The thing about being part of an ethnic minority is that you’re pretty much damned either way. As a black African living in America, this is something I came to feel quite keenly.
On the one hand, you must navigate a majority culture that is not your own, at times setting aside your distinctives and adapting so that you fit in more easily. Don’t get me wrong – I found my sojourn thoroughly enriching, and I met amazing people that challenged me to not simply fit in but to find, use and amplify my voice. I honestly would not trade in what I learned and the friends I made for anything else. But this advice was being given because of an awareness of how the majority culture can so easily ‘other’ others, especially black others. Being the ‘other’ in such spaces might mean feeling isolated, different, stepping way out of your comfort zone and at times being unheard and unappreciated for all you are and have to offer. You enter and participate in the majority culture and seek to flourish there. Often, your presence in the majority culture is not a voluntary immersion into another culture, but a matter of necessity in light of limited resources and access within your own spaces. As such, you learn another language, its text and subtext, redefining for yourself what is meant by phrases such as ‘good taste’, ‘manners’ and ‘common sense’. This leads to what W.E.B. DuBois said about black people in America being double-souled – you have your own way of doing things, but because your survival depends upon learning and working in a world other than your own, you adapt and take on another self, a self that speaks and thinks in a manner foreign to the first self. And yet these two selves are the same person. That divided self, like Jekyll and Hyde, wars against itself. DuBois goes on to say that ‘this seeking to satisfy two unreconciled ideals, has wrought sad havoc with the courage and faith and deeds of ten thousand thousand [black] people – has sent them often wooing false gods and invoking false means of salvation, and at times has even seemed to make them ashamed of themselves’. Like I said; damned.
On the other hand, if room is created for you at the ‘table’ of that majority culture, the insidious thought that you are at that table purely because you’re different can also haunt you. Are you there by merit, or are you there merely to add some ‘flavour’ and bump up the diversity quotient in the room? How can you tell? As schools, office and other spaces open up for people of colour in a move towards increased diversity, the question of being a legitimate presence in those spaces reverberates loudly for a minority person. As a grad student at a mostly-White Christian liberal arts school in the American Midwest, for example, I was invited to be on a panel of speakers for a Q-Union event in 2017. Because I was extremely busy at the time, plus I didn’t know what it was about, I barely read the email and I didn’t do it – but when I thought about it later, I couldn’t escape the thought that I had been tapped for it primarily because I added “diversity” to the event. I probably wasn’t chosen for that reason, but the thought did more than cross my mind. Like I said, either way, you’re pretty much damned. At least, that’s how I felt for a very long time.
In my attempt to find a solution to this conundrum, it took me a while between writing the paragraph above and the next part of this post to realize one very key thing. As such, the shift in tone is not an overnight thing – it took time and tears to get there. For the longest time, being ‘other’ meant negative things, and I internalized that negativity. I had to learn to see being different through eyes healed by God, to see that as we take our place in the world, we must be ourselves, and not another.