These opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Peace Corps, Rotary, or any other organization to which I am affiliated.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Facing Identity, Race and Culture: “Where are you really from?”

It is hard to share stories about culture because it is in everything and everywhere.  The fact that people always ask you, “Have you eaten?” after a simple hello, speaks to the importance of looking after those you care about and love.  Being sure that, as a foreigner, I am comfortable and always have a place to sit even if there are fewer chairs than there are people, marks the hospitality of the people.   And while I feel taken care of and supported in my overall day to day activities, it would be misleading to say that it is with complete ease that my experience has unfolded.  As an American and a descendant of Africans who were enslaved in the Americas, it is not an easy feat when people do not accept me as American.  I am constantly questioned about my “real” origin.  And while I realize that most places worldwide are unaware of the history of the development of America, it is hard being reminded constantly that I am seen as an “other”.  My history is a difficult one to trace.  What is most difficult to deal with is that the face of America worldwide is white and everyone else who is there is understood to be “others” who have migrated there.  Though this is not true.  Native Americans are the “real” Americans if one would have to place some sort of value on “americanness” based on their ancestral origin and everyone else including white people are the “others”, but that is not what most people understand or know about America.  I am proud to be American and proud of the struggle that black people in America have passed through as I am now capable of experiencing the privileges of exploration and education worldwide.  

 No matter where I am in the world, if someone asks me where I am from the first thing that pops to mind is America because I am proud to be from America and this is the most significant portion of the story of my origin.  But as I said before I am always asked questions like, “No, where are you really from?  Where is your grandfather from?”  And when I say America, this answer still often does not satisfy people.  So I am pushed to move on and so I often tell them that I am a descendant of African people who were enslaved in the Americas.  This usually prompts people to change the subject to something else completely for fear that I may be embarrassed by being associated with a history of enslavement.  Understandably so because as the history of the caste system and the importance people place on knowing the occupation of your parents appears to be of great importance here.  I am not at all ashamed of my history and actually feel proud to share; knowing where I came from and comparing it to where I am now is beautiful. 
Because of the transatlantic slave trade Africans who were brought to America for slavery were mixed so they would not have common language to revolt, and bought and sold regardless of direct blood alignment.  So tracing such a history back to a specific country in Africa is difficult, though some have done so.  There was much mixing within the African people as well as with the, Native Americans and European whites, as the children of slaves would be enslaved again even if they were biracial.  So those children once again mixed among the “non-biracial” children and so black Americans who are descendants of slaves have a long history of mixing.  So for me to figure out one country in West Africa where some of my people may be from and forgetting all of the mixing that occurred is unfair in my eyes.  So I consider myself Black American to mark both my connectedness to the black continent of Africa and to mark that there was a disruption in our connection and a re-creation of a new group of people.  I usually consider African Americans people who can easily trace their roots to a specific country in Africa, like those who may have migrated after slavery was over.  But labeling is neither here nor there. 

 One of my professors once asked me of my “real origin” and I told him that I was Black American and a descendant of African slaves, but I cannot tell him from where in West Africa my ancestors came from.  He informed me that, “You know the whites in America know there origin based on their names.  So where are you from?”  The question took me aback.  Because my white peers studying here have told me that no one has ever asked them to tell their “real” origin.  So the fact that he knew that white people were not from America was quite a stride.  But, I recognize that he would have no context to know that African slaves were beaten if they spoke African languages and were recorded in books along with the chicken and cattle and more importantly, they took on the name of their slave owners.  I know he had no context to understand that, but I cannot explain the immense hurt I felt facing a man who was comparing my history of forced migration and enslavement to those of slave owners (and also those who were not, but are now American citizens) that often came by choice.  I just told him that our histories were different because our names were forbidden and I left the department.  I realized after that experience that it was important to share the reality of America.  The reality in the sense that there are many people of diverse lands and many of them who cannot trace back their traditional dress, or language, or specific food to the place where their skin color and original ancestors come from, and that America is their home.  I knew I had to share the story of Native Americans so that people here know that the original Americans were not white Europeans.  Please understand that my intention is neither to point blame or put down any group of people whom I consider my American brothers and sisters (I exclude no race in that kinship), but to make the experience of another person who may come to this college who may not fit the picture of what America has been portrayed as worldwide that much easier.  Yes, the president of the USA is a mixed race man, but he can tell people why his skin is tanned; his mother is a white woman from Hawaii and his father a Kenyan who studied in the USA.  Though his face may resemble my complexion, it does not have the same history (it is connected however), even if the world sees us as one in the same. 

 My race has been a bit of a struggle for me in India.  And I knew to some extent there may be some issue.  When I was a volunteer in Burkina Faso, the people called me a white woman.  An extremely hard thing to deal with if you grow up with parents who teach you to be proud of who you are and whose you are regardless as to how grim it may be.  I am not anti-white, but I am not white, I am black.  Over time I understood the reasoning.  My mannerisms, language, and interests matched my white peers; the face of America in the eyes of the world is white.  Even though my skin was brown, my features were different, so I was not quite African…so what else could I be but white?  Also the local language did not have many different words to describe races…you were either black meaning African like them, or not.  Most often people would ask me questions like, “which one of your parents is African?”  as if they had come to the conclusion that I must be biracial.  So I knew that I might experience some issues because even in Africa the people were not sure how to place me.  I was once called “one of the lost Africans” by an older lady.  I never thought I was lost, but I understand her point.  Black people who are descendants of the transatlantic slave trade are in a space of limbo when interacting with the rest of the world.  But I was able to get over the “white lady” thing.  I knew they meant no harm.  However, here where I am finally considered black, there is little basis for an understanding that I am also American.  And the negative attitude toward darkness makes it even more difficult, though I think in general they mean no direct harm.

I went to the salon to get a pedicure and the ladies working there tried to convince me I needed to bleach my skin.  I said, “No, I like my skin.  It’s good.”  And they insisted, “No ma’am, it is black color.  Black color is bad ma’am.  Bleaching is good.”  I went to the beach with some of my friends and the next day one of the girls was telling me how her brother saw pictures of her and was now poking fun at her.  “He is the darkest in the family so we used to always call him blacky.  ‘Blackyyyy, Blackyyy!’ and now he is calling me, ‘Blac—“ as she was saying this she was laughing and I stopped her to ask how this was supposed to be funny to me.  She tried to convince me that they were simply poking fun at him because he was the black sheep of the family and it didn’t mean anything.  While it may not mean the same thing to her as it means to me, it does mean something because many women here go to salons to get their skin bleached to remove their tans.  My Indian friends were devastated every time they get a little too tan and are consequently delighted once the tans wear off.  Readjusting my lens to understand the color complex within the given culture and also thickening my skin to deal with the things people may say has been quite essential in this experience.  But I do wonder how people here feel who are darker than me as I have many Indian classmates who are much darker than I am.  But how do they feel?

Beyond being black and realizing that race is not understood through the same lens that I understand it as an American, there are other hurdles to climb: namely word choice.  So I explained the “blacky” thing that was a bit overwhelming, but probably the most overwhelming was the use of the word “niggahs!”  One evening I walk into the room of one of the girls on my hall as she was reading aloud an email that her friend sent to her and some other people, “what’s up my niggahs!” she says and I left the room before I could hear the rest.  Realistically, she was reading something that someone else wrote to her and also the word was used in the sense of fraternity, but who am I to be upset with?  The word has morphed and changed so much as a term used to put down my people and was taken hostage by the black community to change it into a word of love…but among black people…How the heck did it get to India?! Should I be angry with hip hop artists for using it so much in their music that people may have no context to understand the word and how it has been used to abuse?  Wasn’t it supposed to be just between us?  It was supposed to be “our” business, you know like our parents told us as children, “what goes on in this house stays in this house.”  Should I be mad at myself for letting a word get to me and giving it power simply because I let it affect me?  I honestly have no idea.  But it makes me think to say the least. 

 The other word choice example was actually quite comical.  One of my Indian classmates is really dark.  He is so dark that many of his fellow Indians when they first meet him ask if he is African.  Interesting enough, his favorite genre of music is hip-hop.  It kind of makes me wonder why hip-hop is his choice sound.  Is it because he likes the beats, the clever use of words, and catchy hooks?  Or is it because his complexion drove him to seek a group others see him in?  I do not know, but I do wonder.  Nonetheless, one day we were randomly talking about clothes and he informed me that “I like dressing African American style.”  Never in my life had I heard such a thing.  It made me laugh and I asked him what he meant by that.  He explained that he liked hip-hop and so he liked the clothes people wear in the videos.  I went on to explain to him that he likes to dress “hip-hop style” if he wants to label it (though I am not sure if that would even put it into a good box), but calling it African American excludes all the people who do not like hip-hop, but are black.  Plus, would that mean that he likes to wear clothes that people wear to jazz concerts?  It was black America who created jazz music.  He was pretty receptive and I must say that was by far my favorite encounter of them all, because though they all lacked the intent to be harmful, this one instead made me laugh and put into perspective the innocence from which people here speak to me.
To say the least every time someone asks me where I am “really” from, I am sharing about my American culture.  Every time I walk into a place and I say I am American, but my complexion is incongruent with the picture in their heads, I am sharing American culture.  Being American is so beautiful because it is dynamic and ever changing; there is always room for something new and fresh.  I am happy to share all of these parts of me, especially when I sing my favorite nursery rhymes with the children, dance, or as we prepare for the upcoming winter holiday season being able to share Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s traditions are also very important to the story of who I am. 

 As I have said many times before, I am thankful for this opportunity.  When you exchange with people there will be things that are comfortable and those that are uncomfortable.  If for nothing else, I am happy to learn about other people and watch myself mature to be able to face any sort of misunderstanding of whom I am and where I fit into this world.  I am a child of my Creator in heaven and so are each of my brothers and sisters on earth.  I just have to introduce myself to them.  And so I am thankful for this opportunity for personal growth as I continue to explore the corners of this earth and share with the beautiful people of this world…I am simply learning patience, the hard way…

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