Last updated on November 26th, 2020 at 02:18 pm
This piece was originally published on April 12, 2016.
I have not always been “Black.”
Before I moved to the United States, I did not give much consideration to what Blackness meant. The concept of being Black was not something that I ever had to consider as a Nigerian in Nigeria where the majority of people look like me. But now, in this new environment, I’m considered a part of a minority.
Growing up in an upper middle class family – both my parents being nurses – in South West Nigeria meant that I was fortunate. I was privileged and one of the few where I lived who had the opportunity to receive training at a private school rather than the public education system. I was sheltered and my parents sought to shield us from the “bad influences” of the other kids in the neighborhood, those perceived to be from a lower economic status and social standing than us. While in Nigeria, I understood privilege only through the lens of class. It wasn’t until I graduated from high school and moved to the U.S. with my dad that this perspective changed. And it wasn’t just a shift in my understanding of what it meant to be privileged.
Leaving Nigeria also meant that I had to understand losing the privilege of being surrounded by my own culture and the issues of facing culture shock.
When I first got to Houston, it was fascinating to me when people would, out of adoration it seemed, ask me “So, did you learn English when you came here or did they teach you English back in Nigeria?” I usually didn’t want to blame them for their ignorance, but it was hard not to be snarky when I responded that the English language just so happens to be the official language of my country of origin. And of course, they often gasped at this realization. What I did not understand then was that not every immigrant has this language privilege, not even everyone that comes from Nigeria.
In The Souls of Black Folks, W.E.B. Du Bois writes that the black man is, “born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world.” Basically being black in the U.S. creates a double-consciousness where you can only see yourself through the lens of another. This other can include white Americans and mainstream media, any societal mainstay or majority that reflects stereotypes back at you. Du Bois further mentions that a black man, “ever feels his twoness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” This sentiment perfectly describes how I feel first and foremost as an immigrant and second as a black man in America.
This is what privilege (or the lack of it) looks like to me now: the knowledge and acknowledgement of the fact that, as black man in America, there are some things I cannot do.
These are simple things that I need to be aware of like the way that I walk, how I talk, what I wear (or don’t wear), etc. While I often joke about not being able to do “x”, the reality of this sinks much deeper after the laughs have faded.
One time, while on the way to dinner at an apartment with a group of friends, someone suggested as a joke that we climb the fence after we couldn’t find a way in. I responded that they could, but I’d gladly walk around the building in search of an unlocked gate. It just takes someone sitting on their front porch (who “luckily” has a gun) to see me climbing the gate, “fearing for their life,” and shooting me. And that’s that. I considered their actions (what they could afford to do) a matter of privilege compared to my acceptable behavior as the only black person in this group. I was the only one who actively had to fear for my life. Interestingly enough, climbing neighbors’ fences was something I did a lot of when I was a kid – but of course, that was Nigeria. Unfortunately, scenarios like this where I am very aware of my limitations (especially in connection to my race) are all too common for me in the U.S.
However, in spite of extra restrictions due to the perception of my race in America, I still consider myself very privileged due to my education and the opportunities I had growing up. It is because of this new found understanding that I actively seek to embrace spaces that allow me to share my version of the Nigerian story. It is also why I’m committed to going back home in the near future and to do my part in making a contribution to the crumbling education system in Nigeria by setting up a kind of trade/vocational school. I am coming to terms with embracing the twoness of being an immigrant and a black man as a part of my identity, although it ever remains a work in progress. There is more than one way to be Nigerian. And Black. And American.