The Young and Disenchanted

Posts Tagged ‘Stereotypes

Le sigh – and another stay at home comes to an end. In 3 days time I’ll be sitting in the Atlanta airport after a vigorous patting-down and grilling by airport authorities (thanks, underwear bomber) waiting for my flight back to NYC and my last semester of college. Although I’m excited for this final stretch and to see all my people back on campus, I’m really going to miss home. The thought of trading jollof rice and the heat of the equator for greasy pizza and North-Eastern snow is wild depressing, especially because this trip home has been particularly enjoyable. My father, feeling adventurous, decided that we should make a trip to Senegal. Yesterday we returned home after spending 6 days in Dakar, which is officially one of my new favourite places in the world. It’s where the French Riviera and the West African savannah had a love child raised by a North African nanny. It’s considerably less chaotic than Lagos, and much more of a walking city. I loved the fact that the buildings were so close to the roadside that you could reach up and touch one of the brightly coloured shutters. It was fun practising my (rusty) French with market traders. And poulet yassa with un peu de pili pili? Heavenly.

Of course, it being a city, the hustlers were out in full effect. Every time we walked out of our hotel, we would be approached by an Abdul/Amadou/Yuyu who would smile and hail us with a “Bonjour!” hoping that we hapless tourists would be persuaded to take him on as our guide (for a few thousand CFA, bien sûr). If only they’d known that we were Nigerians: mon cher, you can’t scam the original scammers. But that was the interesting thing – they didn’t seem to know that we were Nigerians. I got asked if I was everything from Senegalese to Ethiopian, but never my home country. Given recent events, I’m sure most would tell me to be grateful that people don’t think I’m Nigerian. It’s been an interesting pattern since I’ve lived abroad, people thinking that I’m not from West Africa. I’ve been asked if I was from the USA, Kenya, Botswana and even Fiji (yeah, that right there got the side eye). I don’t think there’s anything about the way I look that suggests that I’m not a Nigerian. And as I grew up here, it’s even more baffling to me. Maybe motherfuckers just aren’t that perceptive. Or maybe I have a “non-African” air about me that throws people off – perhaps I don’t come across as your average African.

This is something that has plagued me increasingly throughout my life. What is it about me that makes people think I’m from Brooklyn rather than Ofagbe? Why don’t I come across as “authentic”? I guess the ideal place to begin answering that question would be to figure out what the “typical” African is like. Let’s begin with appearances: according to an African-American security guard at my college, African people are black.  As in, we’re all on that chocolate/ebony/midnight type skin tone. I guess my brown skin fails the first test – thanks, Scottish great-grandfather. Second of all, African women don’t wear their hair the way I do. In Lagos, I stand out when my hair is fro’ed – most women here have their hair relaxed, in braids or in weaves. If they do wear it natural, it’s cut short like a man’s. Second fail. What about the way I dress? West African women are supposed to wear ankara (traditional cloth often sewn into dresses or a skirt and blouse), and love them some gold jewellery. I guess my skinny jeans and wooden bracelets fail this authenticity test. Other ways in which I don’t measure up: I don’t speak any African languages. My accent has lingering traces of South-East England and New York City. I didn’t go to secondary school in Nigeria. I’m not poor. I like Russian literature… the list continues. Everywhere I go, from the streets of Dakar to the sidewalks of NYC, people seem to enjoy reminding me how I’m not really African. Yes, I have a Nigerian passport, but because my appearance and experiences are not typical, I’ve somehow lost my African-ness (if, indeed, I ever had it) and fallen into a no-man’s-land (after all, with a name like mine I can’t possibly pass for a real Westerner or as being from any other part of the world but West Africa). As a friend once told me, my “bourgeoisie” background which enabled me to fly home 3 times in as many months for my sisters’ weddings undermines my claim to being a “real” African. Mon Dieu! – I am, vraiment, in the position of being a member of the colonised elite that Fanon and so many others have written about. Caught between the world of the colonial power, which my education has given me some level of access to, but to which my skin tone denies me full entry, and the world of the colonised subject which my socio-economic status has moved me out of reach, what am I to do?

Following along this reason, I guess Leopold Senghor, Chinua Achebe and other intellectuals like them are also not legitimate Africans. Neither are any of the Africans that attend my university. Although some of them pass more “tests” than I do, surely their failure of others means that they too are condemned to flounder in the frustration of being an undefined hybrid, of not being fully able to “belong” to their respect homes.

Just in case you haven’t noticed, I think all of this right here is bullshit. To all the people who have questioned the authenticity of my West African-ness: are you fucking serious? The fact that you define “true African-ness” just highlights the extent to which your mindset is dominated by colonialism. In case you forgot, when the British, French and Portuguese came it was them who drew a line between the “native” and the “citizen.” Your denial of my African-ness is you repeating the exact same ideology. Here’s the wonderful thing about identity: it’s fluid. This means that it doesn’t follow a set of rules or fall under a single list, especially in the context of Africa. I have the freedom to shape my own African identity, to accept what I was given, change what I don’t like and embrace the new. Just because it doesn’t match up to your personal definition doesn’t make it less valid. If you tell someone that their Western education makes them un-African, you are suggesting that Africans can only learn within the context of Africa. If you tell someone that their clothing makes them an outsider, you are saying that Africans can only dress in an African way. If you tell someone that speaking English instead of Wolof highlights a colonial mentality, you are claiming that Africans are only truly African when speaking “native” languages, and underscoring your own colonial mentality.  In other words, you are making a monolith out of the people of this incredibly diverse continent and reinforcing the very stereotypes that are keeping this continent down.

I think it’s important to make it clear that I am in no way, shape or form privileging my own experiences as an African to those of others: my American education doesn’t make me “better” than someone who went to the University of Lagos. Although I’m not going to engage in the “Western” vs. “non-Western” debate here, I’m definitely not okay with the privileging of Western ideals and standards over the many African ones. What I do what to emphasise is that difference – even when that difference comes from outside of the African context – is what makes Africa so vibrant and beautiful. Part of what I love about being African is the fact that you can see so many different cultural influences at play within our societies – for example, the way Dakar is a totally different kind of African city to Accra because of their histories.

In summary, I don’t believe judging people according to how “African” you think they are in order to make yourself feel better is doing anyone any favours. We’re ALL African, period. And especially to those who tell me these things as we both sit in an American university classroom – c’mon son. Fuckouttaherewiththatshitson. Africans, “emancipate yourselves from mental slavery” and fucking do better.

And with that said, let me go find some rice and beans to eat. I’m starved.

P.S. Title is from Fela’s “Gentleman.”

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At some point during my sophomore year of college, I stumbled across the book Colonize This!, a collection of essays written by women-of-colour feminists. Each essay is written from a different perspective – Indian American, Chicana, Muslim – but many share a recurring theme: how to reconcile their cultural identity with their feminist views. One essay that struck me in particular was written by a Nigerian woman. She discussed how, as a child, the role of cook/cleaner/wife-in-training defined her position as the only girl in her family, and how she rebelled against this imposed identity as a result of her exposure to feminist literature while studying in the USA. Now, I 100% sympathise with home-girl on this tip. If I had brothers and I had to watch their lazy asses play Nintendo 64 (holla!) while I washed all the motherfucking dishes, I would have become an only child by virtue of the cutlass there would have been some problems. But even without brothers, it was definitely emphasised when I was growing up (slash still today) that I would have to ensure that my domestic skills were up to par in order for me to “make a good wife.” I used to resent this pressure and told anyone who would listen (all three of them) that I would make my husband cook when I was married. Now that I am older and wiser I see that the words of my youth were unduly rash. Why? Well, for one thing, I’ve learned how to cook. And I LOVE it. Seriously: cooking is one of the most fabulous, sexy, empowering activities that I engage in on a regular basis. I think Nigella Lawson was the catalyst for the unleashing of my inner domestic goddess: I once analysed her cookbook for an English class and fell in love somewhere between Coca-Cola Ham and Deep Fried Mars Bars (which, despite sounding absolutely revolting, hold a strange power of fascination over me). Plus, she’s a total hottie. Besides the point: I have now embraced the wonders of domestication – something I thought would be accepted with open arms and empty stomachs by all. But apparently not.

A recent offer to make a sick male friend some soothing ginger cola was met with the reply that he did not want to “domesticate an educated woman” by subjecting me to the indignities of the kitchen. Now, I know that this came from a place of kindness. However, my outer inner proud African woman felt somewhat affronted (inner dialogue: “What, you don’t think I can make it?? My ginger cola-making skills aren’t good enough for you??? What in the hell do you mean by this????” – P.S. I never said my inner proud African woman, despite her wonderfulness, was altogether rational). On the one hand, it was lovely to have a man not want to take advantage of my cooking skills (ahem, African men I attend college with). On the other, I’d never thought that doing something domestic would be somehow be seen as compromising my status as an educated woman. My mother, who holds two degrees, doesn’t play with her skills in the kitchen (and especially her cake – mmmmm, I hope she’s making cakes for Christmas this year so that I can grow fat and merry :)). Both her domestic nature and her intellect work together to make her the wonderful woman that she is – one doesn’t necessarily contradict the other. First of all, cooking isn’t easy – there are plenty of women who can hold their own in a philosophical debate who cannot cook for shit. Anyone who can wield a knife, whisk and chicken breast without causing grievous bodily harm to themselves or others is a real OG. Chuuuuuuch. Secondly, I’m not certain that domestication is such a bad thing. I mean, if a motherfucker can’t cook, how are you going to eat? What if you’re chilling in a warzone in East Africa with your mercenary army, AK-47 in hand, no Chinese takeout spot in sight and just some goats at hand? (I’ve thought this out a little too well…) I mean, don’t get it twisted – this applies to women and men. Even though I will cook for my future husband, he had damn well take some classes at the Culinary Institute and be prepared to get busy with the Magic Mixer. Motherfucker, what if I come home late from work?? What are you gonna do, stare at the cooker in hope? Pause. I’m not with it.

I’m also not sure how I feel about the idea of domestication being an imposable concept. I think that there is plenty of power in being able to cook and clean: just imagine if your mother decided to not cook any more. My mother did something like this once. It was not a good look. Being a position of serving others does not necessarily equate to being subservient, I’m slowly realising. Not only is it an expression of love, like my girl Bimala says, it’s also a way of showing strength. Take it from someone who is making a regular gig of cooking dinner for 10 people just because – that shit takes MIGHT.

All I’m saying is: I don’t believe that my strong African womanhood is depleted by my puff-puff making skills (shout out to the Burundi meatballs) – rather, I believe they enhance it in all of its intellectual, political and slightly crazy glory.

Let me know how you feel in the comments.

P.S. Went back to my girl Jilly from Philly for the title – LOVES this song.

A few weeks ago I was sitting smoking hookah in my room with a male acquaintance. Above my desk, I have photographs of my family, including a solo picture of my mother which, as the topic of family came up in conversation, I showed to him. He took a look and commented, “Wow, she looks like a strong African woman – I see where you get it from.”

Now, any other African woman would probably either not have given this a second thought, or would have taken it as a compliment. I, however, was steaming. Not because I have a problem with being told I resemble my mother – she’s absolutely beautiful – but because I thought I detected beneath the seemingly kind remark the lurking, negative undertone of “scary black girl” which the former term often seems to be a euphemism for.

I realise now that I reacted like a crazy person. But let me explain myself: first of all, in that photograph my mother looks, to quote another friend, like an O.G – but the kind that would have Frank Lucas running scared. In other words, like an intimidating figure – aka, the “scary black girl,” or woman. The moniker “scary black girl” has followed me around since I was nine years old, since when my family moved to England. Being tall, loud-voiced and opinionated hasn’t done much to make me come across as the sensitive, sweet and warm-hearted person that I am deep deep deep down (no, really, I am). But in a world where being an African woman doesn’t exactly endow you with all of the best opportunities the world has to offer, I don’t feel like I have a choice but to be tough. When I moved to England, my younger sister, another Nigerian and I were the only people of colour at my school. Hearing a white girl ask why our skin was the colour of poop, I felt like I had two options: cry, or punch her in the face (metaphorically speaking, of course). I chose the (metaphoric) latter option, and it became my way of dealing with all the adverse situations and general bullshit life has thrown my way. Fuck lemonade, I make kamikazes with my lemons.

So I fully understand why certain people, when they see me making my unsmiling, keffiyeh-ed up way across campus, may want to run in the opposite direction, or peg me as unfriendly or find me unapproachable. Shoot, I probably wouldn’t want to talk to me either sometimes, especially if I haven’t slept. But there’s more to this one image than meets the eye.

I told a male friend of mine about the comment that got me thinking about the phrase “strong African woman” to begin with. As I ranted on in self-righteous fury, he looked at me sideways and asked, “What is it about being called strong that you don’t like?” I paused. “Well,” I responded, “I think it comes with a particular stereotypical connotation when followed by “African woman.” It isn’t a bad thing on its own, but I don’t like people assuming I’m an emasculating, bossy person when they don’t know me.  I feel like that’s what people think of when they say that phrase.” He replied with something that made me stop and think: “I don’t think so. When I hear the words “strong African woman” I think of a person who is strong despite the limitations that come with being a woman and being an African.”

I’d never thought of myself that way. For me, my strong African womanhood was armour, something I used to protect myself from the world. It didn’t occur to me that it could also be a source of vulnerability. In many ways, I was buying into the very “stereotype” that I was offended by – because I believed that being vulnerable was a weakness I couldn’t afford, and one that my African mother hadn’t worked so hard for me to indulge in. My boy was suggesting something totally radical to me: that by letting your guard down, by not always being the tough one or the caretaker, you could still show strength.

Thinking back to my reaction that evening, and about the strong African women I know, his point totally makes sense. My very gangster mother, despite her fierceness, can also be very vulnerable. I’ve watched her sob, totally despondent over the loss of a relative with the kind of helplessness I associate with a small child. I’ve also watched her get herself up, wash her face and go on to make dinner for my father, putting her personal sadness aside for the wellbeing of those she loves. And that right there is the key – it’s the ability to be both “weak” and “strong,” to comfort and to be comforted in turn, that defines this strong African womanhood.

I asked Rational Chaos, and he too associates the phrase “strong African woman” with sacrifice as well as with taking no nonsense. It was interesting, though, because he also suggested that there was an antithesis to this woman, the “submissive African woman” for lack of a better term – one he imagined carrying a water bucket on her head, bowed by the weight of poverty and lack of opportunity. Interesting, because I’d never put the word submissive next to my idea of an African woman. Tradition and condition may require some of us to be poor dutiful wives, but even this requires a great deal of strength – to put aside your personal desires for someone else or for your culture. This is something I admire – and something I probably need to work on as I grow older.

As I type this I’m looking at the photograph of my mother that started this whole discourse. She’s wearing her Gucci shades, a red and silver gele (headtie) with matching wrapper, and striding purposefully forward, her eye catching something to her left. She’s powerful, she’s stunning – yet something about that sideways glance reminds me of the times I’ve seen her otherwise – mocking my niece’s dancing in her nightgown, tired from surgery, stressed out from work. But this image – the strong, beautiful African woman image – is what stays with me. I know I have her smile and her height… only time will tell if I have her strength too.

Thoughts in the comments section please.

P.S. The title is from Raheem DeVaughn’s “Woman” – love this track.

P.P.S. This piece is for two African men: the one who gently reminded me about writing on this blog, and the one who made me see how wonderful it is to be an African woman. I love you guys 🙂