In Living Colour: Living while technically black

Posted by Jay in Travel on September 23rd, 2015

A couple of months ago, I went to see Dear White People with a friend of mine at an independent cinema in Brixton. I had been excited to see the film as I had seen the trailer for it months beforehand and it appeared to have a good premise. As well as a wicked sense of humour, of which I am definitely a fan. As expected, the majority of people in the audience were black, but there was a nice mix of different people and couple pairings. 

While watching and enjoying the film, I found myself relating with Lionel who was one of the main characters. Everybody either knows a Lionel or is a Lionel, and those who have seen the film will know exactly what I am talking about. However, for the uninitiated he is what is not so lovingly known as a “coconut”, “Oreo”, “Bounty”, a black person who is basically white in everything except for their skin colour.

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It was a surreal experience for me to see myself in him, as I watched him trying to navigate his love for things that were “traditionally white”, like listening to rock music or wearing trousers that rested on your hip bone. He was obviously trying desperately hard to be everything he was not, and he was regularly reminded of his limbo status. Black, but not really though, more like technically black. Then it got me thinking of all my friendships and how varied they were, or so I thought.

As I have mentioned before ad nauseam, one of the reasons I have loved living in London is how many people you are free to meet, interact with and potentially befriend. So with all these different ethnic varieties available to me a tube stop away, how did I end up having so many white friends?!

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That is a question that my mother has been asking me ever since I was in primary school. All the friends I would constantly mention, rant and rave about were called “Tom”, “Sarah”, “Billy” and “Lucy”. Where was “Oluwasegun”, “Jolade” and “Babatunde”? Why was I not talking about them and hanging out with people that I had more in common with?

The answer was perfectly simple, apart from our race and the fact that we were Nigerian, we had nothing else in common. Or at least a lot of black people I have met in my time presume that we would have nothing in common, they would not for a second think that I love rap and hip hop. I expect a look of shock and surprise if I was to ever rap along with Tupac’s Hail Mary, especially with that oh so brutal opening verse. Watch crappy black TV shows/films and find them utterly hilarious, cackle along to the ridiculousness of Nollywood movies. And they would never think that I could relate to the struggles of being a Nigerian kid with typically African parents while living in London.

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Anybody that knows me, or takes the time to get to know is certain of one thing. I will be friends with damn near anybody, literally does not matter to me. I mean, who doesn’t like knowing that they have a couch to sleep on in China? Or a friend to hang out with and harass in The Netherlands?

As far as I can remember, there has always been an obvious push back to my attempts at friendship. It usually plays out as a more subtle version of the famous Mean Girls “You can’t sit with us” scene. I simply do not belong, as I am usually shunned as soon as I open my mouth and my hodge podge accent comes tumbling out. Distinctly UNblack.

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I couldn’t possibly relate to what they’re saying or what they have experienced, I speak “too posh” and laugh way too much at the antics of Fraiser and co. On the one hand, I completely understand what they mean when they say that I couldn’t understand some of the things they have been through. I have never been stopped and searched, people do not walk to the other side of the road when they see me. There is no sharp inhale when I reach into my pockets for something. As previously mentioned, I do not seem scary, I am not your stereotypical image of what a black person “should be”. Whatever that is.

I believe that it is this gap, or specifically the lack of shared bad experiences that keeps me out. When I have heard other black people speaking of the distrust they had in law enforcement, I could not speak up. I had no such conscious distrust of the police until I was constantly reading and hearing of black lives being taken, especially in the US, at the hands of those that are there to protect and to serve. Even while my blood boils at the attitude and audacity of the people committing these crimes and getting away with it. And to their asshole supporters throwing money to support their violent and racist cause. I feel out of place in voicing an opinion, even while agreeing with their sentiments.

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While we do share similar skin tone, who am I to interject with my thoughts? I do not walk down the street in fear that I may not make it back home because I look “suspect”. It would feel disingenuous to me to add my two cents. I am at a disadvantage because I am black, even moreso because I am a black woman. But I have always been the little chocolate sprinkle on a very vanilla sundae.

Even though I do have friends of different ethnicities, the majority are white. And it brings up a rather uncomfortable question, does that say more about them or about me? After so many pushbacks and obstacles both obvious and less so, did I just give up on even trying to have black friends? Have I purposefully distanced myself from potentially nourishing and relatable friendships because a few people in my life made it “too hard”?

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While I have grown up accepting the fact that I will never truly be African enough, as I have spent nearly all of my life in the West. To be African, be it Nigerian, Somali, Zambian etc., is a cultural thing and is learned by living in the country and being exposed to the experiences that are common in those lands. I never thought for a moment that my skin colour inherited from my very African parents would not be enough to guarantee my blackness.

I am sure I am not the only one that has experienced something like this. Have any of you ever been accused of not being enough by people of your own race?

3 Responses

  1. Alanzo says:

    Great blog. I think it is helpful to examine what blackness actually is. I find it to be more of a Western construct. I am not sure that there is any such thing. I think people of Africa or of African descent can be just as diverse as any other race. So from my perspective, blackness is a label that is neither accurate or relavent if compared with others. I think I understand the need for the label given some of African history and the need to maintain identity in an environment where blacks are the minority or are being suppressed. But not when it is used to judge the very people it is intended to protect.

    • Jay says:

      Thank you Alanzo. I completely agree with you in that I also believe blackness to be a Western construct. However, this has definitely seeped into the black community. Sometimes when my blackness has been called into question has been by other black people. And there appeared, to me at least, to be different tiers of blackness, as well. So if you go purely by geography for example, a black person living IN Africa is somehow blacker than those living off the continent. Not sure if that makes sense, but hopefully one day it will be used as a way to bring us together as opposed to dividing us into varying degrees of black.
      Jay recently posted…The Nigerian language problemMy Profile

  2. […] fresh in my mind, and in my heart. I am aware that not all my countrymen will ever consider me truly African, I am glad that I was given the chance to be able to keep that part of my identity alive. Even […]

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about Jayon UPDATE: As of 25/09/2015 Nigeria has been removed from the WHO's Polio Endemic List! Having been born in Nigeria, I hail from one of three countries where polio is still unfortunately endemic, the other two being Pakistan and Afghanistan. I had contracted the poliovirus before my ...Read More

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