Being Noah Tesfaye #5: Life as an Black Student in Silicon Valley

There aren’t too many of us around here, if I’m going to be honest. We don’t get the opportunity to connect per say, and there is only one other Ethiopian family at my school. I don’t really like to think myself as much of an anomaly as much as someone unique and with a special heritage. But it’s a struggle being Ethiopian. I am not going to deny the frustration of not being able to connect with people like you every single day.

The first thing that I want to make clear is that it frustrates me to be African because people feel comfortable saying negative things about black Americans. For example, many students will make the stupid jokes about how athletic black people are, and not only are being racially insensitive, but often do it to provoke a laugh out of me. However, those moments destroy me because people behave as though I am not black. “Oh, you’re not black. You’re Ethiopian.” While I like to think of myself of as Ethiopian, I am African American. All your statements about black people, no matter how related I may be to those comments, affect those of us of African descent too.

I don’t often spend too much time thinking about these thoughts, mainly because I struggle to decide how I should approach people who differentiate me. The same way a black person would be so offended by being called stupid and uneducated is the same way I feel if someone assumes my people are starving and my family lives in a hut back home, which some do. It also frustrates me that everything I do seems to be even more impressive because I am black. People are more shocked at the course load I put onto myself. They are shocked I did a summer program at Columbia not just because it may be hard to go to, but because of the preconceptions they have of black people, whether they mean it or not.

I often suffer from the complete opposite experience that many of my good Asian friends deal with. Where they are assumed that they are tremendous students and great at math, I fall under the stereotype of not being the smartest student and less sophisticated. Sure, at times, I wish I could not be as preconceived as smart, but thanks to the environment I go to school, I can be accepted for the skills I have and they judge me based on my efforts, not my skin color. In many ways, that’s why I appreciate being a black student in Silicon Valley. Most people are very open and friendly to all races and it allows for there to be a synergy that doesn’t exist in many places of the country.

But where there exists acceptance, there exists prejudice. Especially here in Silicon Valley, there appears to be such a hidden prejudice that does not appear to be noticeable for many people. I hate it every time I go to the downtown that I have to get so many looks everywhere I walk. I hate it when people stare at me when I work in a coffee shop. No matter where I go in this area, these looks don’t go away. In many ways, I want to tell everyone I see that I am no different from them. I’ve lived in the Bay Area my whole life. I’ve seen the things you’ve seen. I’ve worked as hard in school as anyone else. But no matter what I could say, my fear is that the prejudice will only continue to grow.

Sometimes I think about what it would be white. I don’t think any non-white person hasn’t thought about the feeling of living without prejudice and without fear of not being accepted for who I am. But I stop myself every single time. I could dwell on how my life could be better. I dwell every single day. I think about how much I could feel less of a burden being myself every single day. But being Ethiopian, being African American is who I am. There are things that are not great about being black and those are just some of the unfortunate cases that we all have to deal with.

But being black is the greatest thing in the world. I would never change my skin color or my race for anything. Everyday, I get the opportunity to learn more about the culture that I am a part of and have acclimated towards. I just read Between the World and Me (I know I’m super late to the party), and I was able to read about someone who feels the same way I do on an even greater scale than I could have ever imagined. I have learned about the true consequences of slavery, the Italian invasion into Ethiopia, and the prison industrial complex. All of these moments have had some effect on me, whether I know it or not, and it is my job to learn how I can become the black person I can be. No peer, teacher, nor parent can ever deter me from this journey of discovery.

For the majority of my life, I always spent time about how other people viewed me. How people thought of my academic progress, my volunteer work, my choice of music, and most importantly, my heritage. But I came to the realization that I honestly don’t care. I don’t care what anyone thinks about me because I am confident in my ability to exist as me. If you appreciate me for who I am, then thank you. If you don’t like me for whatever reason, then thank you. Your thoughts about me frankly don’t matter. I began to accept advice, but I never make decisions anymore unless I genuinely believe it is the best for my success and my happiness.

Being black in Silicon Valley is a relatively unique experience, but I am nowhere near the only person who feels the way I do. To my peers who are judged for the way you look, the way you play your music, the way you carry yourself, you should not care. Let people judge you because you have the power to change your life. Their prejudice will only hurt them. Let our self-expression and pride be the opportunity to succeed and work as hard as we can to prove to ourselves we can exist here. We are carving our place in this area, and we are not going away.