“I was taught to be a Ni**a”
As an immigrant living in the United States I developed quite a unique perspective in viewing American culture — specifically African American culture — from the outside in. Since migrating to the US from my native Kenya about five years ago, I have been dealing with an internal conflict in adapting and conforming to African American culture. Although, I am entirely from a different side of the globe, in America, I classify as ‘black’, and though I appear ‘the same’ in appearance to the African American, my outlook and perspective tend to be drastically different.
That said, I have seen Africans come to the United States and completely conform to black culture; adopting their fashion, language, manners, and demeanor. Though truly, who can blame them? African American culture is often broadcasted as fashionable and ‘cool’ throughout world media whilst African culture tends to have many tainted and negative connotations (i.e. we are often portrayed as primitive and poor). I have seen some Africans go as far as hiding the truth of their birthplace, identifying as African American before they admit to being Africans. For many of them, assimilating in this fashion numbs the fear of being outcaste as ‘African’, or ‘poor’, or ‘primitive’ (and all other stereotypes that victimize African culture) — they are simply trying to ‘fit in’.
Unsurprisingly, with the conformity to African American culture, comes the adoption of the norms, habits and thought-practices of black Americans. And this transition has proved difficult in my experience. During my early years in America, as I began to be around more African Americans, I noticed the aspects of their culture that made them so attractive, aspects such as music (hip-hop and rap culture) or fashion (Jordan shoes and basketball sneakers) and dance (like the ‘whip’ and the ‘Nae Nae’ and all other dances that were created by black Americans and went globally viral). These aspects seem like hallmarks of black culture in America and they have greatly influenced me to this day. But at the same time, I also found aspects of African American culture that were greatly displeasing and unattractive; manners and tendencies that estranged me.
One such trait that I have found common to African Americans is their tendency to actualize racism; to see themselves as ‘black’ and therefore adopt a paradigm of being oppressed. I will not pretend that blacks in America are not victims of racism, I have experienced it first-hand. Blacks are oppressed institutionally and socially and have every right to advocate for changes in the way they are treated in this country. I am also aware of America’s dark past relative to the pillaging and destruction of black lives.
However, in seeing African Americans from an outside perspective, I notice how the oppression of their people has greatly affected their outlook and mentality. It seems that, through the struggle for equality, they have been indoctrinated with a subconscious perception of their race’s inferiority and inadequacy.
The other day I bought a laptop from a store I will not name. The salesman who sold me the computer did an exceptional job, one that warranted good feedback. I jokingly told the salesman that I would give his manager such great feedback that he would be due for a promotion. To this he chuckled briefly and said that he was unlikely to be promoted; when I questioned why, he bluntly told me “nah, they don’t wanna promote niggas here…”
Another similar instance I recall more recently was when a group of friends and I visited a rather upscale restaurant in the city. As we walked in one of my friends half-jokingly said, “I don’t think they like having niggas in here…”
I’m left to think how… how does one live with such a tainted and jaded perspective that continually reflects racism? Imagine how detrimental this kind of thinking can be.
There’s sour taste in my mouth every time I recall these incidents and many others like them — times when black Americans have seemingly victimized themselves in perceiving that their circumstance is solely a result of racism. When I recall these moments, I ponder how the African American struggle against oppression seems to have caused a subsequent adoption of an “oppressed” mindset; a development of habits and thought-patterns that are reflective of a pillaged past and the continual struggle for equality in America. It is a mindset that I have learnt and been a victim to as a black immigrant in the United States.
It is this mindset that changed my perceptions of race since coming to the US. It is this mindset that has taught me, more than ever, that color lines exist and that black is different from white. Through this mindset I have learnt to notice when I am the only black person in the room; I have learnt to justify my shortcomings with the excuse that “it’s probably because I’m black”; and I have been constrained by beliefs that tell me “niggaz don’t read” and “niggaz ain’t smart”. It is this mindset that continues to damage my perception of myself and my perceptions of the black race. It is this mindset that I have tried most vigilantly to free myself from.
Expectedly, it has been very difficult to detach myself from these habitual thoughts of oppression, but I have started by taking responsibility for my perceptions of racism, and proactively departing from seeing my color as an excuse. I no longer use the phrase “it’s probably because I’m black…” nor do I slander myself and other blacks with phrases like “…we’re black, they don’t care about us”.
In consciously making this paradigm shift, I have noticed that if we, as black America, intend to make ‘Black Lives Matter’ (as the campaign states), then black lives must first matter most to us; we must first change our perceptions of ‘black people’. Though we may continue to be oppressed we cannot continue to oppress ourselves with self-limiting beliefs that the world is infinitely racist towards us. We must consciously refuse the common tendency to point fingers and blame the ‘white man’. Truly, we, as blacks of America, will continue to be subjects of racism and prejudice in our lifetimes, that is out of our control; but what we can control is our perceptions of each other and our responses to our circumstance — no matter how oppressive.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said “no one can hurt me without my consent…”
No one can oppress me, nor afflict me with thoughts of my own inferiority unless I allow them to.
Gandhi, a man who lived in the most trying times of prejudice against his race, also said “They cannot take away our self-respect if we do not give it to them. It is our willing permission, our consent to what happens to us, that hurts us far more than what happens to us in the first place.”
This was very difficult to accept emotionally, especially because I, as a black person in America, have grown so accustomed to the habitual practice of blame and victimism; I have learnt to see myself as black and therefore a victim of racism; learnt to explain my misery as a result of circumstance and someone else’s (white people’s) behavior.
However, in changing my mentality and outlook, I’ve come to realize that instead of being at the mercy of my environment and at the mercy of my own perceptions of racism and oppression, I can take initiative to reform my paradigm of thought and choose to no longer be a victim; I can liberate myself. Once I take responsibility for my own paradigms of oppression and perceptions of black inferiority, only then can I consciously choose to see myself, not as a victim, not as ‘black’, not as a ‘nigga’, but rather as a person of this earth, equal and deserving of thoughts free from subjugation and racism. It is only then that I will have the mental freedom to fully experience and appreciate the world I live in.