“Ma’am, I thought you were a white woman”

A few months ago I was pulling up to Wendy’s to order my usual order; it was a number one which is a Dave’s Single w/ Cheese. A lot of the times I just get the sandwich, but I think this time I ordered the combo. When I pulled up to the window, the young black guy at the front told me.

“Ma’am, I thought you were a white woman.”

It was funny that he used the polite term “ma’am” right before what could’ve been termed an impolite statement. I think I just laughed awkwardly, paid him, got my food and then drove away. This wouldn’t be the first time that someone thought I “sounded white” and it wouldn’t be the last.

My dad is from Nigeria, and my mom is an African American- with some Native American ancestry- and was born in South Carolina.

I spent part of my childhood in a northern state where very few black people lived. People would smile at me and tell me that I sounded like my dad. I guess when I was smaller I took on some of his accent (I’ve only had one person tell me that I sounded Nigerian now that I’m an adult). They would ask if I spoke the language, and I would always have to tell them that I didn’t because my dad didn’t teach it to us.

To be honest my dad taught us very little about Nigeria. He would talk about the negative things, like the poverty, corruption, and the lack of reliable electricity. He talked about having to walk miles just to get water, and bathing with water from a bucket. He said the country was better off when it was under British occupation. So I always got the sense that he wasn’t very proud about having come from Nigeria- and so I didn’t get any sense of African pride either.

When I tell people that I have Nigerian ancestry, they say a number of things, including but not limited to:

“It’s no wonder you have that ‘Africa’ in your hair”

“At least you know where you came from”

“What tribe was your dad from?”

“Have you ever been to Africa?” and if I say no “You should go”

“Are you going to have an arranged marriage?”

I remember one time I went to Walgreen’s very late at night to pick up a prescription. The pharmacist on duty noticed my last name and asked if I was a Nigerian. When I told him my dad was from Nigeria he said that he too was from Nigeria and asked what tribe I was from. He said it was possible that I was from a particular tribe, and if I was from that tribe then I might have a tribal name that was unique to me. I told him that my dad had selected my first name from a verse in the Bible (but that I didn’t think I had a tribal name).

To make a long story short he actually had me there talking to him for like twenty minutes. He said that I shouldn’t be afraid to go to Africa, because that was where my roots were and it was up to me to find out about it. It was an interesting conversation but I felt a little like I was being lectured. Really, this man was a stranger, but he felt like he needed to give me personal advice.

See, that’s the thing about being black. Black people sometimes get overly familiar with you just because you’re black too, feeling like they have a right to give advice about your hair, appearance, or cultural expression. If you’re one of the only black people in the room, they might say something like “I’m so glad I found you, because I was thinking that I/we was/were the only black person/people here!”

Also, I can’t count how many times a black person in this city has looked at me a little suspiciously and said something like, “You’re not from around here, are you?” or “Where are you from?” or “You talk so proper”.

To be fair I’m sure that people of other cultures experience this as well. Maybe if you’re Hispanic someone will look at you and start speaking Spanish to you, and you may be embarrassed if you don’t know it. It’s like that with us, too. Sometimes I have to smile awkwardly when someone of the same race as me makes assumptions about me just because I’m black.

I watched the entire series of Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl and read the book as well. In the book, Issa Rae writes that being “Awkward and Black” is among one of the absolute worst things that you can be, and I can 100% relate. I feel like I don’t fit into “black culture”, even though when you ask someone what black culture really is they don’t even seem to know what it is themselves. It’s kind of like there are some secret rules and I’m totally out of the loop.

It isn’t just in person that my apparent blackness has surprised people. My closest friends that I originally met online were all shocked when I sent pictures and they found out that I was black. It’s like there’s this unspoken assumption that if you are into anime, pop music, reading, and writing that you can’t possibly be black, but the rise of “black nerdom” and other black “classes” has led to the creation of lists of “categories” of blacks like the one found in Issa Rae’s book.

The list is as follows;

The 10% Black

The Ambitious Black

The Awkward Black

The Basic Black

The Hustling Black

The Insecure Black

The Know-it-all About Blacks Black

The LGBT Black

The Militant Black

The Nerdy Black

The Not-Black Black

The Position-of-Power Black

The Ratchet Black

The Strong Black

The Woe-is-Me Black

You’ll have to actually purchase and read Issa’s book if you want to see how she really broke it down for you. I think her point- and it’s dealt with with lots of cheeky humor- that there are so many different ways to “be black”, even though we are all aware that black is just a skin tone and it says nothing about a person’s inward character. Also, I don’t want to just turn this into a huge “woe is me, I’m black and misunderstood” type of thing.

I think some of my problems fitting in have as much to do with being a person of color as with being a child of an immigrant. If you were raised American and go home to your foreign relatives, it’s pretty obvious that they’re going to be comparing and contrasting between you and them (it’s another thing that makes me nervous about going). So you really don’t fit in with your immigrant parent’s family, and then you don’t fully fit in with American culture because you were still raised differently, even in cases where your parent kept the culture from you. I was homeschooled and raised in a strict, isolated, religious environment.

In some ways I feel like I’m almost doubly marginalized. I’m a minority, I’m bisexual, and I’m the child of an immigrant. I behave and speak different than a lot of my peers. I’ve never experienced blatant racism, but I have experienced some colorism- a thing that was totally foreign to me growing up. I’ve been called a “yellow bone” which I think is a compliment, but I had never even heard that term before I moved to where I live now.

For a lot of my black friends who went to public school and grew up in the South race is like a huge issue for them, whereas I’ve spent most of my life ambivalent about it. My parents have seemed to support the notion that modern blacks have brought a lot of their own problems on themselves. We didn’t have any “black pride” we were just raised to believe that all people were equal and that if you served God and did the right thing you could succeed in life. After all, my dad is a foreigner of all things and managed to rise up in his work field to making around six figures. He never blamed white people for hindering his success.

Even though I can see how this upbringing was good, it did leave me feeling like something was missing. When I recently gave up my religion- which was the main way in which I was taught to identify myself as a person- I felt like I didn’t have any culture left. I didn’t fit in with blacks, but here I was black. So right when I needed to I found my Moorish friends, and they began to educate me on the fact that racism was very much alive in America and that Islam was actually a big part of black history. Without blaming their hardships on anyone, they pointed out how unfair things really were, and they welcomed me, an awkward black Christian girl, into their fold. They never made fun of the way I talked- maybe because a lot of them spoke the same way.

So, have I, the awkward, bisexual, formerly-Christian black girl found my tribe? Not yet, but I’m starting to be more open and expanding my little circle.

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