The year-long revelations of government injustice, police brutality and racial profiling made me meditate on what it means to be black in the West. I am a Kenyan American young woman. I periodically travel back to Kenya, and I’ve also studied abroad in London and visited Italy, Spain and France. My experiences navigating through these space made me want to ask, what is it like to feel like a dichotomy and a conundrum, to be desired and despised at the same time?
When I first migrated to the Midwest at the age of 10, I knew nothing about being black. I was Kenyan, Kikuyu to be precise. I was raised on ethnic rather than racial differences, and I was still too young to understand what that meant. My first moment as a “black person” was in middle school when I began to lose my accent. My family moved to the suburbs and I attended a predominantly white school. Since it was a small school, the principle met with all of her new students. In the office, she commented on my grades stating that according to my transcript, she did not expect to see me. She was happy to have smart black students. Although I didn’t have the language to verbalize it, I knew something was not right. This was only the beginning.
Students were intrigued when they found out I was “from Africa” and wanted to know more about my people and culture. However, they hated that I “messed up” the curve and often spoke about me under their breath, commenting that I should go back where I came from. At the same time, they were fascinated by my natural hair and whispered about my body as I walked down the hall. These same oddities left me dateless during homecoming, awkward in the locker room and silenced in the classroom.
In class, when we discussed slavery, students would look at me strangely as though the lesson was about me, not them and their history. During a blackface incident, students were asked to wash their faces off. They only did so at the threat of suspension. They didn’t understand what they did wrong. That afternoon during a class discussion, one of my friends turned to me and in a genuine tone asked, “You’re black. Does it bother you?”
College was much easier to handle. I attend an international, multicultural school. Still, the basic issues of people seeking shallow cultural interactions via food and entertainment continued. But as my understanding of what it meant to be black got deeper, my relationships with some of my peers become disturbing. A fellow white classmate who loves jazz, the blues and of course ethnic food, admitted to someone in one of my friend circles that he didn’t believe that my friend (a person of color) or me or all of the students of color where there due to merit. As products of affirmative action, he felt our presence was not fair. He was confessing because after being friends with a group of us, he saw that we were smart.
Studying abroad and visiting European cities gave me a different perspective. I believe the continent’s financial uncertainty, high immigration rates, and intense racial profiling heightened my experience. As a generalization, I found that black men were criminalized and black women were hyper-sexualized. London was unique. The city’s diverse population meant that I was identified by nationality (American by British people, Kenyan by immigrants) rather than race. To be black in Paris meant something else. With my midwest American accent, there was no confusion: I was a tourist. The men on the streets selling novelty items were all black Africans. The police chased them and would sometimes take away their goods, their only source of income. Whenever I did not acknowledge their presence with a smile or a gesture or buy something, they asked me if I thought I was better than them. This is a question I only ever get when I go to Kenya.
In Rome my black friend and I got lost at night and quickly discovered that to be young, black and female in the dark meant to be a prostitute. During the day, Italian men refereed to us as Beyonce and Shakira although there is no resemblance what so ever and we are both black. They loved our hair and our American accents. In Barcelona, I had a similar experience.
For historical, political and economic reasons, being black in the West is a factor of where we are and the ways our identities converge. We each have different experiences. But there is one thing we all have in common: we are navigating in spaces that first and foremost look to the color of our skin in order to predetermine our character. The physical and emotional violence caused in the near past raised awareness about the dangers of profiling.
But of course to be black is to be beautiful. The second part of this piece will explore the ways that black solidarity across the diaspora has influenced my identity.