So, Where Are You Originally From?!

smiling woman wearing green and black turban

Photo by Jackson David on Pexels.com

So, you’re black.. you’re African.. and you’re female.

It’s a triple discriminatory threat!

It is no secret that racial and gender inequality runs rampant in societies across our world and that racism is alive and thriving. Yes, you may be tired of hearing about racism but whether it’s brazen, systemic or casually slipped into conversation, it is alive and well.

When you live in a predominantly white world, you become accustomed to being treated like you’re different. Differences do exist of course. Our world is made up of a variety of cultures, ethnicities and languages. However, you are often treated differently not as a celebration of that difference, but because you diverge from what’s accepted as the norm. Being described as simply “African” seems enough for many, like that one word encompasses the entirety of who you are.

We have all been in situations where people seemed uncomfortable or unable to relate to us because of our ethnicity. More often than not, it wasn’t because they had tried. Sometimes people just don’t know how to relate to you because they assume they won’t find any common ground so they fixate on all the differences that exist between you.

I’ve lost count of how many times I have been on the receiving end of such exchanges. Being the only black female in a room usually comes tainted with anxiety and pre-judgements about who you are. Everyone else gets to represent only themselves but not you – you know instantly that your actions represent all black women, everywhere. One misstep and you could ruin it for every other woman that comes into this situation after you.

I often look back at a moment in my life when I was surprised that someone who wasn’t black thought I was pretty. I was probably 13 or 14 years old at the time. I look back with both shock and sadness that I ever thought that about myself. To me, it serves as proof of open wounds from historical and colonial pasts that I myself had never even lived through.

Yet these wounds continue to exist. Most notably, the deeply entrenched mindsets that led us to believe we were of less value than other human beings simply because our skin was rich in a specific pigment. This was affirmed by world media, television, books and real life experiences. The lack of representation was, and in many instances continues to be undeniable. White was synonymous with beautiful. Heroes had blue eyes, fair skin and straight hair. By way of contrast, most of the black characters you saw on TV were butlers, janitors and house helps. Rarely did you see a black woman portrayed as someone smart, successful and beautiful.

The racial divide was further exacerbated when you experienced racism in your own country. I remember on a family holiday in Zambia one year, we decided to go swimming at the lodge we were staying at. A white family was in the pool when we got there (with their dog) and no sooner had we jumped in than they cleared themselves out of the pool. It was an immediate, very obvious aggressive reaction. All those years ago and I still remember exactly how it made me feel. Being treated like scum in your country of birth was something truly special.

Over the years, I would travel to different parts of the world and come to realise that the colour of my skin would provoke different reactions in different people. I would observe that some people would treat me with suspicion purely because of my name and my passport. I would learn that because I was African, I needed to be interrogated and scrutinised in visa centres before I could ever step foot in most countries. I would be treated differently at borders, even on the African continent. I’d come to realise somewhat unnervingly, that living in a foreign country meant I was never really at home but the longer I stayed the more I became a stranger in my own country. I would discover that complete strangers felt they had the right to touch my hair or my skin without my permission. I would encounter people who demanded an explanation for why my hair was “different” while others would simply stare in fascination at a black woman casually walking down a street in Bali, looking for an ATM.

I know this isn’t my isolated experience. You only need to do a quick Google search to see that this is our collective experience as women of colour. It is no wonder then, that we get to adulthood feeling like we need to suppress who we really are to be acceptable in this world.

When the strength of your accent determines the level of assumed intelligence and respect you’ll be awarded, it may feel like you can’t be your authentic self. We have been led to believe that we are the problem. That our customs and cultures are backward and not worthy of respect. That we are too loud, too aggressive, too dark or just too much! And that we as black African women need to embrace other cultures by fitting into their mold while they dismiss ours.

You might be reading this and think I am overly sensitive or read too much into things. The truth is, if you were questioned constantly about the way you do things, over and over and over again throughout your life, you might be tired too. Black women are accustomed to hearing underhanded comments that suggest there is a right way – the white way – and that their way is wrong. The subtleties of everyday “casual” racism are just as damaging as overt racism. Being dismissed as an “angry black woman” when you share your opinions can be just as damaging as being called the “n” word to your face. One may seem less harmful but they both are.

There is a boldness that comes with privilege. If all your life, you’ve had the choice to only be interested in things you understand or feel comfortable with, it would be difficult to understand the experience of so many people who don’t look like you. This plays out in different ways – like denial, when someone feels offended by something you said, or being dismissive and defensive because “black people need to get over it” and it wasn’t your fault anyway.

Yet we are all living with the repercussions of injustices past. A little, genuine understanding would go a long way in healing some of the brokenness created by racial tensions throughout the centuries.

And for my black sisters, because this article is for you..

I am under no illusion that I can change the world by hitting publish on a blog post. People will hear what they want to hear regardless of what you or I say. So I’m here for the black girl who feels like she needs to lose herself in order to fit in; or the young lady who thinks that because her skin is dark, she’s not good enough. I’m here for the woman who is sick of feeling helpless in the face of misogyny. And for the one who is tired of people asking where she’s from then acting like it’s just not worth remembering.

Don’t lose yourself in the voices of others.

You are industrious and capable – you were built for this!

You don’t have to wait for approval that may never come – you can choose to be brilliant. Allow your struggles to be the fuel that unleashes your creativity. You may never get anything handed to you on a silver platter but that’s OK – it teaches resilience. You can forge wonderful new paths and walk in them with all the confidence in the world. Yes, you may have to fight harder or work thrice as hard but while you do, wear your culture like a robe and your accent like a crown.

It may take years of reshaping your own thinking to break free of historical mindsets that have led you to believe that you are undeserving but now is not the time to shrink. Don’t wait for others to tell your story – the single story that we have always heard. Write your own story because you are perfectly capable of doing so.

Intelligence, ability and beauty are not reserved for one ethnicity. God has built into you everything that He needs you to be. And so regardless of your experiences, treat all people with respect and insist on being kind.

Yes, you’re black.. you’re African.. and you’re female.

YOU are a triple threat!

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