ATOPOS: Why I’m no longer speaking with Americans (Black or White) about race.
It’s a very long read…
Identity is a very complex thing, and there are few things more frustrating than living in a country that has such an obsession with identity and little-to-no understanding or appreciation for the complexity of it.
Renowned ancient philosopher, Plato, defines the immigrant as atopos, a quaint hybrid devoid of place, dis-placed, in the twofold sense of incongruous and inopportune, trapped in that mongrel sector of social space betwixt and between social being and nonbeing. Neither citizen nor foreigner, neither on the side of the Same nor on that of the Other, he exists only by default. To put this in a simple sentence, to be an immigrant is to exist in the crack between two spaces, feeling like you could perhaps belong to both, but constantly coming to learn that you belong to neither.
But here’s where identity becomes complex. I’ve assigned this phenomenon to being an immigrant, but if I’m being honest with myself, I have always felt like this, even before stepping foot in the US. In fact, I’ve felt like this my whole life. In Nigeria, there are three main cultures, known as the Yoruba, the Hausa, and the Igbo. There are of course hundreds of other smaller cultures, but these three — marked by their respective regions and languages — are the main ones. I happen to have a mother who is Yoruba, and a father who is Ijaw, another tribe associated with the Igbo flank/region of Nigeria, hence, I’m bi-tribal/bi-cultural. When I was younger, I used to be proud of this, because I was under the delusion that being from two different spaces meant that you get to enjoy the privilege of belonging to both. But there was always a gap — always something — in the way that I and my siblings were received and treated by others.
I didn’t understand it as a kid, of course. But as I got older, after having lived in the US for over a decade, it began to come together for me. In truth, Nigerians — or Africans in general, are very adherent and defensive of their cultures and identities they contain, and people can often recognize each other. It may not be blatant to people from other countries or regions, but in Nigeria, people can look at each other and pinpoint what culture they belong to. But, for I and my siblings, this was always something in question for them, and people have a way of abandoning questions when they don’t have immediate answers. So, we often slipped through the cracks. Belonging to both sides, but not appearing so — thus being claimed by neither.
One thing I know for sure about identity is that it’s made up of layers, and in deeply reflecting upon this concept and drawing from observations of the experiences of other immigrants, and other people of mixed cultural backgrounds, I’ve come up with a rule. Identity is made up of layers, and these layers can never be removed — only added to. So, someone who is born with such a complexity has to make peace with the factor that it’s never going to become less complex — only more.
As we grow in life, we accumulate more layers thus more complexities onto our identity. So, for me, feeling already like said atopos while just a kid living in Nigeria — a country of hundreds of cultures and languages, yes, but a total absence of the concept of race — when I came to America, I certainly discovered new layers to my identity. Pardon the run-on sentences. One, I was now an immigrant — whatever that meant, and two, my skin now had a color which contained significances — whatever that was. I discovered two new layers to the stack of already existing layers of my identity.
I had to go through a long drawn out evolution in learning and understanding these two new layers, and I’m still not done.
Being an immigrant is already a strange thing to discover. I remember a discussion in my philosophy course last year, when my professor — who emigrated from Australia as a child, discussed his challenges with assimilating into America, and all of the intricacies he had to go through in trying to erase his identity in order to be less of a stranger. He’d lived in America for several years before he finally went back to visit Australia, and he mentioned that he had completely forgotten what it was like to be in your home country. “To be able to just be in a place, without ever having to question whether or not you belong there,” he said. The complexities of being an immigrant are rooted in this ever-burning inquisition in which you’re always needing to explain to others (and sometimes yourself) why you deserve to be where you are. When most people hear this observation, they have immediate answers. Of course, you belong! You never have to prove anything to anyone. In such contexts, where you feel compelled to give such answers, always remember that it’s never about the answer to the question. The problem doesn’t lie in an absence of answers, but in the presence of question. When I think of this I always draw a quick parallel to another context: that of racism.
It’s common and fascinating to watch the responses of people to scenarios where racism may or may not have taken place — and how these responses differ. We’ve all heard the dismissive responses from people who are uncomfortable with talking about race or racism. Here’s a scenario: say an Asian woman walks into a business and meets a passive receptionist at the front counter. The receptionist seems busy and she greets him and gets ignored, so she waits to be engaged. As she’s waiting, a white male walks in and he gets engaged right away and helped by the receptionist. After he’s done, the receptionist finally turns to the lady. Now, in this scenario, this experience might have been racially motivated or gender driven, or could also very well not be. The receptionist could’ve just looked up and decided on a whim to engage whoever he saw first. But, consider this: if the first client who walked wasn’t an Asian woman and was instead a white male, would we ever need to wonder whether the clients were treated differently based on gender or race (two different layers)? No, we wouldn’t. So, the privilege of the white male isn’t that we always know what the answer is for him; the privilege is that we never have to ask the question (because there’s never been a historical context in which this was the case. Duh!). AND THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT!
I, as an African immigrant, have a privilege over “Black Americans”. I’m a person who has had to question where I belong — on a personal, tribal/cultural level, yes — which is relatively trivial. While Black Americans live in a country where they’ve always had to question where they belong on almost every level conceivable. I, and other African immigrants, have and feel more certainly in our identities than most Black Americans do, from my observation, at least, and I see this manifest and protrude in several ways. For one, I still struggle to understand the attachment to color, and I’ve made peace with the fact that I’m never going to understand it. In fact, most African immigrants won’t, if they’re being honest with themselves, which I feel many aren’t because they’ve been made to feel they’re supposed to embody and inherit the “struggle” and be down with the cause.
I think this is a denial of privilege and I see this as well. A great poet, Adam Falkner, when describing white privilege in a poem, spoke a very powerful line: “You dip your toe in and out; you run when you must but you stay when you choose…”. I see many African and Afro-Caribbean immigrants do this. Black American culture is something they temporarily partake in freely, and then when they’re done, they go back to their cultures, and most are also distant and have very few Black Americans friends. I think many Black Americans are starting to catch on to this as well, which explains why there have been more clashes and “diaspora wars” in the recent.
I don’t mean for this to be divisive, but I think it is important to acknowledge these differences. The point I was making is that as an African immigrant, now undergoing the struggle of being “atopos”, I still have a root and a memory of what it was like to never have to be conscious of the color of my skin. To never understand that I’m even supposed to ask any questions pertinent thereof. That is a privilege. Black Americans don’t have this privilege. Their identity and culture, in fact, was formed around this constant awareness imposed by American racism and social/systemic oppression. I can’t pretend to know what that feels like entirely. Even if and when I experience situations of racism and prejudice, I still have memories of when and where this never happened, and that’s a privilege.
Africans and African/Afro-Caribbean immigrants, simply don’t have the same attachment to race as Black Americans — and shouldn’t be expected to.
I had a Black American friend ask me one day if I identify as a Black American. I told him I identify strictly as a Nigerian. He took offense, and I see this quite a lot. He went on to leverage the ever-classic refutation: “If a cop pulls you over, he’s not going to know whether you’re African or Black American…” This is such a revealing statement, and the commonness and recurrence of it is one of many things that have caused me to see just how wide this gap is between how Black Americans and the Afro-Diaspora think of identity. Identity, of course, is absolutely never about how anyone sees you, but about how you’ve been raised to see yourself, to think of yourself, and to understand the world around you! But this only applies if you’re not from a place where you’re living with your oppressors.
My Black American friend was confident and felt strongly about his question, and this worried me deeply. It appeared that he was invoking an “oppressor’s” perspective onto something he seemed to want to be exclusionary of it. The blatant conundrum here is that my friend reminded me of the critical factor that he’d never experienced the privilege of not having to see identity through the lens of oppression. Till this very day, I still kick myself for not asking him if he would see the difference between a Black American and an African immigrant before pulling them over if he was the cop. Or if he could identify a Kenyan from a Nigerian just by looking at them.
The underlying fallacy in this imposition that I should factor in the oppressor’s perspective when “negotiating?” my identity stems from his premise as to why I should identify as Black American. This is paradoxical and rich in irony. He, along with many Black people in America, seek after a unified front against White oppression, and I completely get this. But, I still maintain that it is ironic that a countermeasure of oppression — in which we’re painted in the same brush and not seen as the individuals that we are — is to…paint ourselves with the same brush and refuse to acknowledge our own individuality…because…and get this…our oppressor doesn’t care? Why invoke what the oppressor cares or does not care about in the first place? When it’s pointed out now, it seems tedious and redundant, but when I consider how many people repeat this same assertion and withhold it with unyielding seriousness, I’m forced to acknowledge that it’s perhaps best to avoid these conversations with Americans altogether.
Let’s talk about the clashes between Afro-Diasporic immigrants and Black Americans.
In a conversation with Chimamanda Adichie — the Nigerian author and speaker who has become the global face of feminism, Trevor Noah, the South African born, Daily Show host discussed his experiences growing up as a mixed person in South Africa. He pointed out that in South Africa, because of the country’s history with the Apartheid and racial oppression, many South African natives have come to associate success with whiteness. The idea of driving nice cars, having corporate jobs, living in big houses, were all things considered to be reserved for White people. Because of this, when native South Africans see others like themselves, doing such things, they call them “White”. “Oh, you’re driving a big car now, dressing well…you’re a white man,” Trevor recited. He then went on to describe his fascination when he first started hanging around Nigerian immigrants who were living in South Africa.
He was fascinated by how confident they were with their own selves. How they never wanted to watch a Hollywood movie but would instead insist on watching Nigerian movies; how the men would joke and complain about how skinny the White women on their TV screens were, and how Nigerians carried themselves. Trevor would inquire how they could possibly enjoy watching Nollywood movies (in his defense, the quality of these movies were much different back then), and they would respond with, “We love our movies, and our music, and our things…” And Trevor Noah had never seen this before. He’d never seen “Black” Africans being that bold about their own identities.
Many South Africans today still struggle with this. This even resurfaced in the wake of the xenophobic attacks that took place in South Africa last year, in which many Nigerians were killed. Because many of them were seeing Nigerians become successful and seeing their confidence and perhaps “audacity”, intensities began to rise. The lifestyle Nigerian immigrants were living in South Africa was something mostly White South Africans and Asian or European immigrants got to experience. It’s mostly out of reach for Native South Africans, not to speak of other people who looked like them but weren’t even from their countries. Seeing successful people who look like them was unfortunately something they’ve been groomed — through oppression — to question, and it was in attempts to answer this question that they began framing theories that most or all of these Nigerian immigrants in their country are doing illegal things.
It’s clear that South Africans and Black Americans have a unique and important connection, compared to the rest of the Afro-Diaspora. These are people who have had and still have to live with their oppressors. It’s been interesting watching how these similarities manifest. In South Africa, the natives question the success of other African immigrants, and in America, many Black Americans also question this. It’s known that Nigerian immigrants are the most educated group in America, and that 2 of 3 “Black” doctors in America are Nigerians. On top of this, we often hear news of graduating classes of ivy league schools containing a significant amount of Nigerian students. In Europe, this is the case as well. But I think this is why identity can never be about how others see you. Nigerians joke about this inborn obligation to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc., and in the Nigerian context IN NIGERIA, this is a normal and expected aspiration. In the American context, seeing Nigerians talk about this causes many to assert that Nigerians are trying to become the model minority.
I get it. The Asian American demographic has always played the model minority for Black Americans, which was and is extremely harmful, but, there’s still some gap, as Asian Americans and Black Americans have distinctive physical appearances that set them apart. For Nigerian and other African immigrants, however, these distinctions in physical features aren’t as clear or even present. So, African immigrants serving as the model minorities for Black Americans is exponentially more toxic because the differences in skin and features aren’t there (one layer of identity (in the American context) eliminated). So, I understand the fears, but I still don’t think they’re fair. It’s a complete coincidence that a cultural trope of one demographic clashes with the sociocultural and sociopolitical complexities of a different region.
But one thing that can be established here for sure is that the clashes between Black Americans and the rest of the Afro-Diaspora are cultural. As they should be. I understand where they come from, but I don’t understand the fascination or shock people seem to have in response. People from countries with clear and visible history of oppression and people from places where most people look the same should differ in how they see and experience identity. Many Black Americans want this sense of solitude and “Black” unity with people from Africa, but inevitably run into cultural barriers — as they should. Forced unity with people just because they share some physical features with you is unviable and wrong for some important reasons.
1. Said unity is always centered around the blanketing of identities in which people are expected to identify as Black. The problem here is that Black (in the sense of race) is not only something that doesn’t actually exist, you know — because race in general literally doesn’t actually exist, but also because that word contains so many nuances that it becomes redundant and confusing. This brings me back to the initial paradox and I get smacked in the face again by the redundancies. When we say black, we’re either talking about race or we’re talking about culture. In America, given the absolute stupidity and ignorance and just all-around laziness of the said pioneers who created the concept of race, unfortunately, race and culture appear to be mutually exclusive. So, when Black Americans say the word black, they’re referring both to culture and race. This suggests that these two things are mutually exclusive, and the problem here is that people who share the physical features (race) but don’t share the culture (Black) are going to be very confused, not knowing where they fit.
2. There’s no one culture for people who look like what has come to be defined as black, and there’s also no one appearance for people who look like what has come to be defined as black. It’s important to remember that race isn’t conceptually comprised to individual physical features but more collective set of features. The problem is that this makes absolutely no sense. There are people in India with skin darker that most people in Africa, and there are people in Sub-Saharan Africa with straight noses and thin lips, and narrow “Asian” eyes, and etc. Africa is, in fact, more genetically diverse than the rest of the world combined. Read it again and let it sink in. So, race doesn’t exist, and neither does Black. So, then who is black? Who gets to determine the definitions and limitations of this concept? This brings me to point number two.
3. So, who gets to define who is black? If a bunch of people are supposed to attend a party, who gets to determine the dress code? One of the things that absolutely irritate and bother and almost cause fumes to escape from my ears, is when I hear Black Americans telling people who look like them that they’re not really “Black” because of how they’re talking, how they’re dressed, how they feel, think, who they date, who they vote for, what they eat, their sexual orientation, and even where they work! I absolutely hate this sentiment. It’s wrong and disturbing from an intellectual standpoint because for one, people who do this have already gone ahead and created a definition for something so nonexistent and abstract — a definition they intend to universalize for everyone else who shares their physical appearance. It’s when others fall short of these definitions and behavioral parameters that they conclude that they’re not “Black”.
Joe Biden said, while still campaigning, “If you don’t vote for me, you ain’t black,” — and he was torn a new one, as he should. But, my only issue with this scenario is that I know exactly where he got it from, and this is just a reminder that more often than not, people are treated how they treat themselves. The Black community in America has long gotten away with the monopolization of certain words, slangs, mannerisms, and expressions. One of them, is again this need to use exclusionary language towards each other. I could not help but be confused when I saw the outrage with Biden because I was disgusted by the lack of accountability in where his statement came from. People joke when they say, “You can’t say or do that to us, only we can say or do that to us.” I’m resentful of how serious they always seem because all I hear is, “You can’t be toxic and harmful towards us, only we can be toxic and harmful towards ourselves”. To define said “Black” is to set the terms of how said people should be united. Who gets to set these terms and why?
Why define it at all? Defining a collective of people as one blanket term sets them up to be seen or to feel obligated to identify with a monolithic classification — a complete trivialization of their individual identities. Additionally, if this was done, activisms for equality would still center around assertions that “Black isn’t a monolith!” — a lamentation that often emits from people who then turn around and attempt to enforce monolithic rules on other “Black” people. Why force everyone to pretend they’re all one thing and then spend a lifetime trying to prove they’re not all one thing? Redundancies.
Here’s the thing. This is complex but not nearly as complicated as it appears. We have to stop trying to prove things that are already true by trying to enforce, assert, and gatekeep things are completely untrue. Yvonne Orji, standup comic, motivational speaker, and star of HBO hit series, Insecure, was asked on the Breakfast Club to address the perceived gaps between African immigrants and Black Americans. She insisted on only speaking for Nigerians (her own nationality) and explained that Nigerians look down on each other and have their own division inside our own country. That resonated significantly with me as someone of two completely different Nigerian cultures because I know how much both my cultures dislike each other. So, for me, the gap between African immigrants and Black Americans are just another instance of cultural differences clashing — as they always do. One thing many forget is how much White Europeans despise Americans. The cultural disconnections between Africans and Black Americans aren’t any different from that of White Americans and Europeans, or Asian Americans and people from their home countries in Asia. I know these things because I’ve read, listened, and had these conversations with people from other countries around the world and the pattern is irrefutably present.
Identity is dynamic. It’s already been established that identities come in layers but one thing I’ve also observed is that depending on where one is, or what role or space one is actively occupying, one layer may be more pronounced than the others. If an immigrant from Korea lands in America and meets an immigrant from Ghana and the airport, the fact of the matter is that these two very different people have more in common than they do with anyone else. The Korean immigrant has more in common with the Ghanaian immigrant than he/she would with another Korean American who was born and raised in America, or another Asian person; and likewise the Ghanaian has more in common with the Korean immigrant than with a Black American or other Africans who have been here for much longer than he/she has. This is because at the initial shock and struggle of being in a completely new environment, the layer of being an immigrant is the most significant and active at that moment.
These two can bond over the confusion, the questions, and the culture shock. And many immigrants experience culture shock that either take years to go away or never really do. In America, being conservative has come to be fallaciously delegated almost exclusively to White Republican Americans. In reality, Asian and African and even Latinx immigrants are a lot more conservative than White Americans. One of the least conservative cultures in America is the mainstream Black American culture, which is really where the disconnections from Afro-diasporic cultures stem from.
In my pursuit to understand something that doesn’t exist and doesn’t actually make any sense, I still find myself stumped. To be clear, saying race doesn’t exist and isn’t rational doesn’t mean I’m denying all of the atrocities and chaos that have been caused in the name of race. Absolutely not. Guess what else doesn’t exist? Time…and yet time controls and structures so much of the things we do. Time is as much of a construct as race. Other things like religion have also impacted our lives, and all of these things are as intangible as race. So, again, pointing out the fallacies and invalidity of a concept doesn’t mean I’m in denial of the impact of that concept. The reason I’ve given up on discussing race with Americans is that:
1. Most White Americans are too dismissive and too much in denial of the impacts, and the extents of all of the sociopolitical damage and consequences of the concept of race. The ones that acknowledge it rarely do it justice or understand the full scale of it. There’s a discomfort which easily turns into obliviousness and ends with someone insulting my intelligence: see “All Lives Matter!” and/or “Ancient Aliens!” and/or Fox “News”. Analogically, I like to think of it as a person who created a box and stored a bunch of memories in it and is now afraid to go near the box because of the realities it contains.
2. Most Black Americans are too immersed in race to see beyond it. This article, for instance, has drawn out much longer than I intended, and despite everything I’ve said, there are still people who would read this and still not understand or believe that there are African people who know a world of which race doesn’t exist and thus have a lot more complexities to maneuver when approaching an understanding of how this whole “America” thing is supposed to work. Analogically, I’d say this is like being inside of a box (America) and not being to see beyond it because they’ve always been inside of it. But, also finally being freed from the box and instead of trying to see the world outside of the box, many are still trying to see the world through the framing of that box.
3. Black Americans should really be called Americans because that is literally what they are, and it comes out. At the end of the day, Black Americans have as much claim to America as anyone else, if not more than most. Immigrants run into an obligation and pressure to assimilate in America. Afro-immigrants run into the same pressures to assimilate the Black American view on race and identity and other nuances thereof. The problem is that this is always a one-way street. In these conversations, most Black Americans want to frame standardized dispositions for Afro-immigrants, but are hardly ever willing to understand where these people are coming from. I’m forced to conclude that in such cases, this isn’t the “Black” aspect of “Black Americans” coming out, but is instead the American aspect. This brings me to my fourth point.
4. America is a place in which ignorance is incubated, normalized, mainstreamed and celebrated, and watching from the Bird’s eye view of an inbetweener, the reality is that Black Americans and White Americans are a lot more similar than they realize. Similar in how they see the rest of the world, and in the credit/credibility they’re willing to delegate to the rest of the world. Americans (both Black and White) expect that at any given time, and in any given context, the rest of the world should be ready to see things through their perspectives and to accept their perspectives as the standard. When one considers how disconnected America actually is from the rest of the planet, this becomes difficult.
Most immigrants know that there’s a certain connection most of the rest of the world has in which America seems to be omitted. For instance, the newest fashion, the latest dance trends, music, cars, etc., that aren’t made in America actually circulate the rest of the world before the finally break into America, at which point — of course — America is quick to take credit for the discovery of these things. Americans consider themselves the center of the world, and Black Americans are no exception to this. In pan-African conversations, I often see a certain entitlement in which Black Americans expect to be the custodians and framers of the conversation for the rest of the Afro-Diaspora. Again, this isn’t a Black American thing, but is instead an American thing.
5. Americans are obsessed with either/or reasoning. One is either in full agreement of one side of a context or one is in full agreement with the opposite. In the peak of Cancel/Woke culture (insert puking sound), there’s hardly room for individuality. There’s absolutely no intellect in this approach to social justice, just ignorance, anger, overzealousness, fragility, intellectual laziness and hatred. The way that arguments and dispositions are addressed leave little to no room for actual useful, intellectual problem solving. This is unrealistic because no one could ever have uniformed opinions with other people.
For instance, one can agree with the premise of an argument but disagree with the conclusion. You could say, “It’s raining outside, so let’s stay inside and drink tea…”, to which your companion could say “It’s raining outside, so let’s go dance in the rain”. You both agree that its raining outside, but you have different responses to the rain. In American reasoning, this isn’t allowed. If you agree that its raining outside, it means you also agree that you should stay inside and drink tea. The way that cancel culture works is that even this entire post could be seen as “offensive” and “anti-Black” because it doesn’t follow the standard format of repeating “Woke” talking points and easy rhetoric.
None of these should be surprising to immigrants. I’ve spoken to many immigrants from all parts of the world. In fact, while in Milan in 2018, I was talking to a guy from Georgia, the small Southern European country above Armenia, and he told me he’d spent plenty of time in Nigeria. We talked about Nigeria and he was very nostalgic about his experiences there with seeing how people lived, how children played, etc. We agreed on the same sentiment I’ve also heard other immigrants in America express, which is that immigrants don’t go to America or to Western countries looking for freedom. Instead, they go looking for rights, and these are two completely different things.
America is a place that markets itself on freedom and individuality, but if you look close enough at American culture, you’ll hardly see neither of these things. What you will see is a bunch of people obsessively defending and proclaiming things that no sane person should ever need to proclaim to begin with, while thinking this is somehow revolutionary. I’ve had conversations about race with Indians, and they understand it much more than most Americans appear to, and these are people from a country that suffered one of the most extreme of impacts of British imperialism and colonization. Most of the world knows about the Jewish Holocaust in Nazi Germany in which over 6 million lives were taken, but only a few know about the British Raj in India, in which over 18 million people lost their lives.
I recall my friend’s question. Do I identify as black? I don’t know, but I have more questions of my own. What is “Black?” Does this “Black” identify with my already preexistent identity? If identifying as black wouldn’t and shouldn’t make any difference on my reality, then why the zealous assertion that I should? If so called “Black” people are actually realistically, scientifically, more diverse than the rest of the world combined, then why try to group them under one term? If “Black” is a physical set of features shouldn’t you be able to just look at someone and determine whether or not they’re black? Then shouldn’t you not ever need to even the question in the first place? Were Africans identifying as “Black” before European invasion and colonization? I don’t know if I identify as black because I don’t know if it identifies with me. What I do know is that I identify as a very confused immigrant who was already confused before coming to America and became even more confused upon discovering that everyone is confused but don’t realize they’re confused because they’re American. I am Atopos.