Who Decides? Race, Skin Color, Ethnicity – Part II

book cover

Chimanandu Ngozi Adiche, Nigerian born writer and activist uses Ifemelu a character in her book Americanah to talk about race. She writes, ” I became black when I came to America.” This character tells about her experience as an African National in America and how her race consciousness was developed. I suppose growing up in Nigeria this character never had to think about the color of her skin, but coming to America her blackness, her race was ever present.

This is the same thing that Abdou said to me as he told me the story of coming to the US in the 1970’s. He was born in Senegal and he never had to think about the color of his skin. This changed  when he came to the US to go to college in Louisanna. There he learned how the color of your skin sets you apart from others. Abdou was taught this by way of a painful lesson. He ran track for the university and liked to run everyday through the same neighborhoods that his white team mates often ran through. As he ran he was attacked by a dog and while he was being attacked people in the neighborhood stood around and watched. No one came to his aid. As a matter of fact, some of them pointed and snickered. He made it back to the university, got treatment and was scolded by his coach. His coach told him that he should have known that because he was black that he could not run in that neighborhood. How could he have known? No one had ever explained.

Abdou’s real life lived experience, the reality Adiche’s puts in the mouth of her character is the experience of many who grow up in Africa and come to the US. Until they are here there is no consciousness about the color of their skin. This experience is a much different experience then being born a descendent of Africans on US soil. For those of us born in the US— very early on in our lives—race, the color of our skin is an ever present reality.

I do not remember a time when skin color was not a topic of conversation in my growing up. Whether we were playing sidewalk games and reciting “if you’re brown stay around, if you’re black get back.” We learned to judge each other according to skin color. Our folklore, our history, our stories are full of this. Everyone growing up “black” in the US knows about the paper bag test. If your skin tone was the shade of a paper bag or lighter you were offered access to clubs, and institutions that your darker cousins could not gain access. Whether I was at work where my slightly darker hue set me apart from my co-workers, or standing with my friends where my lighter skin was noticed, I have always been conscious of race and skin color and thus my place in the scheme of things.

                                                                                                                        Bag test

” They tell us race,” Adiche writes as Ifemulu, “is an invention, that there is more genetic variation between two black people than there is between a black person and a white person.”  I wonder is this really true. I have read scholars who say that race is a social construct. If race is simply a social construct then why can’t we deconstruct it? How do we overcome some of its affects? Besides that, how should we define who is related to whom? And who is Black?

Throughout history the answer to the question, “Who is black? varies depending on where you are in the world. In the United States of America, it is clearly defined. There is what is called, “the one-drop rule.”  According to F. James Davis in his book, Who Is Black? One Nation’s Definition, “. . .  a black is any person with any known African black ancestry or. . . a single drop of “black blood” makes a person a black.”  As time has passed all who are born and raised in the United States have come to accept this. Broadly this is a concept that has been internalized through socialization. Whites and Blacks alike adhere to this concept.

So what does this mean as we move around the world? As we become a more global community? As people of all hues and shades visit the shores of the US?

Let’s keep talking. As always, I am westafricabound.

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