Written by: Seun B. Adebayo
I was born in Nigeria and having spent all my life in Nigeria, a whole new experience began for me in 2015, when for the first time, I got into an airplane travelling to Europe to study at a Master’s programme that will entail me studying in at least 3 universities and countries for the next 2 years, including the University of Amsterdam. This was a remarkable journey for me, and the first reflection I had in the course of my study in Europe was on how I have become more conscious of the ‘black’ identity, institutionally and socially, than while I was in Nigeria. I remember sharing with a colleague of how coming to Europe has made me realized others’ strong identification of me with the ‘black’ identity.
I recount that back in Nigeria, we rarely discuss or identify with the ‘black’ identity, we see ourselves as Nigerians or by our tribal affiliations. However, I have come to understand that the way others (e.g. the Westerns) perceive us is stronger and influential than we do. This realization made me understand why I grew up with the consciousness of my race, ethnic origin and affiliation, and how my identity is perceived in other parts of the world. The fact that my ancestors were forcefully taken as slaves by some ‘foreigners’ is concerning. The knowledge that these ‘foreigners’ exploited and colonized my people and land, is ever more saddening. This prejudice has birthed the harsh realities of a world laden with inequalities, discrimination, and apartheid against people with similar history and background by these ‘foreigners’ who had no ‘right’ in the first place to act so. In addition, it is quite an unfortunate reality that the nation I call my country, Nigeria, was actually an amalgamation of ‘different’ people by such ‘foreign impositions’, which was motivated by what I perceived as selfish interests of the ‘foreigners’. Till this moment, these past foreign actions are still a threat and distortion to the unity of my ‘sovereign’ country.
In the Nigerian context, being from the Southwestern part of the country and hailing from the Yoruba ethnic group precisely, I have grown up with the awareness that I am from a tribe different from other ethnic groups in Nigeria. Nigeria, my country, was formed and colonized by the British (Colonial Masters) to serve their own purposes. After independence in 1960, the country the British left behind had to contend with the issues of ethnicity, minority, social contract, and till date, some groups still agitate to secede from the Nigerian state.
Consequently, I have become conscious of how the ‘foreigners’ who I believe have done more harm than good identify with people of similar background.
From the foregoing, I write this essay with the feeling that the world is going in a cycle with the issues associated with Race and Ethnicity. The truth is not being told as it is! Who has the right to conceptualize and define identities? For whose interests are these conceptualizations and definitions of identities made? These are questions we should strive to answer objectively and critically in our present world. At some point, I got really interested in different identities that exist in the world. I read some history books, materials and articles on the internet. And I discovered that the conceptualizations and definitions of many identities were done by people that had no legitimate right to do so in the first place. In fact, people whose identities were defined by others were not consulted when their identities were defined. Likewise, the conceptualization of identities are not value or interest neutral. This I believe has contributed immensely to social constructions that we have in the world today.
From literature (academic articles, reports, textbooks etc.), I observed how distortions of present realities, truth and history are justified. Recently, I read about how a young student in the United States, observed in a geography textbook that had a chapter on slave trade and immigration, the textbook identified that “the Atlantic Slave Trade between 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations”. This is a biased history education, it is obvious that they were forcefully brought as ‘slaves’ and not ‘workers’.
This writing has made me reflect on how I have been coerced to accept my ‘identity’ and conceptions of Race and Ethnicity. While I was in Amsterdam, I walked into a grocery store to get some food items. As I got into the store, I noticed that the storekeeper started trailing me even with the presence of CCTV cameras. I felt really sad, because the storekeeper might have thought that I was going to steal or lift items. I asked myself, why? I responded, because I am perceived as ‘black’, and the society I find myself sees me that way too. It was even more shocking to me when I unconsciously began losing trust and having fear of others labelled as ‘blacks’, and how I willingly wanted to be associated with people labelled as ‘whites’.
From the above reflection, I discovered that I have been consciously trained through socialization, schooling and education to accept my identity. People of my color are referred to as ‘Blacks’; and primarily through training, I have realized that the color ‘black’ has characteristics associated with evil and negative connotations, such as death, disease, ugly, fear, poverty and darkness. While, the ‘foreigners’ are referred to as ‘Whites’, the color which is primarily associated with good and positive connotations. However, judging from history, I think the reverse should have been the case. Researching through the Nigerian cultures, I am yet to find a Nigerian culture where ‘black’ has positive connotations. I recently spoke to a friend from the Kpelle tribal group in Liberia about these issues and I asked if there was any culture in Liberia where ‘black’ signifies anything good or positive, he replied that there was none that he knows of. I further asked what ‘white’ symbolizes in his culture. He responded that ‘white’ represents love, purity, warmth and reception in his culture.
Looking forward, I believe that the issues of Race and Ethnicity will continue except we critically question systems and institutions that promote stereotyping, conceptualization and definitional identities, and what prompts external interests. Furthermore, the truth should be told as it is, this will generate the processes to real freedom, equity, and then we can have a future with fewer challenges on Race and Ethnicity.