Toluse x Theo
When I knew I was black
A common sentiment amongst my fellow Nigerians is this idea that they did not know they were black until they moved to a Western country. This surprises me. I understand not facing overt or covert discrimination based on the colour of your skin in your African country but to suggest that you don’t need to think about your blackness when you are African is not true. At least, it’s not my truth.
Whilst growing up in Nigeria meant that I did not have to deal with systemic racism in my country, there are racial issues which have permeated even societies in which most of the population is black. Although I did not have to worry about racial discrimination, many aspects of my childhood constantly reminded me that being black and African was not coveted and that I would probably face bigger hurdles outside my continent. Thus, I have always been aware that my black skin comes with disadvantages- whether based on prejudice or systemic.
It is visible in the European-approved beauty standards which African women were taught to desire. Despite being from a black country, I did not grow up loving my features. As a child, I remember constantly looking forward to being old enough to relax my hair, to finally no longer have ‘rough’ and ‘difficult’ hair. I also remember the constant fetishization of lighter complexions, leading to many women bleaching their skin. While I was too young to understand that I was learning to hate myself and my features, the inevitable realisation of Western influence on our beauty standards left me sad, angry, and confused.
Anti-blackness has not only affected our beauty standards but also our minds. There was always a certain level of respect and attention given to foreigners, specifically, white people. They were always treated better, and people assumed them to be more intelligent and wealthier due to their skin colour. Thus, even in a country where most of the population was black, I was still aware of my blackness, I was aware that my skin colour was not widely accepted, and with it came condescending presumptions and expectations.
Anti-blackness even boils down to language- what is considered useful versus what is not. It is easy not to link our disdain for our blackness and culture to race and our position in the global capitalist order when we’re not constantly surrounded by white people. However, even in their absence, the ideals we prioritised made it clear that we were trying to climb some ladder and seek someone’s approval. The fight against racism is not just a fight for people in Western countries, it is our fight too. This is where I find Steve Biko’s call for black consciousness powerful. He argued that true liberation was possible only when black people were, themselves, agents of change. This agency would be a function of a new identity and consciousness, which was devoid of the inferiority complex that plagued all-black society.
So, do I understand the sentiment when Africans leave the continent and then say ‘Wow, I am black and that really means something negative out here’? Yes, of course. But I think we need to be careful how we word things and that we really need to think about our experiences before declaring that we were detached from the concept of race before we left Africa. This may be some people’s truth- which is great, but it also overlooks the anti-blackness that generally persists even in black societies.
I remember wishing when I was young that white people had continued colonising us. If they had, we would have better roads and constant electricity, and our lives as Nigerians would be better. However, they left it to us Africans, who did not know how to rule or manage a country. We were bound to our nature, chaos and darkness. Where did this thinking come from?
If we are honest with ourselves as Africans, this thought has occurred to each one of us at least once. “White people know how to rule a country, are intelligent, and always have a plan, they are the model to which we should aspire.”
Maybe it is due to my deep dislike for Chimamanda Ngozi and her repeated hatred towards trans women, but many of her views praised as the height of intellectualism and brilliance are utter rubbish. Every African person knows they are black. From the way we make fun of darker skin tones, and praise fairer ones, to how we try to mimic Western accents, to our wishes to be abroad (outside of the hell we find ourselves seemingly trapped in), even to the unnecessary excitement we show when white people mimic our culture. Why do we trip over our feet when white people imitate us? It is because it is usually the other way around.
We are hyper-aware of our existence as black people in Africa, make no mistake. So hyper, I would add that it has become second nature, and we do not take note of it. I also want to challenge how we view blackness. Chimamanda’s view on Blackness or her lack thereof in Nigeria stems from a Western-centric view of blackness. It is the reason why some African immigrants in the States distance themselves from the “black American”, from being black, believing they are different, and that their ‘good behaviour’ sets them apart. We don’t realise that when we call African Americans ‘ghetto’, loud, uneducated and unpolished, trying to distance ourselves, we are perpetuating and repeating anti-blackness. This is why many Africans are shocked when they experience the very same discrimination they thought their ‘good behaviour’ would save them from.
Blackness is not monolithic. Our experiences as black people, from the West to the South of Africa are different, from America to countries in Europe. Yet, we are black, and we know we are black. This awareness of blackness and othering is reflected in Frantz Fanon's wishes for Africa:
“Let us decide not to imitate Europe. Let us not pay tribute to Europe by creating states, institutions and societies which draw their inspiration from her... Leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men wherever they find them”
Yes, as Chimamanda Ngozi stated, in Nigeria, we have our differences, we have tribal differences, class differences and even village differences. There are tensions between the North and the South. The Hausa and the Igbos, the Igbos and the Ijaw. However, in all this, we are also aware of the full meaning of the word, “Nigerian” and “African”. It means a people that were subjected and still are, it means being othered, “a place of no light, no hope”.
We get rightfully upset and join in when our brothers and sisters in arms are going through racial discrimination in America and when we see our students in Ukraine get treated unfairly. We know the power structures that it all points to. Are we trying to say in the short span of decolonisation in the 1950s and 60s till now, we have gained amnesia? Come off it. Yes, we strive for better, yes, we are a proud and complex entity and anti-blackness may not seem to be at the forefront of the issues we face, yet somehow it still very much is. We carry with us our awareness of being BLACK, no intellectual dishonesty will carry that away.