This is the 6th article in my America series. The series would probably be incomplete if I didn’t write about race. I should state that I am in no way an expert on race – I didn’t even study anything race-related at school. My only qualification is that I am a human being, albeit one with quite a bit of melanin on his skin.
In Zimbabwe, I had grown up with black people only. Racism was virtually non-existent to me. I only knew it from high school history classes, apartheid being the epitome. The only thing I noticed about white people when I did meet them, is that we gave them the utmost respect – revering them, really. They were the gold standard. When I set out for the US, that is what I expected – more of the inferiority complex. I didn’t expect any outright racism, to be honest. Of course, what I experienced was nothing like I anticipated.
Foremost, the inferiority complex wasn’t present. Everyone was at Stanford partly because they’d all excelled during their high school years. If they could do it, I thought, and I could do it too, then there was no difference between me and them – just the melanin content. Many people felt like that. They seemed oblivious of our respective races. We were all just students studying together. Just students. It was that environment that helped me effortlessly become color blind. It was all thanks to the Stanford Bubble, as we called this Utopian island of young adult students.
It was in the Bubble where I asked a friend from a Christian fellowship to teach me a bit of the ‘Southern’ accent. She was from Dallas, Texas – she had the Texas flag, cowboy boots and a big truck. She was very excited to get to teach me the accent, and she immediately picked the one sentence I would learn: “Ah-woold-lahk-som’-frah-I-d-chick’n.” At the time, I did not even pick up any hint of a stereotype. All I knew was that Diana* was teaching me a bit of the Southern accent. I was glad when she told me my accent was good, and I’d gladly oblige whenever she asked me to repeat the phrase to everyone else. “I would like some fried chicken,” I would say, with a wide smile. They’d erupt in laughter.
And it was all good in the Bubble.
But then the United States of America came in and re-framed things. Once I found out that black-people-love-fried-chicken was a common stereotype, I was taken aback. It was a fact that I love(d) fried chicken. But then here it was a stereotype. But what’s a stereotype anyway? Still, why did Diana choose that particular phrase for me to recite in a Southern accent? At this point, all the laughter I’d drawn by proclaiming my love for fried chicken took a whole new meaning. The Bubble had burst right into my eyes.
Little by little, I began to pick up on more of these racially non-neutral statements. While I was doing an internship in California, outside the Bubble, a mentor said this to me: “you should apply for that scholarship from the Corrosion Institute. Do put your picture – it will give you an edge. Put your picture – it will give you an edge,” he repeated for emphasis. He actually thought I didn’t get it, but I did. My melanin-rich face would do the trick. On another time, I walked into a fast food place with three of my (black) friends. A white gentleman greeted us, before asking, rather loudly, “What sports do you play at Stanford?” He had seen our Stanford T-shirts, but the melanin gave us away. It gave me away. It passed me off as a 5 foot 7, 135 pound football player on a sports scholarship at Stanford University.
For a neutral reader, some of the things I have taken exception to may seem childish. If we love fried chicken, so what? If many black students get great sports scholarships from universities, so what? The reality is that America adds a whole dimension to it. Everything has a meaning, albeit a different one for each person. That is why fried chicken stereotypes may be simple observation to some people; but those same stereotypes may have dark, racist connotations for some people. It is all in the context.
You may wonder if I was offended by these things…
I’d say I always brushed them off – until they actually did hit home. It wasn’t the melanin that did the trick. It was Africa that did. Once I began to routinely hear “…the starving kids of Africa,” the “…misogynistic African men,” “…the failed African states” and the “…African tribal wars,” I knew the stereotype bug had hit too close to home. I’d seen the starving kids, I’d seen misogynistic men, I came from a failed state and I’d seen tribal tension – but that wasn’t what Africa was/is. Suddenly, I was defensive. Of course I was because I was offended!
The biggest surprise of it all was that some of these things came from African Americans/Black Americans. And then I really knew that it wasn’t just the skin color – at least for me. Being from Africa trumped being black. That realization rocked my boat. Because, while I walked as a human being on earth, I also walked as a black man in America, and also as an African in the world…it was a struggle, a confusing experience.
What did/do I make of it all?
I don’t know, but when I flew back into “Africa, the motherland” – I lost it all somehow. Somewhere in the middle of failed states, of tribal tension, of misogyny, and of inhumane suffering, I enjoyed a piece of fried chicken in peace.