I did not know I was black
Let's save ourselves the pain of a cosmetic introduction and get straight to the point of this article - race, and identity. Leaving the shores of Africa for the first time in 2012, I saw racism at play. I could not imagine why people 'hated' each other because of the colour of their skin and I did not understand why nobody was doing anything about it, it all seemed abnormally normal. On the streets of New York, I would go about my daily activities and hang out with cousin Biola and my sister Tomiwa, and we would talk about different things, especially about life and what it was like living in the United States. We did not dwell on the topic of racism as much but through our conversations, I saw something different - I saw that being black in America was a whole different ball game but little did I know that racism was not just an American problem. Side note - this is the introduction.
Like a movie
Fast forward years down the line, the narrative of racism and race, in general, continued to play out in the media, and none of the stories in the news could have done justice to teaching me about the topic of race which I would later get to 'kind of' understand.
The first time I ever got into the 'gist' of race was me hearing the term 'ethnic minority' when I came to the UK in 2018. I received an offer to study International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of Birmingham and imagine my surprise when - I was classed as an ethnic minority. This isn't a hard terminology to understand given the fact that the UK is not a predominantly black country. I came to understand that ethnic minorities are "...a group within a community which have different national or cultural traditions from the main population." Simple enough? Despite this awakening and understanding, can you tell me why, to this day, I feel slightly offended being tagged as an ethnic minority? Could it be because I am still trying to get used to the term or because the word 'minority' just feels like a weird human categorisation? Does this define my value in any way? Or is it just semantics? These are the questions that bugged me during lectures with classmates from different ethnic backgrounds but with similar academic qualifications.
Ethnic minority or not, I am incredibly glad that I left my home country. Leaving made me feel liberated from boring, uninspiring, and repetitive socio-economic narratives. Since leaving, I have been able to absorb and examine views that are different from mine, ultimately seeing the world from a less myopic lens. Being black or being conscious of my blackness, however, did not manifest until I plunged myself into the world of work. My first real job in the UK as a student union sabbatical officer, on several occasions, saw me being the only black person in the room. At first, I did not pay attention to this, but you cannot ignore a black, pink-haired woman in bright-coloured clothing and an interesting accent, at a table with 15 white men and 3 white women. I could not exactly blend in and always felt like the elephant in the room - far from the size of my personality. This was the genesis!
On those occasions, I had to choose between taking advantage of my blackness by - putting on an intellectual show at every given opportunity or hiding behind the natural shyness that comes with being the only black person in the room. You probably know that I chose the former - mostly putting on a confident show. After all, I have 8 years' worth of experience in show business.
The white baby
Despite harnessing my ethnic minority 'power' and constantly trying to prove my worth, I have realised that I am not immune to the challenges that come with blackness. I remember my first micro-aggression; defined as "...a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group", just like yesterday. I saw a beautiful white baby smiling and waving at me on a bus. I smiled back because why not? Babies are adorable! You should have seen the look on her parents' faces - it sent me back to Africa. They looked so furious, and I could not tell if this had anything to do with the colour of my teeth or my not-so-fancy winter jacket. Was it a ‘me problem’ or was it theirs? I do not know but the scenario made me very uncomfortable and flicked a switch in my head where, from that moment on, I over-analysed every interaction with any white person I met.
Overanalysing conversations has had no benefit to me as I only ended up being paranoid and slightly angry. In recent times, I have chosen to dwell on positive relationships and to see the good in people no matter how difficult it can be. I now 'own' my blackness without conforming to the negative narratives surrounding it. I am still learning to fit in where I wish to be celebrated and I am still asking questions whenever I experience any form of culture shock. I am also in a weird position where not having an extreme lived experience of racial inequalities makes me feel unconfident in my opinions about race or other related topics. This begs the question - can we talk about race even if we have not been victims of racial injustices? Does being black give me an automatic pass to being an expert on race? I do not quite know how to answer these questions, but can answer the one that follows...
...so, who am I?
Nigerian? African? Ethnic minority? Black? I am all of them but unlimited by their pre-defined characteristics or historical boundaries!