This Black History Month Alumnus writer Oluwatimilehin Alalade discusses his experiences with race and identity.
In recent weeks, there’s been a discussion on the issue of race, identity and being black. Prompted by the comments made by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at The Economists Open Future Festival, the debate on race and when we became aware of our inherent and obvious blackness has been one that has raged on social media, most notably Twitter.
Ms Adichie said, when asked about identity, ‘I find identity to be a fluid thing… it is many things at the same time’, this statement shows her awareness and acceptance of the intersectionality that makes up ones identity; the various ingredients that mix to make up a person. However, she elucidated that depending on where she is, there is a facet of her that is highlighted as her proof of identity or being, as though that feature explains all she is.
This dialogue around race issues is one that touches home for all people of colour, and in this case and month, black folks especially. Here, I want to look at such issues through my perspective and thus my lived experiences, because although we as black people have had a plethora of common experiences, there are immeasurable amounts of individual experiences of racism that no one voice can fully represent.
The issue of identity is one that continues to haunt young black people, issues ranging from the questioning of our skin colour to the inherent racial undertones of our daily lives, present not only in the Western world but back also in the home-countries of internationals such as myself.
In the course of her discussion with Sacha Nauta, the public policy editor for The Economist, Chimamanda recounts a story of boarding a flight and walking to the First class/Premium line but being ushered by one of the assistants to the economy line. The question simply is, why did this person believe that she did not belong on the line? Why was he letting all the Caucasian folks walk through but deemed it fit to stop Chimamanda as though she of all the passengers was out of place? That she must have been confused and entered the wrong line?
A sad reality is some might see these questions and believe they’re an over exaggeration, that the person was simply doing their job or that something must have happened that we don’t know about. But the POC (people of colour) and especially the black folks will see this and know exactly why this occurred, and that is simply due to stereotypes and underlying racism.
Identity matters because it is coupled with stereotypes, typecasts of how one looks and thus where their ‘place’ is meant to be. Although there seems to be those who so vehemently deny this fact, the harsh reality remains; there is meaning attached to our outside appearance, thus meaning attached to our skin colour.
I recall when I first hoped to get my hair braided just before I travelled to America on holiday, I remember my mum asking me to wait until we returned in-case i was singled out as some miscreant and wished to use me as a scapegoat because of my hair. Even things such as our hair have been negatively stereotyped. But when worn by our Caucasian counterparts, they’re deemed to be the ‘new wave’ of fashion and street-style. These points are not to say that these instances of stereotyping occur only in the West, they occur back home in Africa too.
As I mentioned earlier, I aim only to speak of my experiences as well as those I have some knowledge about and thus my conversation when speaking about Africa will revolve around my country, Nigeria. As Chimamanda pointed out, in Nigeria the issue of identity has a different marker, namely that of ethnicity and/or religion. Not to say these markers are any less discriminated, but the difference is, they aren’t always the first thing noticed about a person, they may not be the indicator of how a person will be treated before they’ve had a chance to utter a word.
Although, it is worth noting that while race is not deemed to be a major factor in Nigeria, that does not mean it plays an insignificant role. In countries such as Nigeria, I believe the more pervasive issues are those of classism and elitism coupled with colourism, which in its own way attacks the intersecting identities of people across all social/economic backgrounds.
Though Chimamanda postulated that she did not know what this thing called black was until leaving Nigeria, there are those from Nigeria who feel this is an oversimplification or a denial of the true situation among the people in the country. They believe that the issues are not just those of classism and elitism but that of inherent race issues in the country, which are being manifested through a display of a classist and elitist attitudes. These attitudes attempt to shun and class those things that do not fit into the Western accepted ideologies as ‘local’ or ‘less than’.
The publication by Moses E. Ochonu – ‘Racism or Classism: Africa’s Hidden Race Problem’ does quite an important job in raising and attempting to answer this question of how race issues also play a major role in interpersonal relations ; even on the continent that hosts the world’s biggest ‘melanated’ population.
In an increasingly global world, one in which we come across people of all races, creeds and backgrounds, in a world in which there is an increased focus on freedom of thought and expression, we cannot continue to stereotype people based off their outward appearances and preconceived notions.
POC deserve the chance to be themselves without having to feel inferior in every space they enter and without having to question whether they belong. To borrow the words from Lynn from the Tv show Girlfriends “I am way too complex a woman to be judged by these categories… I am Lynn and not my skin”. We currently live in a system where POC feel as though they have to fight tooth and nail to simply be.
My message simply is, it’s time to let young black men and women and other POC live openly and unapologetically, allow them the space to learn to love themselves in a community that encourages them.
Image credit: Karen Arnold