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i didn’t know i was black until i immigrated

When you’re born and raised in a West African country, racism is more of a concept than it is a concern. There’s no such thing as being an “ethnic minority”. At the same time however, there are minorities so tribalism is alive and well.

Ijeoma Umebinyuo penned the whole thing down incomparably in her anthology Questions for Ada. The poem Diaspora Blues says: So, here you are, too foreign for home, too foreign for here. Never enough for both.

Stumbling upon this poem was the first time I felt seen. Being born and raised in Lagos but having the ancestral heritage of a smaller, lesser known tribe exposed me to tribalism from an early age.

It was being scolded to learn Yoruba and my eight year old self trying to comprehend why. It was being mansplained that all Niger Delta tribes are essentially Igbo. It was being looked down on by teachers in the classroom. It was being urged on many occasions that I was pronouncing my name wrongly or that I was supposed to say Motunrayo.

Of course Lagos is the more open-minded and liberal state in comparison to all thirty-six in Nigeria. I’ll pick Lagos over and over again. But these things happen albeit subconsciously. It would be inappropriate to assume that it didn’t.

October 1st celebrations attempt to embody the way forward. Schools encourage students to wear their pre-colonial traditional attire and show-and-tell their native food. On days like this, you find that classrooms in Lagos are incredibly diverse. And that unfortunately, ignorance makes no room for common sense. You find that the parents of minorities put in more effort for their kids than the norm – for the sake of educating their peers.

However, proving the existence of your culture in your own country gets exhausting. And finding out how many tribes exist in the country on Google – and not in textbooks – is shameful.

My take is that we can curb tribalism with two things. One is to, with a sense of pride, give an ongoing in-depth education to one another about who we really are as a nation (and as a continent). And secondly, to treat all tribes with an equal amount of attention and reverence.  Otherwise, a sure thing to continue happening is us wiping traces of ourselves away.

I spent my whole life reiterating what I was in terms of my state of origin, local government area, tribe and mother tongue. It wasn’t until filling forms when I lived in the UK for sixth form and in South Africa for university that I was faced with a new view of identity: my race.

I mean I was obviously aware that I was to put an x next to “black” or “of African descent”. But until then, I never had to identify myself as either of those. It made me wonder if the point of filling that section of those forms was to dictate what the person receiving the form categorised me as. As opposed to what I identified myself to be.

Culturally speaking, being black in the UK is not the same as being Black in South Africa. The same way being “coloured” in the US is not the same as being Coloured in South Africa. Even on a global scale. In some places, your blackness carries the weight of a culture. So if you’re not of that culture, are you still black?

I found that in South Africa, I wasn’t necessarily black as much as I was a “foreigner” or “an international” seeing as I was neither Xhosa nor Zulu nor Tsonga etc. I guess the same thing applies to being black in the US. Which is why Anna Wintour referring to Naomi Campbell as African-American caused a row on social media. So basically, your skin colour doesn’t automatically define your blackness in certain places because there, black is a cultural heritage.

However, in some other countries, your blackness is about your skin colour and not your cultural heritage. Like in Turkey. So on the basis of my skin tone, while working there, I am black. Or dare I say, categorised so. Unfortunately, it was there that I experienced for myself that racism doesn’t care about your cultural heritage. That it just looks at you and reacts blindly.

I had just left my place of work in the middle of the city centre and was heading for the subway. It was a very busy street crowded with tons of people. Then out of the blue, three police officers stopped me aggressively and asked for my “papers” and if I had any.

At first I thought they were doing that catcalling thing guys do because of how invasive their glares towards me were. But it wasn’t. One of them exclaimed “this is Turkey” in a haughty tone as I gave them my ID. When I say the street was busy I mean claustrophobic-busy. It was more annoying than scary because it was blatant racial profiling.

Such an experience was new to me. As was explaining what happened to some friends and watching them react as though I told them I had McDonalds for lunch. Like it was normal. Dealing with the reaction I got from them was also new.

The two reactions that stood out were by my caucasian British friend who also lived in Turkey and my then Turkish boyfriend. I gave neither of them any context and simply said that as I was coming back from work, I got racially profiled by the police.

Before asking for the details of what happened, The Brit gave a remark hinting at being disappointed but not surprised while the boyfriend said “I hate that this happens but we’ll face it together”. Fullstop. And after explaining what happened, neither of them asked anything further like “why you?” or “were you drawing attention to yourself?” I just told them what happened and they took it with no further questions.

I wondered how racism could be normal to them if they didn’t get to experience it. They understood that it was racism. They understood that it happened because I’m black. They didn’t ask me questions they’d ask their siblings or cousins like “what part of town was it?” or “were you around dodgy people?” They knew that it happened because I’m black.

Meanwhile, I was shocked! I couldn’t fathom why out of everyone walking by, I was the one assumed to be walking around illegally. That such judgement was made on the basis of my skin colour. That the latter sentence was only shocking to me. I even had to Google what racial profiling meant in case I was overreacting. Things like this further suggest that the idea of travelling to enjoy other cultures is a system set up to only accommodate certain people.

Just like that, information on my state of origin, local government area, tribe and mother tongue was seemingly irrelevant. My race and nationality was enough. No, a glance in my direction was enough. Enough for onlookers to assume that they knew about me.

Nothing really prepares you for how traumatic your first exposure to racism and ignorance is. Not Frantz Fanon books. Not viral videos. Not movies. Not the news. Not other people’s stories. Nothing. It’s really scary. It’s scary that racism doesn’t care about your culture, heritage or how you identify yourself. That a glance at you is enough.

This is why it’s so important to hold onto a strong cultural identity no matter what that looks like. Because in order to be seen, we have to see ourselves first. In order to be heard, we have to speak to ourselves first. Owning our language, accent and vocabulary doesn’t just give us a sense of belonging or pride but pushes against that hostile subconscious saying we should be ashamed of it.

Who we are and who we choose to be can only be erased if we let them.  On immigration, I think that it is possible to assimilate a new way of life without losing yourself. I also believe that holding unto a strong cultural identity is the most important tool needed to navigate first-generation immigration experiences such as racism. Otherwise if racism holds a propaganda up to your face and tells you it’s a mirror, you’ll believe it.

mutuayo “emi” ideozu is a writer who currently lives in Turkey. She attended Sixth Form at Gordonstoun School where she received a merit award for her contribution to International and Spiritual Citizenship. While studying at Nelson Mandela University, she was the online editor of the student newspaper MadibazNews. You can connect with her on instagram

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