Man at Starbucks: Are you from Eritrea?
Man: Are you sure?
Me: Yes I’m from here.
Man: But you look like you’re from Eritrea.
Me: No I’m not. My father is from East Africa.
Me: sigh . . . Maybe I should have just said yes.
Man at Starbucks: Are you from Eritrea?
I recently discovered that my extended family survived the Rwandan genocide. We assumed they were all massacred in the brutal killing of 1994, but it seems that a surprising 60% of them are still alive.
A few weeks ago my father connected with a Rwandan man who was in Indianapolis for a conference. The man took it upon himself to find my father’s long lost family, and find them he did.
My father was brought to America at a young age by his mother and father along with his two brothers. They were all the family he knew. But with this recent discovery, we learned there are more of his family in Rwanda and even in Belgium. You can imagine my shock to realize I’d been living in England for five months back in 2015, so close to our family yet without realizing it. This revealing knowledge has made me want to return to Europe all the more and meet these cousins I have, even great aunts and uncles that all speak French. This is somehow confirming my life long interest in French language and Africa as a whole. I can’t help but wonder if God has a plan for my life that involves international development.
I hope so.
I sat on my bed last night munching pretzels and chocolate chips staring blankly at a photo of my great aunt who resembles my Grandmother. My Dad had posted it on our icloud family sharing. Her sons look like my father and their children, I suppose my third cousins, look somewhat like me. Couleur Metisse is what the French call it. Light colored skin. Not black, not white, but a confusing mixture of both. Oh how I long to meet these unknown family members and discover what life is like for them in Belgium. I suppose I should brush up on my French.
After a lengthy blog post on how I’m done exploring my racial identity, the subject has reemerged.
The plight of a biracial individual.
It began with me waking up at 5:00 AM in a South Korean hostel. My friend and I were catching a bus to the Incheon airport for a flight back to the States. Five days in Korea left me ready to go home. One can only use chopsticks for so long before their hands cramp up and the urge to shovel the food down overtakes them.
Side note, I love Korean food, however, my stomach didn’t always agree with my mouth.
I stepped over my suitcase, neatly packed the night before, and headed for the shower. Water covered the entire bathroom, fogging up the mirror, and draining into the floor. Asian bathrooms are oddly designed, no shower curtains, just a corner of the bathroom where the spout comes out of the wall. But I was too sleepy to think about how my towel was getting damp.
We dragged our suitcases down sloping roads and across empty streets. As we waited for the bus, I munched a green tea pancake and peered at a cafe across from me. The day before, I sat inside this very cafe, with an iced latte and a muffin. I watched the Korean people pass the window and go about their lives.
Koreans: a people of their own kind, who look, sound and behave much the same as each other. During our week in Seoul, my travel buddy and I seemed to stick out like sailboats in an airplane hanger: we were always talking too loud on the subway, laughing hysterically in public, and using the wrong form of honorifics.
It didn’t take long before I realized Korea was not for me. I loved the city of Seoul and the food, when my stomach was ready for it, and some of my best friends lived in this thriving country. But the longer I spent touring the streets of Seoul the more I wanted to be among people who looked like me. And I don’t mean Americans, because it wasn’t the new culture and language that turned me off, rather it was the knowledge that some people live in societies where everyone looks like them. Not just the people passing by the cafe windows, but even the billboards, the magazines, the news anchors.
Imagine cohabitation with people who share your skin color, hair texture and physical appearance?
The ever-present wonder of a biracial individual.
“I want to visit Ethiopia,” I said to my friend, who was falling asleep at the bus station. The sun was just peering over the buildings. “Ethiopia, or India,” I continued.
She asked why and I said because I wanted to experience a society where I could blend in. As our plane took off from the coast of South East Asia I thought about what my next international adventure would be.
It’s been two months since I took that turn around the world. My options for the next venture are so far and wide that I decided to focus on one place where I want to explore. As I’ve said before, Africa interests me, specifically the French speaking areas. So I began doing some research on developmental needs in French-speaking African countries. Burundi came up as such.
Hmm, Burundi and I have crossed paths before.
When I was a student in England I signed up for a language exchange program. Twice a month I met with a girl from Glasgow, Scotland and we practiced French together. She was originally from Burundi and I learned that our families were actually from the same tribe! She told me all about Burundi from the shining lakes, to the hilly countryside. Unfortunately, other than her, I don’t know anyone from Burundi. But because of my Rwandan heritage , I’m drawn to both of these countries and I want to be a part of an organization that works to help the economic development of this area.
I look at countries like South Korea that have boomed economically in amazing ways. Why is this so difficult for African countries? Rwanda, has been doing well considering the genocide in 1994. But still, I would love to see this same growth happen in Burundi as well. And I want to be a part of that growth.
I began writing this blog last summer, with intentions to explore my racial identity. But recently I’ve put my ethnic background on hold and shied away from narrating my black hi(story).
The post that brought this blog to a halt was one I wrote about the dilemma of being too white and not enough black. But I couldn’t post it, because my experience seemed to be stretching the truth, and it attacked both sides of my race in a counterproductive way.
I considered writing about the difficulties of dating as a biracial woman. But my experience was limited. How could I give insight on interracial romance, when I’m not married and only had a serious boyfriend for a few months?
Some days I sat down to write, and was frustrated by the black community in America. I was discouraged that our percentages are so low in the means of success, but so high in the way of failure. I wanted to write about abstinence, which seems non-existent even among black Christians. But the feedback I received on an article I published a year ago proved the topic of sex to be a much more difficult issue to tackle.
So, I’ve published nothing in the last few months, simply because I didn’t know what to write.
Have I stopped writing about race because I’m ashamed of my racial background? Would it be easier if I was one race or the other?
Not ashamed, just misunderstood.
Not discontent, just disgruntled.
Maybe this is why I welcome the fact that people mistake me for another race. Maybe I enjoy being taken for a Mexican or an Indian. Maybe it’s easier not to inherit the assumptions that come with being mixed race.
A year ago I graduated college and finished a class called Conversations On Race. I left the class feeling more of a need to embrace my biracial identity than before. It sparked my efforts to write about race in America from day to day. But somewhere between then and now, I’ve begun to realize that I don’t know what I want to accomplish by writing about race.
So where is this blog going? Have I given up on exploring my racial identity?
I think I’ve decided to concern myself with other things.
I’m a career women now, driven to attend grad school in the fall. I’m writing a novel, which actually depicts the life of a biracial, female journalist. Perhaps this is where all my energy to write has gone.
I may start posting excerpt from my novel to get some general feedback. It’s a new and exciting project, but oh so difficult. Writing a 600 word blog post is fun. Writing a 60,000 word story with conflict, resolution, and fictional dialogue is much harder. But, nonetheless, I think it’s time to take a new direction.
I flatten my hair before I go to work. While the straightener is heating up I look at myself in the mirror, knowing I didn’t want to become like this: A woman who gains confidence from the approval of others. But I have, and that’s why I woke up an hour earlier to flick on the bathroom light and fill the hall with the smell of burning hair.
I feel most confident when I wear a dress and smooth down my hair. Why? Because that is how professional women are often portrayed.
I remember reading a chapter from the novel Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The protagonist, a young Nigerian woman seeking a career in the American corporate world, goes for a job interview with her Afro hair. The interviewers read her resume and ask questions but she doesn’t get hired. Afterwards her friend tells her that she needs to straighten her hair so she will look more professional for the next interview. And when she does, she gets the job. Although this book is fictional, it is not far from reality.
Is my untamed curly hair the most professional appearance in the office?
Something tells me no.
I don’t think in my agency, where the staff are the nicest people I know, would I be looked down on if and when I wear my natural hair, which I do sometimes. It’s just that I don’t feel put together when all my curls are pointing different directions and the frizz just might bear its teeth if I step outside.
Now that I’m out of school and part of society’s working class, I’m very conscious of my skin color and my hair. In my senior year of college I began to see how much of a minority blacks are, and how most people in power are not black.
In my cubicle at work there is a poster of all the state representatives. Eight out of the 100 are black. Four of them are women. I’m not sure what to think of this new-found knowledge. I’m just now becoming aware of how few of us are out there.
After pondering all this, I turn off the straighter and see a girl in the mirror. She isn’t black anymore, she could pass for a Latino, an Indian, or a black person who is almost white. Do I like this girl, who hides her natural hair and lightens her face with make-up?
When you’re both black and white it’s tempting to choose one side and hide the other in your closet ’till the day is over.
I spent New Year’s eve in a Congolese church, singing about God’s faithfulness and dancing to the beat of the African drum, alongside a people with whom I share a history.
My father is Rwandan, born in the neighboring country Burundi, but he grew up in Congo, a country once known as Zaire. While he lived in Africa, Congo Kinshasa was home to my father and though he was not Congolese, he spoke Lingala, Swahili, and French.
Lingala is what I heard the night of New Year’s eve from a host of African Christians praising God in their own tongue and in their own form of worship, through dance and song. I danced too, awkwardly I suppose, but freely and without hesitation. I listened to the French songs and sang to the best of my limited French ability. They also sang songs in Swahili jumping and waving their hands, so I mimicked the phrases and thought about this language my Grandparents spoke, two African individuals of my own bloodline whom I never really got to know.
The service was wonderfully long and continued through the night until the New Year came. “You are from Ethiopia?” the Pastor asked, putting me on the spot in front of the whole congregation. “No” I replied naturally. “Well, they say the most beautiful women come from Ethiopia. You must have some African heritage in you.” I didn’t know whether I should be offended or flattered, nor did I know quite how to respond.
People ask me if I am Ethiopian all the time, especially if they are from India, East Africa, or sometimes the Middle East. “I am from America, but my father is from Africa,” I explained later when the women approached me and asked again. They said no more, but accepted me as a sister, a cousin, a daughter. And I felt as if I was part of some special club using the origin of my Father as a token of membership.
For some reason, though I’m not sure why, I am drawn to African people, mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa. Maybe because I seek an identity, or maybe because I am biracial and constantly searching for a people group to call my own. But most of the time I think it’s because they always accept my big curly hair. 🙂
Happy New Year. Bonne Année.
Have you ever seen a girl, or a guy, with curly hair and had the impulse to reach out and take a fist full of it?
Yeah I know, we all do. It’s a child-like response to something interesting. But as an adult shouldn’t we be culturally aware of the human bubble? You know, the invisible bubble around your body that people know better than to pop.
On the topic of hair, m y recent post, Why I Don’t Wear Braids, inspired me to continue the conversation regarding elements of beauty in conjunction with racial identity.
My close friend from Rwanda just recently went natural. In other words she cut off her permed straight hair and now has a TWA (Tinnie Winney Afro). Her new due is adorable and works with any snapback or beanie she owns.
One day, before church, a group of us were waiting for our ride when one of our white friends came over and placed her palm on my friend’s head—to feel the soft freshly combed hair.
“Don’t touch it!” my friend squealed pulling away quickly. “It took me thirty minutes to get it like this.”
While the white girl laughed playfully, I could see the self-conscious anxiety in my friend’s face. She gave me a look that said “You don’t just touch someone’s hair.”
Could I blame the white girl? It is actually quite common among some girls to touch each other’s straight hair. As kids, during movies or sleepovers, my friends always asked, “Can I play with your hair?” It should be noted that I did not grow up with a lot of black people and apparently neither did this white girl.
As we continued waiting for the church van to arrive, another white girl appeared.
“Did you cut your hair?” she asked my friend. “It’s so cute!” With that, another oily hand put a dent in her fro.
Why don’t black girls like when you touch their hair? Aren’t you complimenting them in noticing their beauty? Aren’t they just being overly sensitive? I mean, come on, there’s no harm in complimenting someone’s natural beauty.
Some would beg to differ.
The responses to having one’s hair touched involve more than the encroachment on one’s bubble. The experience is the impact of a microaggression accompanied by feelings of dehumanization, and unrepresented beauty in society’s media.
The importance of not touching a black girls hair relates to the historical components of black women in America. Born into a society where their kind have been victims of objectification, and dehumanization for decades, black women are faced with daily reminders that they are unrepresented and degraded in everyday life.
The unknown and often unrecognized aspects of black women conjures curiosity in white people about hair texture and skin color. These inquiries such as, “You moisturize a lot. Do you just have really dry skin?” or “You hair is so pretty can you show me how to make mine do that?” categorize black women as objects of interest.
In her article on the 8 justifications of touching a black woman’s hair, Maisha Z. Johnson says the texture of black hair is interesting to white people because it is unrepresented in pop culture.”I understand the curiosity. But do you know why you’re so curious? It’s because the texture of my 4C hair is often invisible in mainstream society.”
Telling a black girl that her hair is so cool or interesting and running your hands through it reminds her that her beauty goes unrecognized.
Hopefully anyone guilty of touching a black girl’s hair doesn’t receive my approach negatively. I’m not trying to shame, rather to educated and inform so that the infringement on someone’s personal space is avoided. If you’re curious, then do some research. Just think about it; would you mind a strangers hands running through your hair, or would you too feel dehumanized?
Leave a comment below if you’ve experienced someone touching your hair.
Does race impact a study abroad experience?
It depends where you go . . . but in short, Yes.
My marketing class this term requires a semester-long project designing a marketing plan. Our mission is to market different study abroad programs to business students at Taylor.
Many of you know I spent last spring in England for what seemed like the longest semester of my life.
Despite the homesickness I endured for those long five months, I’m reminded daily of my amazing time there, especially when Facebook displays those a-year-ago-today photos.
It’s a little scary when social media starts telling me what to post.
Anyway, this week’s marketing assignment involved loads of meticulous research. And oddly enough, I found a surprising number of articles concerning the study abroad experience of African Americans.
Frankly, studying abroad while black is different than while white, at least in Europe.
My experience with British locals and other internationals was ever and always humorous, as they often assumed my skin color was an indication that I immigrated from somewhere other than the US.
My friend Charnell, who is also black, studied abroad with me. Charnell is a fabulous writer who has a million hidden talents and the poetry skills of a literary master. Find her work here. The time she and I spent together was when I noticed my blackness the most.
Our conversations with strangers usually went like this:
Charnell: Julia and I are from Indiana,
Stranger: Oh, India! Which part?
Me: No, we’re Americans from the US.
Stranger: Oh, but aren’t you African?
Charnell: Well, we’re African American.
Stranger: Which part of Africa did you come from?
Yes, confusion happened but it was always hilarious.
Sometimes Charnell and I were mistaken for siblings. During our tour of campus the first week of school two girls from Bahrain asked if we were sisters. I had to smile, because my hair compared to Charnell’s is indication enough that we are indeed not related.
Whether I was mistaken for an English Language Learner, or as a native to some African country I’d never heard of, my skin color shaped my experience abroad in ways I didn’t expect. But at the same time, it allowed me to notice things about British culture unapparent to everyone else, such as the astounding number of biracial couples or the oddity of black people speaking British English.
But some social norms mirrored the US, like the way African students were drawn to Charnell and me, blacks and other students of color. I must admit, my blackness wasn’t as evident as it is in a small-town Christian university, but now and then something would happen to renew my consciousness. Like the question that takes everyone by surprise. “Wait! Your mother is white?” That always throw them for a loop.
As I continue researching and composing this marketing plan I hope to inform potential study abroad students of the impact one’s race can have on the experience he or she finds in another country.
Have you been black while abroad? Share your story below.
Last week I did very poorly on an exam. My internal response was different than that of my Freshman self. In the beginning of my university life I had to prove to everyone that I could do it, and a bad grade was a mark against my ability to succeed.
Somehow as a Senior, though I am very disappointed with a bad grade, it doesn’t feel as detrimental to my future career. However, it worries me that my performance is or is not a credit to my race, that my grade point average could possibly be used for a statistical evaluation of African American students at liberal arts institutions.
Nevertheless, seeing that horrible grade makes me want to do just one thing, and that is to crawl into a hole with a pint of ice cream and forget the world. #WorstDayEver — But then again, after sulking, my natural instinct is always to go back and ace my next exam.
I have to give myself a pep talk when I experience failure. “It was just one test. You will do better next time. There are plenty of extra credit opportunities. Your worth is not in your grades.” In the class following my exam I sat at my desk, deep in thought repeating these positive reinforcing statements over and over. But all the same I couldn’t help but realize that I am the only black student in my class. Does my performance reflect the color of my skin, fulfilling the stereotype of my own kind?
Will my professor see my grade and account it to my race?
Classes for the real semester have begun. I say real semester because J-term doesn’t really count. It’s like a baby semester.
My courses thus far seem promising. #stayingpositive
Ironically three of my professors this year are women and one of them is a black woman. Well, that’s a first. This will be the first time I have a female African American professor. . .IN MY LIFE!
Because most college professors are white males, its refreshing to have some diversity in my education and to study under someone who shares both my gender and race.
Lately I’ve become keenly aware of my race, more than I used to be. Today, strange thoughts popped into my head during each period. I walked into class and automatically looked around at all the white students.
They’re all white.
I’m usually the only black person in the classroom. It’s pretty chill as long as no one brings up race or ethnicity. But if this happens I don’t feel uncomfortable, unless I’m asked to make a comment. Sometimes students, my fellow classmates, look right at me when they’re answering a question from the professor concerning ethnic minorities.
I always feel weird when they say “black” . . . then pause . . . and say “African American.” You’re not going to offend me. Anyways, both terms are politically correct, if that is what you’re going for.
My university is like my second home and therefore the manifestation of white classrooms with white walls, white students, white papers, and white teachers doesn’t faze me.
Didn’t faze me.
These days, perhaps ever since I started a blog on racial identity, I suddenly want to ask everyone about their heritage. In Marketing class I sat beside a student who looked hispanic.
“What’s your ethnicity?” I wanted to ask. “Do you realize we are the minority in the room?” I would have said, “How do you feel about your skin color, and do you realize that every student in this class sees us differently than others?”
I didn’t. Of course. But I wanted to.
I might have, if I hadn’t thought twice and realized that the topic of racial identity is not something everyone is willing to discuss.
Being black in a white classroom is like being black in a white culture, but instead of white people all around you, the books are written by white authors, the PowerPoints display images of white people, and the handouts use photos of white models.
Do I mind? Only when this reality isn’t evident to everyone else, only when people act like it doesn’t matter, only when I feel like my race is unacknowledged.
As I sort through my thoughts I understand that I am not qualified to write this blog post because as I have mentioned before, I’m not really black. My good friend, Kay, often tells me, “Julia, you’re like an Oreo. Black on the outside, white on the in.” So I’m curious how other people respond to this reality.
How does it feel to be a minority in the classroom?