I’ve recently been writing about my experiences in Africa and India during my seven month stint abroad in 2013-14. My writing over the last few weeks has focused on my experience of realizing that I was white. It’s not that I didn’t know my own skin color, in the technical sense, but it didn’t matter to me, and because it didn’t matter, my whiteness was irrelevant and hence unrealized.
While volunteering in Tanzania, I quickly learned to become aware of the color of my skin, or more to the point, I learned that I couldn’t escape the color of my skin. My skin color was economic, my whiteness meant something: I either had money or else I had access to money. My whiteness defined the nature of my experiences with other people and shaped my whole being.
I wasn’t prepared for this — not at all. My experience of being white became far more important and definitive than who I was as a person.
My subjectivity didn’t matter so much as the objective fact that I was white. Consequently, I would feel myself losing touch with who I was, pulled away from just being me, absorbed into a way of thinking about myself that almost always came back to being white. And it was in this way that I realized, for the first time, that I was white.
So what if you weren’t black in your country? You’re in America now.
In writing about skin color and my experience of my whiteness while living abroad, I was reminded of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s excellent novel Americanah. I am in no way suggesting that my experiences of being “white” in Africa are the same as being “black” in America. They aren’t. My only point of making the comparison is to simply illustrate what I experienced, which is that a) being defined by skin color is a fiction, an artificial classification but that b) these fictions have consequences that are very, very real. The idea of race is made up, it’s a complete and absolute fiction, but it is nonetheless definitive and all-encompassing.
The main protagonist in Adichie’s novel is a young Nigerian woman who comes to the United States and discovers that in America, she is black. So, she blogs about it in a post entitled “To My Fellow Non-American Blacks, in America, You are Black, Baby.”
“Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care. So what if you weren’t black in your country? You’re in America now. We all have our moments of initiation into the society of former negroes. Mine was in a class in undergrad, when I was asked to give the black perspective, only I had no idea what that was. So I just made something up.”
I remember when I first came to the U.S., I really didn’t consciously think of myself as black because I didn’t have to.
Adichie’s character reflects her own life, as a Nigerian navigating race in America. In an NPR interview with Terry Gross, Adichie talks more about her own personal experiences of coming to America and learning what it means to be black in America:
“I remember when I first came to the U.S., I really didn’t consciously think of myself as black because I didn’t have to. I thought of myself as Igbo, which is my ethnicity. And then in the U.S., there’s a moment when I had just arrived, and I was in Brooklyn, and this African-American man called me sister.
“And I remember reacting almost viscerally and thinking no, I am not your sister. And then I think also at the time I had very quickly absorbed all the negative stereotypes of blackness in America, and so I didn’t want to associate myself with that. And I also remember in undergrad, when a professor of mine came into class and said who is Adichie because this person called Adichie..had written the best essay in class.
“And I remember raising my hand, and for a fleeting moment, there was surprise on his face. And I realized that the person who wrote the best essay wasn’t supposed to look like me….”
Interview excerpts from NPR