During freshman year, my friends and I would often sit on the cold floor of a cramped dorm, scarf down some Domino’s cheese pizza, and talk endlessly about our identities. I always possessed a somewhat textbook definition of what my identity was. It wasn’t until recently that I finally learned to accept all of its messy details and blurry lines.
I was born in Nairobi, Kenya after my mother had fled Somalia to escape a civil war with a death toll that seemed destined never to stop climbing. After four years in Kenya and three kids later, my mother migrated to the United States and settled into the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Bloomington and all of the sparkling lakes and vibrant parks became my home for the past 15 years.
Growing up was tough; I was a bright–eyed African immigrant growing up on Somali culture and Muslim values. I waged a long and fruitless war with these identities, consistently declaring battles within myself and my family. I rejected my mother’s homemade “canjeero” when I was a child and tried to separate from my religion as a teenager. These battles were all useless attempts to fit into a definition of “American” that I had constructed in my head, and the casualties were always the real pieces of myself.
Of course, I fought off all of the guilt and sadness that stemmed from my desperate attempts to live authentically like everyone else by reminding myself that I am “an American now.” That’s the box I fit in. It wasn’t until I went to South Africa where I’d finally flip the page.
All it took was a single honest conversation with my host mother for me to put my weapons and armor to rest.
She asked me where I was from, and I responded, as I always have, that I was from Minnesota. She looked at me with confusion. “You’re African,” she insisted, and I gave her the same look of confusion back. I half–heartedly asserted, “well, yeah, technically, but like my family moved from Nairobi when I was really little so like not really.” This simple statement had us delve into a conversation on why I believed it wasn’t okay to be both.
Why can’t I be African and American? This short discussion triggered a ceasefire within me. I finally stopped the fighting and realized the truth: I don’t have to erase a part of my identity to accept another piece. And truthfully, I was tired of pretending my mother’s canjeero wasn’t hands down the best thing I’ve ever tasted. I left South Africa with a peace treaty in hand. I came to the conclusion that I had been slowly accepting, but needed to hear: I am African. I am also American. Those are both significant parts of my identity. But over the years I’ve realized that was never a good enough answer for anyone.
People like to put other people into boxes. I did it to myself until I finally understood that besides what country you are from, there is no definition of what an American is or what an African is. All stereotypes are detrimental. They push people to question themselves if they don’t fit into some fictitious box.
When my friends and I were breaking down the many parts of our racial identities last year, I sat on the floor, devouring the last slice of Domino’s cheese pizza wrapped up in my favorite white blanket, with a smile on my face. For once I was finally confident of my own.
I am African, and I am also American. That was my identity. I had taken a while (arguably too long) to conclude that, but I now understood. So, when they turned to me after discussing their own identities and asked, “do you identify more as black or white?” I had never been more confused.
I sat there in shock, questioning the very nature of their comment. I quickly decided it was a joke to avoid a tough conversation. Then they told me it was because I “talk white,” “act white,” and grew up in what they presumed was a completely white suburb. Those statements that I heard in my aftershock are what stuck.
I understand far too well that I don’t fit into anyone’s definition of an African immigrant. I also understand that I don’t fit into anyone’s stereotype of an African–American. I don’t speak in African–American Vernacular English (AAVE), I have only tried soul food a couple of times, and I don’t really feel comfortable using the N–word. With all that said, my lack of connection with the African–American community does not, in any way, shape or form, make me white.
When I returned home to Bloomington this summer, I’d often be aimlessly driving around the city with my friends and remember that night freshman year. That singular comment, and the reasonings that followed, never left my mind. Sure, I made a joke of it at the time and moved on quickly, but I now understand that was wrong.
This one conversation showcases an issue that runs deep in this country: the stereotypes we have for every race, and what we do when someone doesn’t fit it.
Allow me to clarify: I’m not white — not even a small bit. I’m happily East African and Minnesotan. I grew up on trips to Lake Nokomis, followed by a 15–minute drive with my family to one of many Somali malls in Minneapolis to get halal meat and some new hijabs. I love going to Caribou Coffee and the Mall of America with my best friend as she checks out the Crocs store and Lululemon. I also love coming home to crush up some cardamom and get a kettle of water boiling to make black tea for my mother and me.
I don’t sound white; I sound as though I came to this country at four years old, only knowing how to communicate in Somali. I sound as though I started ESL classes as soon as I walked into Kindergarten.
By insinuating that because my neighbors are white, own two dogs and pickup trucks, I am somehow now white erases the identity I endured an all–out war to accept. It erases the years I grew up in Minnesota, where the largest Somali population in the United States resides. It erases the entirety of the first four years of my life. Quite frankly, it erases my mother risking her life numerous times in Somalia so that I could grow up at all.
I am not a petulant child who needs to learn to take a joke when you try to erase my identity. I am merely asking to be seen as myself, and not as who my neighbors are.
I sometimes think of what I would say if I could go back. Not only back to the floor of my friend’s freshman dorm, but also to every time someone stated I “acted white” or I was “an oreo.” Retrospectively, I realize it was never really about the statements themselves but rather what they implied. To be completely blunt, Every one of those statements used the words “white” and “good” synonymously.
So if I could go back, I wouldn’t freeze up and avoid an awkward conversation. Instead, I’d first ask why they associate good traits, such as when I speak grammatically correct, with whiteness and bad traits with blackness. I’d ask questions endlessly, pulling on every possible thread trying to comprehend why they questioned my blackness.
What does white mean? In what way would I not be black? Is race something you hear then, and not something you see? Because I thought that I was black because I looked black. I’d ask for their understanding of race, and how they can make sense of associating me with whiteness when I am not. Finally, who even gave you the right to group people into broad categories such as race and then make judgments about them?
What they would imagine a “black” person to sound like is repeating stereotypes. A black person who speaks with slang or AAVE is a black person. A black person who speaks with academic level grammar is still a black person. A black person who can switch between both is still a black person.
To reduce or erase that because of some trait is erasing their identity and their struggles. It disregards the racism I deal with every day. I am labeled as a black person in America and get treated as such. Maybe if I benefited from whiteness, I would identify with it. But no part of me knows what it is like to be white in America.
We as a society need to get comfortable with the idea that regardless of race, people can talk and act differently, and that will never make them white or another race. There is no conceivable way someone black is white because of a non–visual thing. By saying that I am white, what one suggests is that I would be treated as a white person and gain from that privilege because of something as minuscule as the sound of my voice.
Truthfully, the most ridiculous part of all of this, within all of the attempts of identity erasure, internalized racism, and microaggressions, is the fact that I have to write this.
In reality, all the “I should haves” are irrelevant. The only thing I should have said to any person who has ever tried to fit me into any box or stereotype is to take a Sociology or Africana Studies class. Take any course that deals with critical race theory at all. Read a book about it even. We have access to an elite education with a plethora of resources available to us, so I should not have to explain this. You need to redefine your definition of race, and what it truly means to be a part of a racial group. Until then, all your statements are meaningless.
Although your racial and ethnic background can connect you to an entire community, the perspective of race as a defining feature and a way to categorize someone is boring. It’s gotten old, and I’m tired of defending my identity. Your microaggressions are not bullets that will start a war within me. That war has ended, and your gun isn’t even loaded.