I will never forget the day my white high school teacher took me aside to have what he called a "serious discussion". He looked me in the eye, took my arm, brought out his arm, and placed them both side by side. He then said in a soft voice, "see? We are exactly the same. No need to be like them." The "them" he was referring to were my black friends who he believed were bad influences on me. However, he didn't realize that I wasn't a mixed girl who was having an identity crisis. I was a Nigerian girl, born in Aba and raised in a VERY Nigerian home.
Sadly, growing up this was one of several experiences where the ambiguity of my racial identity caused confusion for those who did not know me. To them, I was the "white girl", the "mixed girl", the "redbone", the "half-caste" and many other names that didn't at all define who I was as a person. They didn't know that despite my fair skin, dirty blonde hair and light eyes, I was a proud African. They didn't know that I enjoyed my egusi soup with pounded yam. They couldn't tell that I couldn't quite speak for more than 10 minutes without my igbo accent coming out, even if it was just slightly. They didn't see that despite how I looked, I was from Amichi in Anambra State. They didn't know I was the descendant of Okonkwo Etem, a great warrior from my father's village. Ultimately, they didn't know the rich heritage and lineage I came from.
For many years as a child, the way I looked bothered me. It was frustrating being treated like I was confused about my racial identity when I clearly knew. It was hard to fit in when no one believed I was "really" black. Thankfully, as I grew older, I learned to not only appreciate my identity as a Nigerian, but to educate others about who I was. I learned to explain that Africans came in all colors, including mine. I learned to say my full Nigerian name when introducing myself and making sure that I used my accent to pronounce it from time to time. Ultimately, I had to learn to dismantle people's misguided perception of who I was.
Last year, I had the great privilege of teaching an Africana course at Rutgers University. The first week of class, I had to introduce myself to a variety of different people including a young caucasian male who could not believe I was teaching the course. When I introduced myself he looked at me and asked, "Shouldn't you be African?" I smiled and simply responded that I was. It was the first time in a long time when I didn't feel the need to go into a lengthy explanation. The way I carried myself, the eloquence of my speech, the poise and grace that followed me spoke to my identity as an African and was all the explanation I needed. I knew without saying a word, that I was Nigerian and I believe he knew it as well.
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