Lately I have been thinking about race more than usual. As a dark, African-American woman, it is difficult not to think about my race. I am constantly aware of my complexion. I do not have the privilege of being a lighter skin tone, blending in or choosing which community to belong to. The choice had been made for me long before I was even born.
Yet, I tried to convince myself and the people around me that I was different from others with similar complexions. I so strongly believed that being African American was different from being Black. I was frustrated and confused by people’s use of African American as the proper name for the Black race. I considered African American to be my race and my ethnicity. Since I was born in Nigeria before my family migrated to America, I am a citizen of both countries. That was what African American meant to me. I did not understand why people who had lived their entire lives in America but had dark complexions were also called African American.
I tried so hard to separate myself from the Black community because I knew the stereotypes that came with embracing my Blackness. I was determined to show everyone that my African heritage was different. I was firm in my belief that my complexion did not symbolize oppression, but rather the richness of my culture. However, my efforts felt useless.
I grew increasingly aware that the first thing people saw was the color of my skin and that was all they needed to categorize me. I was never given the chance to explain my African heritage or disprove the stereotypes. I started to hate my complexion. I wished I were lighter or that I could blend in. I envied light-skin girls who were praised for their olive skin tones. It was not until I sought out why my skin has its color that I re-learned how to love my complexion.
I learned that melanin is the chemical substance responsible for dark skin. Melanin protects the body from the sun’s harmful radiation. In places near the equator, like Africa, where there is more direct sunlight for longer periods, more melanin is needed. So my beautiful, dark skin protects me. In places like Antarctica, where there is hardly any direct sunlight, too much melanin is dangerous and prevents the body from absorbing adequate sunlight. Some radiation from the sun is needed to help the body convert substances into necessary vitamins, so in such places, people adapted fair complexions.
Studying history showed me that my ancestors were not responsible for the negative connotations that come with being labeled Black. In fact, the idea of race was created to rationalize the oppression of people with dark complexions. One drop of Black lineage was enough to claim someone, no matter how light their skin was, as a slave. Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni, an actor and a writer, honed into this idea of “one drop” in her one-woman multimedia performance, “One Drop of Love.” She takes her audience through the history of the U.S. census to discover the perception of race over time.
My anthropology class further emphasized the creation of race and defined it as a social construct. Race was created to categorize members of society and vindicate unequal treatment. Yet, the negative history of race does not mean we can ignore it when claiming our identities. Analyzing race in Brazil changed my perception even more. In Brazil, I learned in class, race is flexible. Your race is based on your personality, your family and how you self-identify. I thought Brazil’s notions of race were superior to America’s, but then I took yet another look at race.
I learned that public health acknowledges the importance of race categories and considers race to be a social determinant of health. Then I started looking at the statistics. The facts are unnerving: Blacks face more adverse health effects in almost every category. I was enraged when I found out that a college-educated, Black woman of high social class is three times more likely to have a preterm birth than an uneducated, white woman. Then I realized the problem is so much bigger than how we self-identify. The fact is, Blacks are subject to health disparities before they are even born.
Up until that point, I aspired to be a physician so I could tackle the problems sickle cell patients face. I thought finding a cure would solve all of their problems. Now I realize that a cure is not enough. I have to address the fact that sickle cell anemia is considered a “Black disease.” As a minority, I must tackle the racial disparities that accompany the disease before I can focus on a cure.
I realized that my skin, just like that of many sickle cell patients, would forever be perceived as dark and therefore I would be categorized as Black. I cannot see my racial typology negatively, however. I have to understand and acknowledge the history of my race. Black is not just a self-identifier, but a political identity that has had systemic ramifications. My choice in identifying as Black has allowed me to reclaim that identity on my own terms.
I finally came to the conclusion that I am Black and African American. Accepting both identities has allowed me to open myself up to the Black community. I began to reach out to the Black communities on campus and actively participating in events. I made it my mission to find a home for myself within the Black community and convinced myself that I had finally come full circle with my perception of my race.
Attending DiGiovanni’s performance showed me, however, that I had still been trying to distinguish myself from the community I was seeking acceptance from. Last year, I began to call myself a Nigerian American because I was sick of explaining what I meant by African American. Fanshen’s show helped me realize what I was doing. Her performance takes the audience through her life struggles to find out what race she belongs to as a mixed woman. Growing up she was constantly asked: “what are you?” The question often made her feel excluded, but upon reflection she realized a certain privilege that comes with being able to answer that question.
Fanshen made me realize that I, too, have a certain privilege as an African American. Although I belong to a minority race, I have the ability to define African American as it relates to who I am. I can trace my lineage back to Nigeria and I know, without a doubt, that hundreds of generations of my family were born in the same nation as I was. I am privileged that my family came to America on its own terms.
We are so often engulfed by our adversities that we do not recognize where we have an advantage. Acknowledging my fortunes as well as my hardships has helped me embrace my identities and better understand who I am. I am not merely one thing. I am a Black, Nigerian, American woman with sickle cell anemia. Still, I am much more than that. I will continue to share my story no matter how hard it is in hopes of educating, inspiring or touching at least one person because, like Fanshen says, all it takes is “one drop of love.”