Am I black or am I white?

OK, sounds pretentious, but…what if, one day, you realized that people with whom you identified ethnically thought you an outsider?  A few years back, my (then) neighbour told me she had had to come to terms with exactly that…


At that time, my son was still a toddler, and her daughters (only a few years his seniors) thought him a doll.  They would play with him endlessly, and he ate it up:  big girls like me, Mom!  And as is neighbourly, we would often chat as we watched them play.

This lady had many interesting stories.  She was ‘black and proud of it’!  Her origins were Caribbean, but she grew up in North America and derived a lot of her strength and self-identity from the achievements of great leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  She used to get mad when people would use endless euphemisms to avoid saying the word ‘black’ or ‘negro’, demanding that those are beautiful words, and nobody should shame them.  You get the picture.

Her husband was also an immigrant, who came here from Western Africa.  One day, she told me that when they first got married, they decided to visit his family in Africa so that he could introduce her to his parents.  Wonderful, his parents loved her, she loved them, all went better than they had hoped for.  My friend told me she felt newly alive, reconnecting with her (generations removed) African heritage.

Yet, it was there, in that small African village, that she had to face this existential crisis.

One day, she was walking to the market, and the usual crowd of kids were running after her, calling out happily.  After all, they were not used to many visitors from so far away – and they were happy and friendly.  But, by this point, my friend had learned enough of the local language to understand what they were calling out:

“There goes the white lady!” and “The white lady smiled at me!” and so on…

At first she looked around, thinking there must be another visitor:  but no.  In their eyes, she was ‘the white lady’!

My neighbour laughed as she told me this story.  But she added seriously, until that day, she never realized that the lighter shade of her skin would make her appear ‘white’ to black African kids.  And that she kept thinking about this, for years….

Oh, don’t get me wrong:  having re-examined who she was, she came out strong and laughing.  But, next time you look into the mirror, ask yourself: if people suddenly saw you as the opposite of who you think you are, would you be able to come through it laughing?

All of us humans came from Africa at some point…