The Young and Disenchanted

Posts Tagged ‘Kanye West

This entry title is a bit of a misnomer because it’s actually only about one of my boys. We lived on the same floor freshman year and bonded over our “third world-ness” (he’s South American, I’m African) and our love of food. Nearly three years on, I’d say he’s probably one of the people here who knows me best. It’s weird because on the surface we don’t really have that much in common: he’s a conservative white man and I’m a borderline socialist black woman. I listen to hip hop on my mp3 player while he pumps The Beatles and obscure Latin American artists out of his ridiculous speaker system. He drinks whiskey; I’m a rum-and-coke girl. I’m an English and Political Science major; he’s an engineer. Yet somehow over the past few years we’ve gotten to the point where our differences don’t really matter to either of us. We have our own little dynamic – he buys me dinner, I help him do his laundry. I tease him about how long he takes to get dressed to go out, and he lets me know when what I’m wearing isn’t what’s hot on the boulevard. Basically, our friendship is unconventional, awesome and uncomplicated. 

Or so I thought. Something he said during a recent phone conversation has made me question what it means for me, an African woman, to be friends with a white man. A few weeks ago we happened to be talking about STI testing: he’s never been tested, and I suggested that just to be safe, he should go. A couple days ago he was complaining about being unable to sleep properly, and so I suggested that he go to the doctor for a check-up. Remembering the STI testing, I asked him if had gone yet. He said no, and then asked me when last I had gone for an STI test. I told him I had one when I last saw the ob/gyn a couple months ago. He asked how it had turned out, and I replied that there were no problems. Maybe he thought I was being cocky or pushy, because he then said, “Yeah well, you know you’re black so you’re probably going to get AIDS at some point anyway.”

I need to explain something here: one important part of my dynamic with my male friends is our semi-insulting banter. We’re a pretty diverse group – white, black, Asian, Mexican, Jewish – so at some point or another, someone is bound to be blasted on account of their race. Everyone gives as good as they get – if the Mexican kid makes a comment about me being fresh off the boat, I ask him how heavy the border patrol is nowadays. There’s no room for political correctness with these dudes – after all, we’re socially aware students in New York City living the post-racial American dream. I’m saying this to make it clear that my friend’s comment about AIDS was not meant to be malicious on his part – it’s something that would, on the surface, fit in with our usual conversation style. But this comment felt entirely different to me. For once, my slick mouth failed me and I didn’t know how to respond. I felt as though two key parts of my identity – my colour and my gender – had been struck at with a force I wasn’t able to return. I felt totally exposed and extremly self conscious. Why? Because AIDS disproportionally affects black women and is a subject that is particularly close to my heart. Because there isn’t an equivalent statement that I could throw back at him, a white heterosexual male, that would carry the same meaning as his statement did for me, a black woman. Because I felt like my friend was stereotyping me, judging me, suggesting that my destiny was tied up solely in my sexuality and my race. The inequality of our positions in society, for the first time in our friendship, was glaringly obvious to me. And my position as the weaker one made me silent.

At the time we had the conversation, I was tired out of my mind (all-nighter the night before finishing two papers) and so I didn’t really think too much about it. A couple days ago, I decided to tell two friends (Rational Chaos and a Colombian/Puerto Rican chick) about the conversation and see what they thought. They both understood why the comment had hurt me, and recognised the need for me to react to being told something like that. It was interesting to me though that Rational Chaos, as a dude, thought that the comment had far more to do with race than the fact that I’m a woman. My female friend, however, agreed with me that those two aspects of my identity can’t really be separated, especially not in a situation where I’m dealing with someone who is my opposite on both grounds. Even more frustrating for me is the fact that I don’t think that I can make my friend see why his comment was problematic for me. He hasn’t ever been sexually harassed while out at night or had degrading comments made about him based on the colour of his skin. Every time I try to bring up the topic of gender or race, he gets impatient and accuses me of bringing up “hippy stuff.” How is possible that someone who understands how I feel about my family, another important part of my identity, starts to push me away when I want to discuss what it’s like being a black woman? Rational Chaos said to me that sometimes I have to let things slide – partly because of the fact that our conversations don’t tend to be PC in the first place, but also because in his opinion, there are bigger battles to be fought. While I accept that our banter will always have some pointed teasing, am I not allowed to draw boundaries over what I will and will not accept being said to me? If I were a black man and he had said the same thing to me, I could have responded, “Yeah, well your little dick isn’t big enough to contract that shit to begin with.” But I don’t have a dick. In this context he holds all the power. Is that something I should just accept as a fact of society, or shouldn’t he be sensitive to his privileged position in comparison to mine? At what point is my silence simply me compromising myself?

My female friend suggested that I think carefully about whether or not this was a turning point in our friendship – if we could continue on as we were, or not. I’m not planning on ending our friendship. He’s still my boy, no matter what. I realise now though that I have to challenge him to see things from my perspective more often. I know the white heterosexual male’s perspective inside out – it wrote the books I study from and the history of the world I live in. But this isn’t Hegel’s time any more – that shit has got to come to an end. If my friend can make the effort to understand Nigerian politics, then he can damn sure try to understand why his making a remark about me getting AIDS is a problem. I can’t end racism and sexism for the whole world – that’s a project that’s a little out of my reach. But I’m going to do my best to confront them when they come up in my personal life and out of the mouths of my friends.  

P.S. The first verse of Kanye’s “All Falls Down” makes me think about the complexities of the black female existence. Plus Stacey Dash is a bad chick, and Common’s sexy cameo as the airline employee in the video always makes me smile. 

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I was in the Met a couple months ago and got into a conversation about Africa with an 8 year-old girl whilst looking at an exhibition of fabrics from my part of the continent. It went a little like this:

Me:      Oh my goodness, I love looking at these fabrics ‘cos they remind me of home.

Girl:     Wait… so you’re from Africa?

Me:      Yes…

Girl:     Oh, I didn’t… so they have like, towns and cities in Africa?

Me:      Yes, I grew up in a big city a lot like New York.

Girl:     Oh… so do your parents live in Africa?

Me:      Yes, they do.

Girl:     Well… what do they do there?

Me:      Um… they work? And live…?

Girl:     Oh… okay. I thought everyone lived in little villages in the forest there.

Me:      *Dying to cuss her out but remembering in time that she’s only 8*

Thankfully, this conversation got cut short as we moved on to another section of the Met. But it illustrated for me the surprising level of ignorance about Africa that exists in this country. I wouldn’t have thought that anyone – elementary school kid or not – in the world’s most advanced country would actually believe that there were no cities in Africa. But this is just one example of a pattern that I have noticed since moving to the States.

I got asked recently by the op/ed editor of my school’s newspaper to write a piece about what brought me to New York City. In the email she sent me, she slid in a little sentence that let me know what direction this essay was meant to take: “As an African student at Columbia, I am most interested in your experiences in your home continent. Now, no disrespect meant to this chick, but sometimes I get a little tired of being asked to talk about Africa. Eager blonde-haired sophomores approach me all wide-eyed and bushy-tailed after learning that I’m from the motherland to complement me on my English and express surprise upon learning that yes, I do live in a real city and no, my house is not made of mud. This routine gets old very quickly.

This isn’t the only reason I get tired of talking about Africa. See, I have days where all I want to do is talk about home. Maybe because I’m freezing my arse off in my under-heated room (thanks, Housing Services) and all I can think about is the sexy humid heat of the equator that I’m missing. Or after my third day in a row of eating nothing but sandwiches, all I want is a big ass bowl of jollof rice with plantain, or beans freshly fried in palm oil, or some correct pounded yam balanced with banga soup on the side. But more often than not, it’s because something about my home continent has crossed into my world of classes, meetings and friends and taken me out of New York City and back to the streets of Lagos – some photograph or song or football score that has me believing for just one second when I close my eyes that I’m not here, but back home.

But there’s a flip side: almost every time I read the news off the BBC website, it’s always some kind of misery being reported about Africa. It bothers me that most of the time when Africa is mentioned in the mainstream media, it’s an extremely stereotypical view: genocide, AIDS, corrupt rulers – y’all know the drill. For someone born and raised (mainly) on the continent, it is frustrating to see my home presented as a primitive place. And this is why I do get tired: because when I try to challenge people’s stereotypes, I tend to be met with blank faces, at best. It’s almost as if no one in the West that I’ve encountered wants to see my home continent as anything but what the media depicts. Which leads me to ask the question: why do you ask me about Africa if you don’t want to know about the “real” place, the one that I have lived and breathed for the past 21 years?

This isn’t a topic that I can cover entirely in one blog post, and I’ll definitely return to it because it’s one that has shaped my world view. When I don’t have a ton of reading due, I’m going to expand on the article I wrote for the paper. All the things I couldn’t fit into the 900 words I wrote talking about how much New York reminds me of Lagos: from the massive pockets of wealth in Manhattan and Victoria Island respectively to the feeling of calm I get looking at the Hudson because it reminds me of the Lagos Lagoon. And not because anyone asked me to write, but because writing these things makes me happy. Or mad, or sad, depending on what I’m talking about. But most importantly, because they keep me connected to the one place that matters the most to me, even when I’m 3000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean: home.

For right now I’ll say this: being an African outside of your home country is an interesting experience. For me, it has meant having to struggle to disprove certain assumptions that people make about my continent. But it has also involved me having to face certain hard truths about the reality at home – the corruption, the ignorance that keeps people in poverty, the ways in which our leaders failed to live up to the dreams of independence. Maybe I’m realising these things because I’ve grown up and no longer see things through the eyes of a child. I know that, ironically, classes that I have taken at my college and books that I have read helped me understand the dynamics of Africa much better than simply living there ever could. And I can’t call myself an expert, but I hope that more people will ask me questions and actually listen when I talk about Africa, not just come to me with pre-held notions and blank out when I say there’s no safari in Nigeria. Because I know there is definitely a whole lot to be said.   

P.S. Kanye West and Chris Martin’s “Homecoming” was one of my favourite tracks off the Graduation LP. And even if I can’t co-sign Kanye’s “singing,” he always does have some fly ass videos, this one included.  Hype Williams is most definitely a visual genius. 


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