The following monologue was originally written and performed as part of My White Best Friend (and Other Letters Left Unsaid), an online festival hosted by the Royal Court Theatre in July 2020. Ten writers of colour were commissioned to write a letter ‘saying the unsaid’ to a person in their life who needed to hear it. Each letter was read by an actor representing the recipient, who sight-read the text (encountering it for the first time) live for an online audience.
To the actor: Read everything. The stuff in brackets. Everything. Say it with your chest. Take your time.
This is for you, but please be aware that this is also important for all the white people in our family, and for every white person who has someone mixed race in their family.
So … Mathew, I think it’s safe to say we have always been inseparable; no matter how much our lives differed in reality, it’s always been Elliot and Mathew, and the mad shit we’ve done together.
I’ve always seen us like brothers.
I wonder if you agree.
Fuck it, I know you agree. Having me as a brother is lit as fuck and I know you’re smiling now, innit. Smiling ‘cos I called you my brother. Smiling ‘cos you’re an only child and being an only child is long and dead and being my brother is sick. So yeah, you’re like my brother. There’s only a month and some change separating us anyway, so we’ve always been the same … kinda. Our mums are sisters. They lived in the same council block together in Camberwell, and then moved to within two miles of each other; they both instilled in us the same ‘You can be whatever you want’ dream. There’s nothing much more to say: we’re like brothers.
I know this bit is bare long, but I’m just putting you in a place where you can listen from. I’m not going to edit this shit: I do too much editing of myself in real life among you all to have to do it here too. OK. Let’s go back then.
We did everything together. Bare sleepovers, bare terrorizing our parents, bare watching porn on VHS, bare house parties, bare video games, bare cartoons, bare smoking weed, bare going on camping trips as a family, bare sneaking away and drinking beer.
Remember when it was your mum’s fortieth and we were too young to drink alcohol, so we’d take it in turns to go down into the kitchen and steal a bottle of wine and smuggle it upstairs. I was always good at it. Then you insisted it was your turn and you came back with a bottle of extra virgin olive oil. For fuck sake, I laughed so much I thought my organs were going to come out my bum. Remember when we almost set fire to my house because we tied some pyjama bottoms to the light bulb in my bedroom to mimic the eclipse which had happened that year (that was 1999: we’re old, man), then we forgot about them and they caught fire and I had to carry them through the house
on fire to the bin outside and then we pretended that nothing happened.We got punished that day. I wonder if you were punished in the same way I was? Probably not.
‘I’ve always seen us like brothers. I wonder if you agree.’
Going to your house was always so fun. Your house is big and your garden has two floors. I know innit, mad. Two-floored garden. (Yeah, our mums came from the same place, but yours got with a white man, made money, only had you, and invested in property. Anyway!)
There was always room for us to play and be silly. I know it meant a lot to you when my mum would drive me round, because when it came time for me to go you would run alongside the car till the end of the road. I used to love it when you did that. You ran so far and fast just to see me that little bit longer.
I think I was always ignorant of the differences between us as kids.You were tall with straight hair, skinny, wore glasses. I was short with curly black hair, also skinny, and had buck teeth.That was it really when it came to appearances … back then,
at least. I could run faster, was stronger and you probably thought I was really brave.You would goad me on to do silly and dangerous things, living through me.And I liked to have an audience, and your attention, so I would keep doing the dumb dangerous shit because you loved it. I crossed the railway tracks, climbed over the gates into the park after closing and picked up toads. I could pick up toads and you were scared of them. I’d pick them up and put them somewhere else, protecting you from their slimy skin, and you thought that was amazing!
I think I thought that I had more than you back then. That’s fucking mad, but that’s what I thought. You, looking at me with those eyes, those ‘my cousin is so cool’ eyes—that made me feel like I had more than you.
When we were about twelve or thirteen it shifted a little. Secondary school is mad; secondary school in the early 2000s is very, very mad.
Before then it was all running in parks and we were just the same, but during secondary it was different. For me it was very different.
I still came round to yours all the time and you came to mine, but our lives on the outside were different. I don’t think you ever really understood what my brother and I went through at secondary school. How the streets treated us, the police treated us, how white people started looking at us….
You knew I carried a knife to school. You knew getting the bus to your house from mine was risky as fuck, so I took that knife with me. You knew that. But I don’t think you ever understood it or if you did you never made comment on it. I kinda liked that, I liked that you didn’t.
Seeing you was like an escape from all of that shit. It was just Elliot and Mathew, the same as when we were small, and I was so grateful that you didn’t treat me like the streets treated me. You were being kept innocent. You were keeping me innocent in your company.
‘We got punished that day. I wonder if you were punished in the same way I was?’
Remember when I was coming to meet you after school in the park near yours – we were both about fourteen.You were with some of your ‘friends’ from secondary school and I was coming by myself. You met me at the gates to the park, remember, the ones I used to climb over. You told me that you had told your friends that I was a ‘knife-carrying drug dealer from Peckham’ so I should ‘act the part’.
I did come from Peckham. I carried a knife to school. I also sorted out some weed for people every now and then. So it was true, but it felt …off. They would never be the words I would use to describe myself. Why not ‘my cousin is a really fast runner and has an unbeatable score on snake’?
I remember you had this expression in your eyes, excitement. Like the kind of excitement you feel going to the zoo and standing close to a tiger. A thrilling excitement, so close to danger, but never really in any. Always knowing you wouldn’t get hurt or end up in the cage with it.
I didn’t quite understand what that was then. I thought it was more of me being the brave cool one that you looked at with adoration and longing. I was the gate climber, the toad catcher, the drug dealer. It was kinda the same.
So I performed for you. I spoke slang and knew how to fight and had a knife on me (because I was scared of the bus journey) and your friends loved that shit, and so did you.After the performance, we went back to yours, played video games, watched films and had a sleepover like always, and I was safe. I didn’t understand then that you had just made me earn that safety.I was enjoying the eyes of wonder and admiration from your friends. I was enjoying the fact that you knowing me was making you cooler. It kept you safe. It protected you. It was a calling card: Not only is my cousin black, he’s got a knife, is from the streets of Peckham and sells drugs. That way, people might respect you, and not rob your Nokia 3310.And when the park incident rippled through the classrooms of your school, it did keep you safe. You never got your phone robbed.
That day in the park was the first time you made me perform my blackness for your benefit.
Let’s jump forward now. This was only a couple years ago. I’ve forgotten that park incident by this point, I don’t ‘sell drugs’ any more or carry a knife. That trauma haunts me, but doesn’t dominate me.
So it’s you and me in my kitchen talking and I wish I could remember how the N-word came up. It’s funny, when a word like that is used: your memory is almost always only of the word and not much else. We’re talking about something, like we do. Fuck it, I’m gonna make something up here. We were talking about cartoons, and in this cartoon, the fish said the N-word to the badger and the fish is voiced by a white person. That’s not what it was, but fuck it, the actor reading this isn’t my cousin, this isn’t a theatre, and it makes for better reading…. So I say, ‘It’s crazy that the fish said the N-word,’ and you contribute to the conversation by saying, ‘Yeah, it’s mad that the fish said “Nigger”.’
Notice, Mathew, how I said ‘N-Word’ and you said ‘Nigger’.
I say,‘Yo’ — I probably started it with ‘yo’,I often do when I’m defending myself — I say,‘Yo, Mathew, be led by the black person in the room, man. If I choose to say “N-word” and not “Nigger”, why the fuck would you use that word? I have a choice to say “Nigger” and I chose “N-word” instead, so you gotta follow suit, and even if I did say “Nigger”,you gotta say “N-word”.’ I said it more or less like that. It wasn’t a question or up for debate. But you’re a journalist now, and love arguments, so you say something like: ‘We should be able to say the word “Nigger” when discussing it.’
Bro. FAM. BLOODCLART!
I love you, Mathew, but… WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK, MAN. It is so easy for you to debate something that does not pertain to you, to throw my life and experience up in the air like a plaything, interrogating it and then disregarding it when you’ve become bored. You ask me,‘Why are you getting angry, we’re just talking,’ and I’m like, ‘My entire body is up for grabs in this “talk/debate/argument”, and yours ain’t, like what the actual fuck,’ and I’m crippled, ‘cos you’re some hyper-intelligent journalist who knows how to say shit that makes me look like a dickhead, and there’s no one else around and I can’t vent to anyone about it because you are so surgically attached to me that if I tell anyone in my circle they’ll treat you differently, and I love you too much to let that happen. So I defend myself, we don’t agree, we smoke weed, I cook you dinner, and we get on with the day and maybe watch the fish/badger episode on TV, I don’t know.You leave, and when you’re leaving you say something like. ‘Why do you act black?’
This echoes around my head all the time. As someone mixed race, our ‘blackness’ is always up for grabs. The popular opinion is that we get to ‘pick and choose’, but that is not the case and definitely isn’t for me. YOU get to label us one way or the other when it suits you. It suited you a decade ago in the park, me being black as fuck, but now a decade on you want me to be less black for ease of conversation.
(Note to actor reading this: I wonder if you said all the ‘Niggers’. I wonder how you feel now. Small thrill?)
Anyway, now we’re here, we lived together for a bit last year, we’ve been to Japan together since the N-word event in my kitchen, you’ve coached me through a break-up, and I coached you through one too. We’re probably somehow closer than ever (despite all of the above), we’re inseparable again like old times, and even more than that you’re kind of in and among all my black friends. Then 25 May happens, and it happens differently for me than it does for you.
You probably watched that video several times, because you work for the BBC and that’s your job. I still haven’t. You probably came up with strategy, and investigated, and worked on some articles about it, while I fell into despair and didn’t come out of
it. I watched people that look like me cry in such a huge way it was like they were inside me shaking my ribcage. I called all my black friends and cried with them. We just cried together on fucking Zoom. It was kind of beautiful, looking back. Black men just crying silently together, horribly alone, isolated, quarantined, looking into their screens at one another.
Then there was the day after, when every Becky I’ve ever met, and every Tom, Fred, Jake, Jack, George, Phil, Tim, and every other monosyllabic white man’s name who I know or have brushed past on the Tube, called or texted me to let me know they weren’t a bad person.
(Ten points if I’ve guessed the actor’s name who’s reading this, or maybe you’re one of the lucky ones with a two-syllable name.)
Some of them said touching things and weren’t selfish about it; some of them helped close the hole in my heart. But you. My blood. My brother. You did not. Nothing. Nothing from you, your mum, your dad, my aunty, my uncle, my other uncle, my cousin, my other cousin, my other other cousin, their partners. No one. No one apart from my mum. No one on the white side of my family said shit.
You’re not distant family. You’re my every-birthday-and-Christmas family. Nothing from any of them. And nothing from you, Mathew.
So in the white family WhatsApp group (I call it the White Walkers WhatsApp group,‘cos it feels like they’re trying to kill me, and they’re all as disappointing as that show is), my big brother and I wrote: ‘We are leaving this group. As the only black members of this family, we have found it very upsetting that none of you have contacted us during this awful time to see how we are doing. Please don’t contact us now as we need time and space to process.’
You, of course, contacted us straight away, and we didn’t answer.You got mad that we didn’t answer.You said, ‘You’re painting me out to be a bad person.’You told us that ‘as a white man it can be very awkward talking about race’. We told you we didn’t want to talk about race with you. We then said, ‘Give us the space,’ and you said, ‘That’s not fair.’
Needless to say, we haven’t spoken since.
Our mums raised us the same.They both told us, with love, that we could be whoever we wanted to be. That was my mixed-race gift and curse: gift, because I went boldly into situations ignorant to the hurdles and limitations of my skin colour; curse, because I fell over those hurdles blindly and hurt myself in a way that, if I’d known they were there, I might not have.
‘Our mums raised us the same. They both told us, with love, that we could be whoever we wanted to be’
I saw everything happen to, and for, you. I watched you, the shyer one scared of toads, live a boundless life of opportunity, while I didn’t. Both my big brother and I have struggled financially. We have both been to therapy. We have both been harassed and/or arrested by police.
And I am successful, I’m really fucking successful. Look now, there’s someone reading this letter pretending to be you, they’re probably even a good actor. I’ve somehow convinced a white theatre to listen to me, a theatre that, like you, could honestly work a lot harder (I hope the black writers are getting more money than any of the white readers), oh, and I’m being paid for this, not like how you’re getting paid, but paid, which means I’m in the top 1 per cent of writers and still…
I used to think I had more than you. I was so confident and carefree. Now, I wouldn’t dare climb over a gate, I don’t make friends easily now, I’m more nervous around people. I have barely any white friends at all and only one straight white male friend. I view them with suspicion and anxiety. I’m always waiting for them to fuck up. Even the guy reading this, I probably won’t ever be your friend, you will need to do a lot of reading first, and not tell me about how much you’ve learned, and even then I’ll be waiting for you to fuck up, and why would you do all that work when you could just take this cheque, add the credit to your CV and move on in whiteness, never being challenged.
But you, Mathew, with black brothers, someone I protected my whole life. I caught the toads you were scared of; I became blacker and scarier at the cost of my mental health for you. I didn’t tell any of my boys about the N-word incident so they never treated you differently, and now, even now, I’m calling you Mathew; it’s not your name.Your name is not Mathew. I just don’t want these people, who you’ll never meet, to know your real name, because I love you and don’t want them to judge you.
I don’t want you to feel the pain that you’ve made me feel.
That is why this is so hard.
I wish we could go back. Have sleepovers, watch porn on VHS, smoke weed, drink olive oil and watch cartoons.There is a massive hole inside of me now. I have to navigate that chasm and try not to fall into it. I have to fill it somehow. I have to fill it without you. You can’t help me with it.
This letter isn’t a plea for you to change or face what you have done to me. It’s not to start a correspondence while you remain unchanged.