The Day I Discovered I was Black….
Friends, I share with you below, an excerpt from my private writings. It highlights the fact that when we say, “Race is a social construct,” it means that for different people in different places and in different times, it means different things. The determination of one’s race is fluid and we cannot box it into one simple definition that transcends place and time. Basically, as powerful as it is, determining the livelihood and value of life, we make make it up as we go along.
Growing up in a different part of the world, I identify more with my culture than my race. And, in America, culture is racialized.
This understanding is important as was highlighted this past week when Whoopi Goldberg said that Jewish people were not a race. I will flesh this out on the podcast this week. Look for it in your email this week and do leave a comment and let me know what you think.
When I became a transplant to my mother’s country at age 16, I came for the American Dream. I attended college at the then all-women’s Goucher College in Maryland. First, I spent the summer with my brother who lived in Harlem, New York, as he attended Columbia University for his undergraduate degree. I was stunned to discover that people broke out in Spanish when they saw me, assuming I was an Afro-Latina. I was deeply irritated by this and relieved to go further South to college. As confused as I felt about my identity, I was sure I was not Latina, and I did not speak Spanish!
On this campus, I had to learn how to use a washing machine to do my laundry, I had to learn how to manage a bank account and manage my time. I felt lonely and wanted and needed my parents. However, I was too proud to admit it, and besides, I was not going back home. I had to finish my education! I did not know that that gnawing feeling in the pit of my belly was homesickness. I spoke to my sister on the phone once a week for a few minutes. And she felt like a parent, more than a sister as her primary focus was to make sure I was doing fine in school and not partying too much.
In the first few weeks of the semester, the various clubs posted flyers around campus to invite the new students to their orientation meetings. I was excited about the international students meeting and hiked across campus to the gathering, thrilled that I would meet people from all over the world and I would find my people, right? Well, not quite. At the time, there was a large student contingent from Uruguay and Chile, and it turns out that the meeting was conducted in Spanish. It was the early 80’s. There was no “Hispanic Student’s Association.”
Previously excited to connect and make friends at this meeting, I discovered I could not negotiate my belonging in a language I did not speak. Alas, a few minutes into the meeting, not understanding a word, as I was unable to make eye contact, and with no response to my smiles
and open body language, I left. I dejectedly walked back to my dorm room, disappointed that the anticipated connections, sense of camaraderie and shared experiences were not to be fulfilled. I can still feel the knot which settled into the bottom of my stomach, a mild persistent ache as I reluctantly walked back to my dorm room wondering about my place in this strange new world.
Today, I often reflect that I was seeking connection then and there and it did not exist for me.
I came from a place of being beloved and cherished by my parents, living in a context where I was highly visible, and often inappropriately admired, because of my skin color. People wanted to be my friend as it elevated their own social status as being proximate to a mixed-race person. Although I was uncomfortable with a lot of it, it was where I developed the ability to negotiate belonging by proving myself as smart, safe, and relatable.
Now, suddenly, I was thrust to a new world of untethered strangeness where I was rendered invisible. I didn’t even have an opportunity to prove malleability and be part of the group of international students in a small college in rural Maryland. I felt disconnected from the groundedness of place, of location, of home where I belonged. From the moment I knew I was going to attend Goucher College a year earlier, I was excited, thrilled and overwhelmed with my dream come true – I was going to university in America! That sweet delight of anticipation dissipated like air being let out of a balloon. Dissociative culture shock settled into my bones and the whole campus felt foreign and strange. I felt defeated.
After that incident, as I walked to my classes during the week, I made sure I wore a very bright smile on my face, saying “Hello” to everyone along my path. I was determined to make friends, but I noticed that most people did not look me in the eye. I noticed that most white Americans had this very weird behavior pattern of seeing through a person. They would look at you and might acknowledge you with a slight nod of the head, but they seem to be gazing at a mysterious spot just above your head. I could almost feel the gaze slide right off my forehead as it did not intend to gain any traction. It was so polite but empty of connection. I did not understand what that meant. However, when I saw a Black person on the walk to classes, it was different: “Hey girl!” accompanied with a wave! And our eyes would connect. There would be a moment of feeling seen and part of the world around me. I did not know the person. But they were so friendly and welcoming!
One evening, just a few days after the International student’s meeting, two women, the president and vice president of the Black Student’s Association, one very dark skinned and the other, very light skinned, rapped on my dorm door as I faced a lonely quiet study evening and invited me to the Black Student’s Association meeting. The President welcomed me to the college and told me that they were about to start the meeting and she wanted to make sure I was in attendance as a new comer to the campus. The vice president, holding a huge gift basket of food and drink, announced that the basket was for me!
“O, I am so sorry. I cannot accept that,” I said, hand on my chest, half smiling with polite shock and gratitude as I refused to accept the basket. “I am not Black. I am from Nigeria.” The President, the very dark skinned one, stared at me frozen for a few seconds and I could see her nostrils flaring as she cocked one eye up and pulled her full lips into a disapproving firm line. She turned to the vice president and said, without moving her lips, “Get her ass.” She spun around and walked away, her head held high, her determined steps and the sway of her hips communicated to me that I had said something really foul.
I said, “What I mean… what I am trying to say…. I mean I am not Black American……” my voice trailed off. I was not totally sure what happened, but I knew my terminology was unacceptable. Clearly!
The placating light skinned vice president, indulgently smiled at me and said, “That’s ok! Come along now.” She brushed past me into the room and dropped the basket and literally took me by the hand to the meeting. I was very confused but delighted that someone thought enough of me to include me in their meeting! Now I could build relationships and connections and not feel so isolated.
That is how I came to understand that in this place, in this land of my white mother’s home, I am “Black.” Unequivocally Black. Not ‘oyinbo‘ (the word Nigerians use to describe white people and it means ‘one whose skin has peeled). Not half-caste. Black.
Dear Reader, I feel a strong need to explain myself.
Today, I cringe as I think of my wide innocent eyes looking at these two women and my lips forming to say the words, “I am not Black.”
I was merely saying that I was not Black American and not a descendant of enslaved peoples and so I did not feel that I had a right to the gift basket or to be in that meeting. After all, we are different people, with different histories and different concerns, right? I understood that African Americans had a unique and unfair history along with issues that I did not inherit genealogically. I identified more as an international student than an African American or “Black” student. I was not rejecting African Americans or thinking of myself as superior. Merely different. It’s just that no one, no authority figure I respected and knew had told me that I would be categorized as Black in this place called America. My parents never told me I was “Black.” Nobody had ever described me as “Black.”
This was shocking news to me as I thought of myself as an “international student.” The word “Black” was never used to describe people where I was from.
Therefore, I was not “Black American” or as we say today, “African American.” It was the early 80’s and the term, “African American” was not yet in widespread use.
In my mind, it was immoral and disrespectful to identify as Black American as I would be trying to fit into a cultural group that I did not belong to, and I had no question about where I belonged culturally.
I was then, and still today, I am a Yoruba woman. A proud one at that. That does not negate the fact that my mother was a white American.
Over the years, I certainly have come to accept that I am Black. Here. In this land of my white mother’s people. I am a Black, bi-racial, Yoruba woman.
Dear reader, do leave a comment below and tell me, when did you become aware of your race? What was that experience like for you?
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