Nearly 200 million people in the world identify as African or African-descended. Like Europeans, Asians and other “racial” groups, our culture, languages and experiences are extremely varied, despite the fact that – especially in the United States – we’re often seen as one large, indistinguishable group.
For my first guest post, I’ve asked Mary from Verily Merrily Mary to share her experiences growing up as a Nigerian-born black woman in North America. I met Mary through a bloggers group and enjoy her thoughtful and absorbing writing. I hope you enjoy it too!
She confided in me about her cross-cultural dilemma. Her trust in my perspective came to light when she explained,
“Cuz, you know, you’re not black.”
Yet I look like this:
Dear readers, I am here to officially announce that my whole life is a lie.
Melodrama aside, I know what she meant; I’m not Black American. Since I originally came from a non-Black American background, she knew that I would empathize with her. She, like me, was a non-Black American who was deeply supportive of her Black American friends and their culture. But to her dismay, they didn’t support her Hispanic culture, refusing to go out to events and dances that celebrated it. It was too different for them, too far from their comfort zone.
I visualized them talking, picturing the look of disappointment on her face when the same gesture of support wasn’t extended to her. If you saw them, you would see that they looked different; she was a lightly-tanned Hispanic girl with long, subtly wavy hair and her Black American friends had kinky, coily curls, one of them light-skinned and the other one dark-skinned.
Say she left and I entered the room to be in the company of the two. Say you had no knowledge my background. Unless you’re one of the select few who are able to pick up on my African features or the Canadianness in my accent, you’d probably think I’m nothing but a Black American.
And then my life story would laugh in your face with one big, “Well on the contrary…”
The abridged version is that I am Nigerian-born, Nigerian-, Canadian-, and American-raised. Prior to my move to the U.S., I lived in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. I did my first three years of elementary there and in almost every setting, I was the only black person among my peers.
Victoria was most definitely one of the whitest cities in Canada and it showed in my school as my dark skin and my Minnie Mouse ear-shaped pigtails stuck up in their poofy, gravity defying glory. But I was comfortable in childhood innocence, aware of the difference in skin hues and that I was outnumbered, but oblivious to the idea that someone could treat me badly because of it. In Canada, the only identifier I used to mark me as different was “Nigerian.”
Then I moved to America and found out I was also black this whole time.
In South Central Kentucky, I saw more people who looked like me, so much more than I saw in Canada. I was happy and intrigued by this and made an effort to play with the black kids in school. I was in third grade at the time and from then even up till high school in Southern California, I tried my best to fit in.
I made a few black friends; however, most black kids (and a few white kids) whom I interacted with, were suspect to the legitimacy of my black identity. It was as if all knowledge of my Nigerian and Canadian background was erased in their memory after I told them about it. All they could see was a black girl with an American-sounding accent in the context of an American city and they expected me to play the role of the Black American without blinking.
They didn’t realize that Black American culture was something I was brand new to; that the jargon, the music, the mannerisms that I observed to be ways in which fellow Black Americans would greet and bond with one another, were things that I didn’t know off the bat. I had to learn them. As long as I remained unaware and/or did not practice those things (as I did sometimes during my childhood to prevent any uncomfortable scrutiny toward to my identity), I was “white” according to many of those Black American kids (and a few white kids).
Interestingly enough, it was often the white kids who befriended me more than my black peers. While the white kids were mostly inviting, many of my black peers never failed to verbally bully and laugh at me nearly daily. Phrases like “Go back to Africa,” noises mocking my African identity, and putting me on the spot only to publicly harass and humiliate me weren’t exactly heartwarming gestures.
When it came to white people, while there were some who genuinely liked me and my family for who we were, they generally liked my family because of three things:
- I wasn’t “like those black people”
- We were African
- We shared the same Christian faith
As a young child, bitter towards the black kids who treated me horribly, I took my distinction from “those black people” as a compliment. They said I was articulate, that I had class, and I was well behaved. I had white approval and I was content with that though I didn’t realize that white approval is what that was. Finally, people who see my value! Or did they?
The fact of the matter is I had ingested internalized racism and it became one hell of a drug. As many of my black peers bullied me, I mocked them behind their backs, sometimes even in the presence of other white people who laughed along with me. It also happened with a few other black kids who also received the seal of white approval. It was a tragic scene of black people from different lands pitted against each other. The kind of thing that white colonial people would have applauded, except now it was white people in the 21st century.
They say that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Though my Black American peers and I made blackness our abode in beautifully different ways, us black people – often hailed as the originators of civilization – were divided among ourselves to the point where we could not stand together.
The other thing that attracted white people to me and my family was our Africanness. Part of it was intrigue. Another part of it was condescension: their assumed idea that we were lowly Africans far removed from anything Western, when the very existence of Nigeria’s borders and the fact that English is Nigeria’s official language are all thanks to Britain. Western culture was forcibly ingrained in our culture thanks to their colonization. Interestingly enough, white people would vocally support me when I would be equally as vocal about my irritation with people’s ignorance with Africans and the African continent. Not so much when racism was the topic at hand, however.
As I got older, that intrigue, – specifically from white men – became lust. A number of them (and a few men of color) were taken not only by my black womanhood but my African one. To them, I was exotic, a possible contender to fulfill their “African Queen” fantasy. Somehow, that was supposed to be consistent with the claim that they “don’t see race.”
When it came to race, I was well aware of white sensitivity to it. As such, I was always tiptoeing when discussing race around white people, making their comfort a priority over confidently speaking my truth. However, I stopped caring about their comfort, as I became more aware of my cross-cultural dilemma, realized there was a name for it, became more self-confident, forced myself to walk into my university’s Black Student Association meeting wanting to no longer be bound by fear due to my horrific experiences in school, and made awesome, substantial friendships with black peers.
I realized that many of the white people I was surrounded by also prioritized their comfort over me effectively speaking my truth. As you would expect, many of my white friendships aren’t as strong as they used to be. I realized afterward that it is probably because many of the ones I was surrounded by were mostly right-leaning in their political stances. Nowadays, those close to me tend to have cross-cultural experiences and/or are people of color.
The bottom line is no matter whom I interact with, no matter how I may come off to them, my blackness is enough. The experiences that shape my black identity – though they stretch beyond the United States – are just as valid. I have been shaped by hip hop culture, by the taste Egusi soup that always brings Nigeria to mind as I eat it here in The States, by the African American Vernacular English that pops out naturally one minute and into Nigerian pidgin the next, by the company of my Black African and Black American friends, as well as by my love of nature and swimming that made for a carefree black girl in Canada. All of this and more has shaped me into the black woman I am today.
As I think of my black brothers and sisters in the Caribbean, in Latin America, in Europe, in other African and Asian countries, as well as in Australia, I am reminded that blackness is everywhere; that “black” does not automatically mean “Black American.” I am only fortunate to have experienced just a little taste of black diversity, so if my blackness is nuanced in any way from how you are accustomed to seeing it, let it be a reminder to you that blackness is not a monolith. My blackness, in all it’s complicated, nuanced glory, is enough.
Mary is a Nigerian-Canadian-American third culture kid and immigrant with an overactive mind and an obsession with words. Music, scientific research, dancing, and discussing culture are some of her favorite pastimes. She likes Saturdays.
If you’re interested in more of her work, visit her blog, Verily Merrily Mary. You’ll also find her on Twitter (@verilymary).