What “Being Black” means to 4 Nigerian High School Students.
Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, I was shielded from the nightmare that is racism.
I finished high school at an international school where expat kids roamed around boldly, minorities in our over populated city, not caring about how pale their skin looked next to ours or how their accents stood out in the sea of our voices. The expat kids might as well been Nigerian — they fit so easily with our culture.
In Nigeria, I was never called a Nigger, monkey, slave, baboon or an African booty scratcher. Here, I was safe. Racism was just a faraway concept that existed only in America.
Fast forward to 2008, I was off to college in Long Island, New York. A predominantly white college in a predominantly white area of Long Island. It was at college that I became exposed to not only racism, but also a high level of ignorance about everything Africa/African related.
But even with my 6 years at said college, plus an additional year working in a predominantly white tech company, I was never called a racial slur.
I did experience racism, once, during my sophomore year, at my on-campus job. At the time of the incidence, I was the only the only International student working in that office. I was also the only African, brown skinned student employee in that department.
Here’s what happened: I was in the office with Stephanie* and Claire*, eating a slice of pizza. One miscalculated hand to mouth move and my delicious, pepperoni slice landed, face first, on the carpeted floor. “Shit,” I said assessing the damage and looking for a napkin to clean up the mess. Stephanie who saw what happened laughed and said “Oh just pick it up from the floor and eat it, Koro. You’re from Africa.” She laughed and Claire joined in, both of them oblivious to my shock and silence.
The pizza slice debacle was my solitary experience with racism. Maybe I got lucky.
Maybe I dodged the racism bullet or maybe the bullet is still waiting to shoot me in the head. I don’t know.
Currently, I am back in Lagos, teaching high school English at my Alma Mater. I primarily teach Year 8 (avert age: 22) and Year 9 students; a huge percentage of these students are Nigerian by birth but they might as well be American by culture adoption. These students listen to American music, they spend theor holidays traveling around the world, they own iPhones, iPads and expensive, designer clothing. They are well aware, albeit from a distance, of the injustice and racism occurring in America. But even though they’re still very much sheltered from the painful sting of racism in Lagos, they know that when they visit America, they’re just another “black” kid on the street. They’re aware of the potential danger that comes with being Black/African/dark skinned or brown skinned.
A few lessons ago, my Year 9 group started studying Half Caste, a poem by John Agard. In a bid to push them to think outside the box, I asked them to write an essay based on the poem. The topic? “What are the effects of Being Black?”
I don’t know what I was expecting from them. My Year 9 group has a mix of surly, sarcastic, quiet, autistic, aggressive, apathetic, and loud-mouthed students. I was expecting some students to get the work done. I was expecting late submissions. I was expecting grammar and punctuation errors. But I was not expecting to be blown away by some of the responses I read. I underestimated their knowledge. I thought them to be spoiled, naive and deliberately ignorant and they proved me wrong.
Four different essays stood out to me, and with the students’ permission, I have shared my favorite excerpts from these essays below:
Being Black? What happens when you’re black? Well, you can be treated differently — teachers could be racist [to you]. But now, Being Black is good; it’s trendy. White people want to be like us now.
— Ibiyinka Folayan
Being black has advantages and disadvantages. Being Black is a mix of happiness and sadness. Today, there is still a lot of racism, but in-spite of it, black people are still willing to excel. In spite of a lot of challenges black people face, I still believe we can push forward.
— Al-Amin Musa
Most Black Boys are considered to be older and less innocent looking than white children. Black Boys are always assumed to be thugs. Even for most crimes involving rape, black men have to take a plea-deal because the Jury can never believe that a black man did not commit such a crime, just because of the color of their skin. In general, black people are more disciplined than white people. The ironic truth is that after all the racism, slavery, injustice and inequality — White people still envy us. They envy our hair, our skin, our lifestyle. They still envy us.
— Ejiro Orogun
There are advantages and disadvantages to Being Black. A disadvantage is being dark skinned and your white friends teasing you about your skin tone. There are advantages like: we don’t get sunburned, our hair is different from white people, and also, Black people follow their culture. White people don’t really have a culture.