It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.
My heart hammered as I tore across the grass, legs propelling me towards the safety of the thin tree set right in the middle of the field. As I picked up speed, I sensed my assailant had fallen back, opting instead for a slower victim. I reached my destination, leaping forward the last few feet to grab hold of the tree in front of me. From behind me emerged a sudden shriek and a gleeful “Tag, you’re it!” but for now, at least, I was safe. I was leaning over, panting heavily, when another 3rd grader careened into the same tree where I was standing, nearly knocking me over in the process.
“Sorry, Grace!” he shouted, deep swallows of air punctuating his apology. He stepped away from me, nearly hitting his head on one of the sagging branches but making sure to never stray too close to the edge of the tree’s shadow. It was the border between safety and the ever-present danger of becoming “it”.
“It’s okay, Isaiah.” I smiled briefly at him before turning back to the action, confirming who the current enemy was and scoping out potential escape routes. In front of me, a third player approached the tree, sauntering up to the shade as if he had nothing to fear but the direct heat of the midday sun.
“Look! The two black earthworms are getting married!” he giggled, pointing towards me and Isaiah. Although most of the other children were too occupied with the game to notice his unexpectedly malicious remark, a few laughed along, not fully realizing the impact of their encouragement.
At first, I was confused. Why would he call me an earthworm? And how did Isaiah have anything to do with it? We weren’t even in the same class, so rumors that we liked each other would be completely unsubstantiated. The only reason I even knew his name was because we were the only Black students in my grade. My 7-year-old thoughts could not move past the words the mean boy had chosen, but my heart heard his tone and knew his intent was to hurt me, so I felt hurt. The bell rang to signal the end of recess, but as the rest of the students filed into our classroom I pulled the teacher aside to tell her that someone had said a mean thing to me, and repeated the mocking sentence.
When the school day came to a close, I walked with the crowd of students and teachers moving towards the bus loop, the school yard generating a large roar from all the honking cars, screaming parents, and announcements coming over the loudspeakers. In my head, everything was quiet. The boy who had been so eager to insult me earlier had walked away from the experience with nothing more than a firm but gentle warning from our teacher. He was not even made to apologize to me. That was the first time since I had come to the United States that I felt not different, but unequal.
Although I myself was an immigrant to the US, arriving in 1999 with my parents and my baby sister, I was too young to remember the days that I had passed in my hometown of Nairobi. Instead, all my ideas about what it meant for our family to move to the States had to do with the things my parents said and the way they reacted to certain situations. My father would often speak about the incompetence of the co-workers who got promoted before him, and the way his superiors treated him because of his accent. Up until that moment at the safety tree, I had never considered that America might have flaws that were different or even worse than those of the home we left in Africa. Due to the previous immersion in a culture that did not have a structure of white supremacy in place, my family experienced a society in which the individuals with power and influence were black like ourselves. Other factors such as religion, language spoken, or family history ended up playing a role in the formation of social strata and privilege. For this reason, we were left unequipped to deal with the racism that functions uniquely in the United States. As an immigrant, I was left unfamiliar with the idea of a culture dominated by white supremacist rule and did not have the schema set in place that would prompt me to recognize the implications of the boy’s teasing. So I remained ignorant.
Back up, back up! We want freedom, freedom! All these racist-ass cops, we don’t need ‘em, need ‘em!
It was in high school that I finally began to approach issues in my life that had previously gone unquestioned. Part of the reason why this was possible was because I became familiar with the terminology I would need to participate in conversations about economics, culture, politics, and other topics covered in my history and social science classes. In these classes, I was taught to look at the world with unflinching eyes and a level head, to break down complicated issues and search for evidence to strengthen my arguments. Because of the rigor of the courses I was taking, I grew more confident in my ability to calmly and intelligently join in these kinds of discussions.
Except, that is, when it came to race and ethnicity. All throughout middle and high school, I demanded that people call me African instead of Black, African American, or any other racial identifier. I could never find the root of the fury I would feel when people would try to box me into a group that I felt I did not belong to, but I refused to accept anything that would tie a part of my ethnic identity to the United States. The more I felt myself slipping away from my Ethiopian heritage over time, the more I rejected the label of American but more importantly the label of Black American. Based on the way my friends and peers would react to a group of rowdy Black teenagers in the mall, the occasional hoodie and baggy pants-clad boy, or the bouncing car emitting explicit music at the stoplight, I came to my own conclusion of how people thought of Black people. Whether it be subtle or overt, many of my non-colored friends would express to me their general distaste for characteristics that they attributed to Blacks above all other groups — loudness, rowdiness, academic failure, and promiscuity, amongst other things. It was as if my friends disregarded the color of my skin for some reason, and I became privy to opinions and comments that they would never express to another student who looked like me.
The first time I was called an oreo, I laughed –I had never been compared to a cookie before— but I had to ask what it meant. Black on the outside, white on the inside. My critical mind went to work at once, dissecting what it was exactly that made me white on the inside. The effort seemed to be wasted, since people would let me know over time which parts of me they deemed “white”.
“Grace, you sound so white. Why do you talk like a grandma?” I would hear in response to a particularly SAT-esque word I had just used.
“You’ve never heard this song? I don’t get why you don’t listen to rap, Grace, you’re so white,” they would laugh when I didn’t recognize the hot new Top 40 hip-hop track.
As I began to collect data points about what it meant to be “white”, I combined that with all of my years of observing how people talked about other Black people to come to a singular conclusion that would impact the way I saw myself for years after.
White is good. Black is bad.
I did not know that this was a previously researched concept, part of a study called the Implicit Association Test. In general, this test asks participants to look at a name or a face and then associate it with a modifier that is either positive or negative (Greenwald et al., 2014). For example, a participant will be asked to hit a key on the right of them if a positive word or white face appears on the screen and a key on the left if a black face or negative word appears. When the order of those are reversed (i.e. key on the right with white face and negative word) the participants are generally slower in responding, suggesting an inherent association of white with positive words and black with negative words. Much like the way most participants would self-report that they had no explicit preference for one race over another, I truly believed that my dislike for some people was not due to race alone. However, results show that this kind of implicit association occurs in most participants regardless of their own race, and I was no exception (McConnell and Leibold, 2001).
They think it’s a game! They think it’s a joke!
By the time I was in 11th grade, I was in mostly high level courses in my high school, which were already minimally diverse. All the Black students that I knew in my classes were all like me, essentially first-generation American children of African parents. They all spoke like me, dressed like me, listened to my kind of music, and also refused to be friends with most of the other Black students in school. Although we all cited different reasons for our avoidance of that sector of our high school, the general consensus was that those were the “bad” kids, and we didn’t want to associate ourselves with that. By this point, I found myself in arguments almost daily about my race and ethnicity, my affinity for certain cultural groups and distaste for others, and my general political beliefs. On one occasion, I was getting into a heated debate with one of my classmates about being called African instead of Black.
His name was Taylor. I saw him as the prototypical privileged White American, Southern gentleman, good-ole’ country boy. His family was so rooted in the South and its culture that he let me know quite early on in our friendship that should he ever bring me to his house, his grandparents would not treat me nicely. He often expressed disdain for policy meant to protect immigrants, non-Christian religious people, and the impoverished. So as we discussed my desire to be identified as African, I felt myself getting angrier and angrier that he wouldn’t accept my reasons, but I was not surprised at his ignorance.
“I’m not a part of the culture! My parents are Ethiopian, I was raised in an Ethiopian household,” I insisted, frustrated that he wouldn’t try to understand how that might be different than growing up in a Black American household.
“I wasn’t born or raised in America, so how can I be African-American? My children might be African-American, but not me!” I argued, since many people would forget that I myself immigrated to the United States with my parents.
“Well, if you don’t want to be American, then leave.”
That sentence stopped me dead. I racked my brain for the real reason that I could not be Black. I knew that it was something I just could not accept, and it often brought me to tears of frustration that people would want to put me in that group. People had always equated being Black with being American, so did that mean that I couldn’t be an American without conforming to the stereotypical Black character? It was at that moment that I felt my identity fragment again. So, now, I am no longer American because I don’t want to be called Black? Because I don’t want to lose the roots of my African heritage? Then what am I?
Although I was not consciously aware of it, I had always held negative images of myself just as much as I had been judging the other Black students that walked the halls of my high school. Looking back, I can see how I attempted to remedy this by distancing myself as much as possible from the Black caricature. I decided to keep my hair straight, instead of the braids that my mother would fashion for me. I gravitated towards a style of clothing that many students deemed “preppy”. I substituted rap, hip-hop, and R&B for classical music. I was not aware that what I was experiencing had played out across the world, in the wake of European colonialism and American imperialism. This common complication in racial-ethnic identity may have come from the harmful and racist portrayal of people of color that I had been exposed to for most of my life. The more I saw Black individuals being paired with negative stereotypes, the more I was beginning to see myself in the same negative terms. This may have played a role in my frustration with myself, and the lack of answers I had as to why I could not allow myself to be identified as Black. And as long as I felt that way, I would never be able reconcile the pieces of my identity that I saw as being so different from each other.
What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now! If we don’t get it? Shut it down!
As a college student, many of my prejudices stayed with me, at least through the first year I was in school. However, I found myself too busy becoming acclimated to the college environment to have time to consider existential thoughts and hold political debates. I heard whispers of events and initiatives being put on by the Black student groups on campus, but I was never interested in attending, thinking that they simply did not pertain to me. I had a close group of friends that supported me and never made fun of me for being too white or too black. I was content. As the friendships within my group became closer over time, we began to take certain liberties with each other, as friends usually do.
“Grace, you’re so sassy!” I would often hear after I would finish one of my tirades about some issue or another.
“Hey Aaron, come meet Cortni and our sassy black friend, Grace!” one of my floor-mates shouted across the hallway to his friend.
“Whoa…your hair is so cool! Why does it do that?” my roommate would ask after I would come out of the shower with freshly washed and perfectly disastrous curls.
Slowly, I began tallying these small incidents which had never bothered me but now served to provide me with a sharp kick of a reminder that I was different. Everywhere I went on campus, I realized that I was one of the few colored students in the group, and definitely the only Black female. My sense of alienation grew and I found myself becoming more distanced from my friend group. My loneliness became unbearable towards the end of freshman year, the severity of my unhappiness only being augmented by the academic stress that I was under.
On one particular weekend night, I asked my good friend if she wanted to go out with me. It was a Saturday night and I had just endured the most terrible of hell weeks. It was time to celebrate! At her immediate apprehension and insistent hinting that her boyfriend wanted to video chat, I instead decided to take a bold leap and ask one of the Black girls I had met during MIT’s Campus Preview Weekend if I could hang out with her. She seemed to be a nice girl with a similar background to me, and I hoped that we could become better friends. I anxiously awaited her reply, feeling bad that I was leaving my friends, but feeling more strongly that it was also time to meet new people. My phone buzzed and I jumped, pouncing to grab it before it slid off my bed. The text read that she was hanging out in one of the other dorms and that I should totally come over! She gave me instructions on how to find her and as I pulled on my hoodie and boots, I felt myself getting excited.
As I walked across the field that spanned between my hall and New House, the dorm where she lived and often hung out, the excitement began to turn into nervousness. I was not good at making new friends, and I had no idea what kind of people she would introduce me to. What if I didn’t make a good impression? My social anxiety told me now was the perfect time to turn around and go home. Instead, I kept walking. I passed by the front desk with no issue and began to make my way to the third floor of House 1 (her dorm was split up into smaller houses numbered 1-6). It was called Chocolate City, an independent living group for men that identified with urban culture and wanted a sense of brotherhood on campus. I was greeted with smiles and hugs, as my friend introduced me to all of the people she knew there and in the adjacent House 2 (jokingly referred to as the Chocolate Suburbs). Although I was quiet and observant at first, the ease with which I was able to interact with most of the people surprised me immensely. Most of the people I met were Black, but they represented many different areas of the African Diaspora, as well as many different personalities, qualities, and characteristics. As we moved from room to lounge to room, I found myself hearing music that I liked and some that I didn’t even know and talking about issues that I thought nobody else cared about. I felt like a weight had been lifted off my chest, and I could finally breathe and laugh and speak with an openness that I had never experienced.
As I kept returning week after week to hang out, my old friends began to notice the distance, but freshman year drew to a close and we all naturally went our separate ways as we chose new academic departments, living groups, and clubs to join. The more time I spent with my new friends in Chocolate City and House 2, the more I began to be open to the parts of Black culture in which I was always uninterested. I felt myself growing more comfortable with the idea that I was Black. My transition into the Black community completed when I attended the Black Women’s Alliance retreat as a sophomore at the behest of one of the seniors I had met that first night in New House. As I sat in a room full of Black women, enjoying time and getting to know each other, I realized that these were the most real and honest relationships that I would ever find on campus because those women would go through life experiencing the same hardships and challenges that I would face simply because of the color of our skin. It bound us together – the knowledge that we could only overcome by supporting each other.
Once my foot was in the door, I jumped in, happily. I took executive positions in many of the Black student groups and began advocating for increases in the number of Black students attending MIT, creating events to help freshmen find their way to the Black community, and opening a forum to allow Black students to talk about their challenges and find support in our community. On October 25th, a coalition called BlackLivesMatter Boston organized a march in one of the busiest shopping districts to protest the death of Mike Brown, a young unarmed Black teenager who was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, MO. As I led a group of MIT students who attended the march together, I put my fist in the air and pumped it with fervor as my voice joined hundreds of voices in the chants we were screaming. We walked down Newbury Street, a high-traffic and high-end boulevard, a rainbow of faces all united in anger and anguish that we had to protest that Black Lives Matter. As we stood at the end of the street, holding hands in solidarity, we recited a final chant.
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
My journey of self-discovery is not over. I still question how my African heritage can fit into my newfound identity in Black America. As my friends continue to invite me to events thrown by the African Students Association or the Ethiopian/Eritrean Students’ Association, I find myself hesitant to participate given the awkward tension I felt beginning my freshman year of college between those who identified as Black and those who identified as African. At the beginning, I was unsure so I picked neither. Now I am unsure, but I’ve chosen one side that speaks more to the way I feel and the experiences I go through. I still have moments when I question why I’m doing all of this when I could so easily shirk my Black identity and the daily burden of confronting racial microaggressions. But I stare into the eyes of the white student who asks me if I got into MIT only because I am Black, and I stare into the eyes of the white women on magazine covers and in movies who tell me that my hair and my shape is not beautiful, and I stare into the eyes of the young Black students who think they are less for no reason other than the color of their skin. And I know that until I no longer have to fight and scream and cry that my life matters as much as anyone else’s, Black is the identity that I must put forth first.
Greenwald, A., McGhee, D., & Schwartz, J. (1998). Measuring Individual Differences In Implicit Cognition: The Implicit Association Test. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(6), 1464-1480. Retrieved October 28, 2014.
McConnell, A., & Leibold, J. (2001). Relations Among The Implicit Association Test, Discriminatory Behavior, And Explicit Measures Of Racial Attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 37(5), 435-442. Retrieved October 28, 2014.