialised 100% within a sub-culture of a ‘type’ of Black person – Caribbean-British people from similar communities in London who were brought together by a love of the rich blends of black 60’s & 70’s ‘connoisseur & rare-groove soul’, reggae, lovers rock & calypso music. This was represented through following ‘street’ sounds systems who for the most part played in uninhabited properties that were utilised for one night only. It’s amazing that my social needs are totally different know & I Like Different!
Looking back, there were clear signs of my interest with different people – in addition to having a larger than life personality & a strong appetite for loving all things social and partying within black life, in my teens, at school and on the estate I grew up I also began to forge new connections with people who were completely out of my community & would confidently treat them on the same par as my core set of friends, although I never really extended those friendships to my night life.
At 16 I had my first official step out of Tottenham to attended college part-time. As well as there being an intent connection with the Caribbean-British students, I met some great non-Black characters, where we shared the same sense of humour and bonded over stuff other than music – at that time to me, that felt ground-breaking. That year I also started to meet different people due to my work. I was on a YTS (Youth Training Scheme) with Haringey Council where I rotated placements every three months for one year, giving me the opportunity to forge new & real co-worker relationships that extended beyond the 9-5. My social network steadily expanded, whilst maintaining a core, Black-led, street-wise, music-driven, social DNA. I had a natural duality however my underlying buzz for different was forming, widening to become focused on developing friendships with people who I found to be really intriguing & interesting, on merit – no age, race or background limits. The bomb had been lit!
When I joined the oil industry in the early 90s, a colleague introduced me to the world of salsa – I fell in love with the music & the scene. It was the first time I was able to ‘loose myself’ listening & dancing to a music genre outside of the limiting one I’d been raised with. That was so liberating! I was soon going to salsa classes, soaking up scene gigs and parties & meeting new people – it opened me up to the realisation there was much more to life than Black scene parties! I continued the same approach in every organisation I’ve worked in since, grabbing opportunities for developing colleague-friendships with people who’s lives were totally different to mine – I started to enjoy the difference.
In 1998 I began a relationship with a Black man who, away from his skin tone, had absolutely no culturally-based references or likes – raised so by a very conservative, well-to-do, ‘up-town’ Caribbean family. We were together for 7 years and it helped me to realise that as well as confident with meeting, developing & enjoying relationships outside of my race/sub-culture, I could easily have a relationship with a man who wasn’t from the same Black sub-culture, too. I theorised that I could quite possibly apply my rejection of racial boundaries into the ‘relationship’ arena too (well so my theory started to formulate).
In 2000, I decided to pursue my dream of becoming a Learning & Development professional and thrust myself into leading a health promotion charity. As Chairman I designed & led community intervention projects & group work & gave public addresses that facilitated Black gay men learning how to become independently thinking and assert the lives they wanted to, without guilt, cultural imprisonment and worries about cultural ‘rejection’ and negative impact on their self-esteem and psycho-sexual behaviour. I drew great strength in helping others to develop similar principles as me and was excited by the benefits it brought them.
When I became single again in 2005 I affirmed the principle that, when I went out to re-build my dating & social life post-relationship, I’d not be led by trying to find friends and dates that looked like me or had exactly the same likes – there would be no for or against – I’d let friendships and relationships not be dictated by race or people types. By then I was vocal about my belief that people connect in a more fundamental, spiritual level & regardless of how they’ve been socialised. I turned to conecting with others through the SpiritedStrength Model:
SpiritedStrength = daily life driven by: • heart • realness • liberation • purpose • learning • happiness
At the turn of 2006 I found a gay salsa class, Salsa Rosada. For three years it became the main stay in my social life. The weekly salsa lesson was enthralling – the group was made up of very nationality, age group and class under the sun – a people-fest! Post-lesson drinks, arranging the weekend gay salsa club, Exilio, meet-ups, holidays and mini hangouts gave me such fulfilment – I felt truly free! We became The Salsa Family based on our love of salsa music & dancing, also our need to try new social activity as mature adults seeking life enrichment. There are people who I became friend with in the The Salsa Family who I would have never met naturally and definitely wouldn’t have developed close friendships with, 20 years before. That social triumph opened the door to many other social scenes and networks – as time gathered I steered away from the Black gay social scene also and started socialising according to what I felt like doing, and according to the friends I wanted to be with and what we felt like doing – I began popping up into all kinds of places – something I continue to do today *wry smile*.
When meeting me you’d be immediately aware that you’ve a very friendly, confident, strong charactered, Black gay man in front of you. I’m proud of my roots & cultural anchors and do not mask them for anyone, however at the same time I happy to be with others who aren’t like me. I’m at the stage of my life now where I could do either or and don’t give a damn – I’m just as happy being in a group of Black people as I am being the only Black gay man in a professional or social space – whatever the situation presents, I can deal & I never compromise who I am – you get the same character, regardless of where I am or who I’m with. I can switch from bussin big ole quah-quah joakes, talking patois and raving to my old-skool music to being in a metropolitan social zone with pop fodder or gay clubbing music blasting away – to me, that is the beauty of living a rich & diverse life! I ask those of you who only mix with people of a similar ilk to yourselves, if you’re confident of knowing & being who you are, why do you need to surround yourself completely with people who look and think exactly the same as you? Ayyyye.
So nowadays when I feel like social adventure I’ll access one of my many social networks and sets of friends & off I go, living life, SpiritedStrength style! I get a deep buzz from connecting with new and different people – there’s something about the beauty of mutual understanding in spite of social boundaries & challenges, that provides me with a sense of satisfaction. I’m a Learning & Development Professional by vocation and I live for engaging with developing and learning from different people every day.
Now I have friendships & relationships with people from a plethora of races, ethnicities, class, backgrounds, professions, religions & sexualities without steering myself one way or other. My more disapproving old-skool friends make it clear they prefer to keep the race divide & never budge. I’ve learned to adopt a carefree attitude & would stunt the cyclical, never ending debates by stating “I be I & you be you” then I get on with my friendship or relationship in question, knowing that their opinions wouldn’t steer me & my enjoyment of life and people one iota.
My more metropolitan friends who get me poke fun at my eclectic people practices, joking that anybody who is odd, off-key, non-standard, hard to get along with or hard to fathom out, I’d just have to befriend them. It’s not THE reason but it has a lot of truth in it – I find people fascinating! I use my Buddhist practice to have compassion for the people I stumble across and try and find the things I have in common with someone in spite of the differences we have. I enjoy the challenge of crossing social boundaries – it’s also been said I’m an adrenalin-junkie when it comes to people. Thinking about it now, it’s spot on! I like different!!!
I reflected a lot this week at distance travelled this week, due to my upcoming 43rd birthday celebrations. When building the guest list I chuckled at the range of people from all aspects of my life, from young to old, all races, ethnicities, religions, classes, sexualities, genders & social practices to name a few social groupings – my social gatherings well-known for their eclectic-mix of people & this years’ hoo-hah made me smile – its such a big difference to where I was in 1985 when this small fish stepped out of Tottenham life and into a very big bowl.