Saturday, July 20, 2019

My Skin Is Black: On Africans and Black People from the US, Britain, and Elsewhere

Jay Z lyrics are from The Story of OJ (4:44, July 2017). The background picture is from Beyoncé and Jay Z's On The Run II tour in Paris.
A few weeks ago, someone came to our flat to fix a toilet leak. While kneeling by the toilet to diagnose the leak, he looked up at me and asked twice "are you sure nobody has been standing on the toilet seat?". I thought it was funny and laughed it off both times. "Of course nobody has been standing on the toilet seat".

Shortly after he left, I started to think that was a weird question. Then I realized it may have been racist. After all, he likely wouldn't ask a white family if they had been standing on their toilet seat. I told Busola about it later that evening and we discussed how slow I had been to recognize his racism. I also told a few friends who had moved to Europe over the past few years, and they were like "oh that was racist. Mschew*. Next time respond like this..."

Then I told a Black British acquaintance, and he was livid! He got so pissed and went on about how it was really bad behavior. I was intrigued by his response, so I told another Black British acquaintance. The second response was even more volatile. He took his annoyance one step further by getting upset with me for not detecting the racism and calling it out.


I started reading Reni Eddo-Lodge's Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People about Race last night, and it got me thinking again about the many different black experiences that exist.

My friend, Michael Adesanya, posted on Facebook in 2017 about how his son has often had to play alone because he's black. He was just over 1 year old, but he was already facing real-life consequences of his skin color. I on the other hand, did not fully realize I was black till I was 26. I grew up in Nigeria, the world's most populous black country and with a 99% black population. I was immersed in blackness. Black authors, teachers, scholars, politicians, and businessmen were my norm. I did not see a white person in the flesh till I was 9, and did not interact with white people physically till I was 20.

People were sometimes nasty and mean to me in Nigeria for various reasons - none of which was that I was black. (There were incidences driven by tribalism, but tribalism is different from racism).


In The Story of OJ (my favorite song from Jay Z's 4:44) Nina Simone's voice rings out "skin black, my skin is black" repeatedly. While I am as black-skinned as any African American or Black Brit, we're otherwise very different. Reni writes about "...those of us who have been visibly marked out as different for our entire lives, and live the consequences". That is something I try very hard to understand, but that I don't think I will ever fully relate to.

A racist white person might see me and a Black Brit as one and the same, but while I am encountering racist behavior for the first time as a self-confident adult, the Black Brit has lived this reality since their childhood. I have experienced the world very differently from someone who has been marked out and reminded of their otherness since they were little. It is therefore not inconceivable that we might detect and respond to racism differently.

Now, while I don't fully understand their experience - I have benefitted from the battles they have fought. I can travel around today without suffering overtly racist behavior because many generations of black people outside Africa stood up (literally) and fought for equality. I am grateful for their sacrifice and I do not take it for granted.

Reni's book is just what I needed to continue my education about the many different types of blackness. I have tried a few times to write about discovering my blackness as an adult, but I struggled to articulate my thoughts and eventually stuck the post in my drafts. I continue to think about it, and I will get around to finishing it someday.

I'm glad I picked up Reni's book, and while I am only a few pages in - I fully recommend it already.

Here is to a world where we are all judged by character and competence, and not by the color of our skins.

Cheers to the weekend!

PS: *Mschew is a sound Yoruba people (and possibly other Nigerians and Africans) make when we hiss through our teeth after hearing something ridiculous.

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