Black or Nigerian?
When I was younger, being Black and Nigerian never caused me any problems. I grew up in a fairly diverse town and school district. Throughout elementary school, I had friends of multiple races and ethnicities. Though it was obvious to us, even as elementary schoolers, that we differed by skin color, it never changed how we saw each other. The only thing I didn’t like about myself that stemmed from my race and ethnicity was my hair. I was always ashamed of my hair and how it was naturally kinky and coily, unlike my friends’ hair. This probably stemmed from the media to which I was exposed, and how all the girls my age on TV, in movies and in magazines were white with hair extremely different from mine. Other than that, being Black and Nigerian wasn’t much of a problem for me.
My ethnicity started to play a bigger role in my life in middle school. Before that, I never gave a second thought to the fact I was Nigerian. I was Black and I was Nigerian. And that was it, until middle school. Then, being Black started to have connotations. Being Black meant you were loud, rude, unruly, didn’t care much about your education and only spent your time with other Black people. I did not align with any of these characteristics; none of my friends happened to be Black. Another thing that set me apart was that I wasn’t just “African-American Black,” I was African Black, which meant I had a different culture, background and experience than an African-American person. But unless I constantly reminded people that even though our skin looked the same, we were very different because of my Nigerian heritage, then I was seen as a Black kid who didn’t “act Black” or fall in line with the rest of the Black kids.
The whole of my middle school experience could have been described as an elephant-in-the-room situation. Everyone was aware I was Black, but didn’t “act Black.” It was never brought up, it was just an ever-present fact and I just tried to carry on with my life with this in the background. The only time during middle school it was brought up was in my eighth-grade history class. In one class, we were all split into groups of four, and a student in my group found it important to bring up that “all of us in the group happened to be Black, except for one of us that was an Oreo…” Even though he didn’t explicitly say he was referring to me, it was still apparent he was talking about me. At the time I just sat there quietly, even though if that happened now I definitely would have a few choice words to say.
As rude as the comment was, in the moment it didn’t really affect me much. But in the long run, it definitely took a toll. For high school, I went to a school in a different district, which meant starting over socially. I already knew that 90 percent of the students in the new district were white. Through my logic, coming into this district with no friends as a Black kid, I could probably expect jokes and comments based off of my race. To combat this, I came up with some coping mechanisms. The first one was to make jokes at the expense of my own race before other people could. For example, I started calling myself an Oreo, so that when other kids did, it wouldn’t be offensive because I did it first. I also tried to forget my racial and ethnic identities as much as possible. I never brought up my Nigerian heritage or culture and I never mentioned my race. Whenever it was brought up, I wouldn’t say anything so people would forget I was Black or Nigerian.
Being Nigerian also added an extra challenge for me in high school. Even though the majority of the kids in my class were white, there was a number of first-generation immigrant kids with whom I bonded. I made friends with people whose parents immigrated from Germany, Syria, Poland and more. But even with those friendships, I still felt like I was an outsider. All of my first-generation immigrant friends were so much more in tune with their families’ cultures than me. I started to feel as if I wasn’t truly Nigerian. I couldn’t explain my culture to people as well as they could. I couldn’t speak either of the languages my parents spoke. I also had the added issue of my race. Most of my other first-generation friends passed as white, so people didn’t know they weren’t just “white” until they told them of their background. When people saw me, they saw me as Black, which made me even more uncomfortable discussing my Nigerian culture.
High school was hard for me in terms of accepting my race and ethnicity. But as I made more friends and became more comfortable with my peers, I started to make some strides in my self-acceptance. At our yearly culture fair, kids would set up booths representing their culture or another country’s culture. Even though it was something most people looked forward to, it was something I slightly dreaded. First of all, the idea of acknowledging my ethnic and racial differences and then educating people about them terrified me. To my surprise, however, each year people were enthralled with our Nigeria booth. They were fascinated with our festive clothing, loud patterns, prints and music. Hosting the cultural fair each year helped me feel more comfortable with being Nigerian and Black. By the end of high school, I was comfortable enough with myself to have my graduation cap decorated with the words “black girl magic” on top of a picture of Africa.
Since then I’ve only become more comfortable with my race and ethnicity. Though adjusting to a predominantly white institution has been hard, college has still been a huge step for me. As I came to college, I was afraid I would be rejected by the Black community at the University of Michigan due to the experiences I had in middle school. Instead, I’ve found myself accepted by the Black community as well as several other communities. Through joining communities dedicated to people of color, I’ve started to accept myself more. I’ve started to learn that my identities as Black and Nigerian don’t have to be separate and can work together. I’ve found love for myself based on the color of my skin, the homeland of my parents and the amazing communities in which these both allow me to take part. I’m now proud to be a Black woman and to be a Nigerian woman.
Efe Osagie is an LSA Freshman