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The Ointment That Makes You Glow: A Reflection on Race, Immigration, Religion & Jollof Rice

An exploration of the nuances of being a Black person in white spaces and how my West African background reflects my response to certain accepted behavior.

Photo credit: Isaiah & Taylor Photography

It is 2014. You are a Nigerian living in the United States. You are the parent of a U.S.-born child. The immigration authorities have given people like you the label of resident alien. This is the third country outside of the land of your birth that you will live in. It is the first to use the term ‘alien’ to describe those who choose to make their home in a country they were not born in.

You have taken the day off work to accompany your daughter’s third-grade class as one of two chaperones on a field trip to what was once the home of George and Martha Washington. A sprawling estate called Mount Vernon, which is now one of many historical sites in the country.

For every year that your child has been in grade school, you are learning something new.

Your co-chaperone is a heavyset Black father whose eyes are kind and patient. You have both co-chaperoned before, and so you know that he is a police officer who works with the Washington D.C. police department. You both watch as the group of children skip exuberantly toward the entrance to the majestic building that was once home to the first president of the country.

You breathe in the coolness of the autumn air and casually declare, “It is so beautiful here. I wonder what it would have been like to live here during the days of George Washington.”

Your co-chaperone glances at you, the expression on his face a mixture of incredulity and sympathy as he responds, “For you and me? Not so good.”

He might as well have said, “Believe me when I tell you that you do not want to go back to that time.”

You mentally check the box for your lesson learned for that day. The sting of his truthful remark gnaws at the essence of your spirit for the rest of the day. It sets the tone for your entire visit to Mount Vernon. It reminds you how strongly the imprint of racial injustice has adhered to every aspect of life in these United States.

 

****

There is this recurring dream that I have. I am at a party. It is not clear who is hosting the event. I am unable to make out the faces of those in attendance. Yet, there is a note of familiarity in them. There is also an eerie and unbearable tension in the air, and I instinctively know the cause of that tension. The jollof rice in the party is about to run out, and not everyone will be fed. The panic in the dream is as palpable as it is alarming. Someone once told me that dreams are like looking in the mirror. We see the opposite of reality. This means that if you see someone preparing to do you harm in a dream, there is a strong possibility that in real life, that is the person that will save you. I have had that dream just a handful of times in my life. And when I do, it is usually when I am undergoing a stressful period.

The diversity that exists on the African continent is staggering. Nigeria presents just a microcosm of this. 250 ethnic groups and more than 500 languages centered around three main ethnicities: Hausa-Fulani, Igbo, and Yoruba. I am a Yoruba girl. I was born and raised in Lagos, which is in the South-West of Nigeria. Nigerians like to call Lagos ‘No Man’s Land.’ It used to be the capital of the country and continues to serve as its heartbeat. It is called ‘No Man’s Land’ because it is home to a medley of all ethnicities in the country and beyond. I have had people laugh in my face for having the temerity to say that I am from Lagos. While the Yoruba culture dominates the city, there is a representation of the larger and smaller ethnicities in the country, so it is hard to believe that people can claim the city as a hometown. Yet, my family traces its origins to this city, so it is my hometown.

Perhaps because of my upbringing in a multicultural setting, where my culture was the dominant one, and accepting other cultures was not unusual, that made me oblivious to racial microaggressions.

Nigeria’s cultural diversity extends to the cuisine, where the level of its variety is unquantifiable. Some food that is consumed by certain ethnic groups is not enjoyed by others. But we are all united when it comes to jollof rice. Everyone eats it. No festive occasion is complete without it. The adoration and consumption of jollof rice is one that extends across most of West Africa.

Perhaps because of my upbringing in a multicultural setting, where my culture was the dominant one, and accepting other cultures was not unusual, that made me oblivious to racial microaggressions. I would naively dismiss racially-tinged encounters as someone having a bad day or someone who had abysmally poor manners or, even worse, failing remarkably well at activating their inherent emotional intelligence.

 

In 1999 I have inhabited my Black skin for a quarter of a century. I am a tropical child living in temperate land. It is the middle of winter in the beautiful city of Bath, where I am studying for a graduate degree. I miss Nigerian food. I miss homemade jollof rice. I am fortunate to having family living close by. If you would consider a hundred and fifty miles away close by. I travel from Bath to my brother’s home in Kent. His wife makes some of the best food – including jollof rice. The previous few weeks have been a seemingly endless cavalcade of writing papers, quizzes, study groups, seminars, and studying. I am badly in need of some comfort food.

I take a bus from the university campus to the train station in the middle of the city. A train from Bath deposits me at London Paddington Station. I navigate the labyrinth of the city’s legendary tube network to find my way to London Bridge and board a train that will take me to the train station close to my brother’s home. On the train from London Bridge, I proceed to sit beside a well-dressed woman. She is wearing a coat that has faux fur on the sleeves and collar. She also has on a papakha hat that looks like a mini-Afro on her head. I mouth a greeting to her, and I am not perturbed when she just glares at me in response. If anything, I am relieved. I have been traveling for a long time. I am tired and not in the mood for small talk, which I am not particularly good at. As the train chugs to life and starts to move, the woman stands up abruptly. The movement is so swift that it momentarily startles me. She does not say anything or look in my direction, but she crosses past me, knocking my knees as she proceeds to move to a different section of the train. I watch as she takes a seat a few rows ahead of me. As I proceed to move to the window seat that the woman has vacated, I notice a pair of ladies’ gloves. With the train swaying side to side as it picks up speed, I stand up and walk to where the woman is now seated comfortably. She notices me approaching and looks away immediately.

“Excuse me,” I say softly. “I think you left your gloves on…”

I am unable to complete the sentence as she grabs the pair of gloves from my outstretched hands without looking at me. I notice that the paleness of her skin is starting to redden.

I return to my seat and try to read the book I have with me, but end up looking out of the window for the rest of the journey watching the houses fly by with the backdrop of the setting sun in the distance.

The familiar aroma of Nigerian food welcomes me as I enter my brother’s home. My arrival is expected, and the requisite drums and red carpet have been rolled out in the form of food that I have been craving. I settle down to a nice plate of jollof rice with luscious pieces of grilled chicken and fried plantain. When my brother solicitously asks how my trip was, I narrate my encounter with the woman on the train to him and his wife. As I begin to tell the story, my brother interjects to ask, “She was white, wasn’t she?” It is a simple yet profound statement that creates weird alchemy within me. I internally chastise myself for naively overlooking this vital piece of information. I will never know if the woman who had acted so strangely toward me was acting out a racial microaggression, an ill-mannered person, or someone who was coming to the tail end of a rather bad day. I do know that that evening in my brother’s living room, as I savor the joy of much-needed comfort food, I make a silent resolve to do better. To do better at being intuitively aware of racial microaggressions. It is a resolve that I would fail remarkably at.

I recount my encounter on the train with my family. We delve into a broader discussion on race and cultural identity. My brother, who had lived in the U.K. for more years than I had, shares his struggle with retaining his cultural identity in a country where his is not recognized as the dominant one. It starts with something as simple as a Nigerian name. An audacious refusal to modify one’s name to conform to European culture, or worse, adopt an English name, to simplify things for friends and colleagues who find your name too foreign to pronounce.

“If they can pronounce Schwarzenegger, then they can pronounce Uzoamaka.”

The Nigerian-American actress Uzo Aduba tells the story of coming home from school as a child and asking her mother if she could change her name to Zoe to make it easier for her friends to pronounce. Her mother’s proudly defiant response, “If they can pronounce Schwarzenegger, then they can pronounce Uzoamaka.” Even as I type this, Microsoft Word recognizes the last name of the actor who introduced us to the Terminator in the movies but not the Uzoamaka. This is evident in the red lines under the name both times that it appears in this piece. A vibrant rejection of foreignness.

Uzoamaka is an Igbo name. It means the road is good.

 

***

The outrage that followed the brutal killing of Mr. George Floyd was accompanied by another sort of outcry which is so aptly captured in the following statement that was posted on a Facebook account belonging to someone named Grady Gordon:

If racists are kneeling on necks in broad daylight, imagine what they are doing in HR departments, classrooms, and medical offices across the country and the world. We know it’s bigger than just the police.

This eloquent epiphany is all too familiar to this Nigerian girl, bewildered as she has been by how differently she has been treated in the workplace. She knows that the treatment she receives has less to do with her performance and more to do with who she is. She knows this because she gets glowing feedback on the work that she does. Yet, for six years, she works under a manager who holds her career down with a knee. She could not move up, and she could not breathe. Never one to be intimidated by hard work, she naively assumed that the easiest way to overcome this challenge would be to continue to work as hard as she could. But she soon discovered that the rules applied to other people of different skin color in the same profession did not apply to her. She does not have an Anglo-Saxon first name. She has kinky hair that she likes to wear out and which elicits snippy comments from her co-workers, “Is it that you don’t like straight hair?”

The knee that holds down her career does not budge.

She cannot breathe.

She does what most professionals do when faced with such a crisis, she goes to Human Resources. She thinks she has found an ally in a fellow Black West African woman who is the Human Resources Business Partner assigned to her unit. This Human Resources Business Partner appears to be sympathetic and understanding, even going as far as to point out the trials and tribulations that Black people deal with in the workplace.

When the story of racism in the workplace is written, a special mention should be reserved for certain Black people. They are the Black people who look the other way when their fellow minorities are being oppressed. They are the Black people who even enable the oppression of their fellow Black people by pretending to care.

She cannot breathe.

Months after their initial conversation, she is called into a meeting with her manager and the Human Resources Business Partner. They inform her that her position is being made redundant and she is being let go. There are many things that this Nigerian girl will always remember during her journey through life. The smug look on the face of the Human Resources Business Partner is one of them.

Italians have an expression for this sort of betrayal: E come essere schiaffeggiato nel buio. It is like being slapped in the dark.

Stories that have been written about slavery in the antebellum South describe the disdain with which house slaves would regard the field slaves. A mockery that violently hurled the words, “We may both be oppressed, but I am in an elevated position where I can wear my oppression better than you can.”

In her keynote address at the 2018 Inbound Conference in Boston, the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie remarked, “Oppression walks in complicated ways. To become a member of an oppressed group does not mean that you are sanctified. You do not become a saint by being oppressed.”

As I listened to the manager and HR Business Officer read from an obviously prepared script about the next steps that were available for me in the organization, I knew that my sense of self-worth had not been diminished when the first thing that I thought was, “One day I will write about this.”

 

***

When Barack Obama was campaigning for election to be the President of the United States, a rumor started circulating that he was a Muslim. It probably had a lot to do with his middle name, Hussein. It is an Arabic name, which means “good,” “handsome, or “beautiful.” Many of Mr. Obama’s supporters provided evidence that he is not a Muslim. But even after some legitimate efforts to debunk the myth of his personal religious choice, it is interesting that at least a third of the population continues to believe that he is. Many people continue to offer false evidence to the contrary. But the one thing that stands out for me is that few people suggest this as a counterstatement: There is nothing wrong with being a Muslim. This vital point is omitted from the discourse that makes the rounds on mainstream media and stands out for me like a red flower in a riot of yellow blooms.

In Nigeria, the two prominent religions are Islam and Christianity. Growing up, I was surrounded by both faiths. I am a practicing Christian, and perhaps because of my background, I am at ease with both religions. Not all Christians are as accommodating as I am when it comes to Islam. I have been around other Christians who refuse to entertain conversations about Islam. Of all the places that I have lived, I have not felt Islamophobia with such palpable intensity as I have in the United States. It is particularly telling that a high percentage of Muslims around the world are Black and brown people.

Writing in The New Yorker, Michael Luo deftly provides an explanation for the American anathema to Islam:

In the end, however, ameliorating the theology of white Christianity is likely inadequate. In “Taking America Back for God,” published in early 2020, the sociologists Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry examine racist and xenophobic attitudes among white Christians through the lends of a distinct set of cultural beliefs – most notably, the idea that America is, and should be a Christian nation. […] The defining concern of Christian nationalism is the preservation of a certain kind of social order, one threatened by people of color, immigrants, and Muslims. 

Faith is an extremely personal thing. Those who choose to live by faith go beyond worshiping on a designated day of the week. Religious belief is a way of life that serves as the moral compass guiding one’s very existence. As a Christian, I am always taken aback when I see pastors use their platform to denigrate the one billion people practicing another religion, they do not have any authority to speak about. I think it is one of the most dangerous things that a person can do. It is more precarious if it comes from a religious leader whose words are listened to, respected, and possibly acted on.

 

On August 5, 2020, just days after celebrating the Islamic holiday of Eid-al-Adha, Djibril and Adja Djol, their two-year-old daughter, Kadida, and Djibril’s sister, Hassan, and her seven-month-old daughter, Hawa Beye, were burnt to death in their home in Denver, Colorado. The police are investigating this unbelievably heinous act as a hate crime. There is a strong chance that the family was targeted because they were Black and Muslim.

We live in a world where hate allows people to overlook our shared humanity and focus instead on things that do not really matter or have much consequence – the color of one’s skin, the way one speaks, the religion one practices.

I will never understand racism. I will never understand the need to dominate, abase, and oppress another person because their skin color is different from yours, because they speak a language different from yours, or if they speak your language, they have an accent that is not familiar to you, or because they worship differently. I will never understand the emotion behind enabling the oppression of another person or the ability to be casually blind in the face of others’ despair. All are too cruel. Who are we as human beings if we ignore others’ suffering or, worse, enable it?

For the last decade and a half that I have lived in the United States, I have come to realize that when it comes to racism, the past is present, and the present is past. It seems like endless discrimination against people of color that is equal parts incomprehensible, unjust, and heartbreaking.

Racism is a complex and uncomfortable topic. No one seems to want to talk about it. While some may justify it, others seem content to ignore how it complicates the journey through life of the people on the receiving end of racial injustice. Yet, I sometimes wonder what the perceptions would be if a Black person and a white person are having an honest disagreement. Would the white person be considered a racist for arguing with the Black person simply because the white person belongs to the dominant culture? After all, where two or three are gathered, indeed, there is always room for dissent.

Recent immigrants to the U.S. are drawn to the country because of the way it serves up such a rich tapestry of cultural offerings. The idea that you can come here and settle, retain your cultural identity, and contribute meaningfully to the American story. It is a seductive and magnetizing idea that takes you beyond the scope of your imagination. Nothing prepares us for the level of division and hatred that we find here. Nothing prepares us for the notion that some people find it difficult to coexist with us because we are considered different and do not fall into their pre-existing categories.

Writing in the New York Times magazine, fellow immigrant Laila Lalami captures the American idea so succinctly:

In principle, the United States is a country where various tribes are supposed to work in coalition to form what the founders called “a perfect union.” Americans also pride themselves on having a “melting pot” model of immigration, in which each new group is thrown into the mix, contributing to the overall sustenance of the nation. But the reality of this country’s history is that one tribe has held on to power, deciding who was allowed to settle the land and who could be dispossessed, who was free and who was enslaved, who had the right to vote and who did not. 

Ms. Lalami’s words present a sobering reality of how the white race has been historically dominant in the United States. There has always been an unarticulated expectation that all other ethnicities would fall behind the white race. This would explain the tokenism behind the celebration of certain cultures during specific months of the year: Black History Month in February, and Hispanic Heritage Month in September, as a way to downplay the overwhelming white supremacy that permeates the land when the truth is we really could all be celebrating and highlighting each other’s cultures all year round. Let us stop here and pay attention to the fact that there is no white History Month, and if there was, could we imagine what that would look like? Most white people are unfortunately oblivious to the notion of white supremacy because it is the way it has always been. The term ‘white fragility’ traces its origins to the American academic Robin Di Angelo. She describes it as a powerful means of white racial control and the protection of white advantage.

 

Djibril Diol was a civil engineer who attended Colorado State University and wrote plays while he was studying. He was the first in his family to earn a university degree. He did so while supporting his family in the U.S. and those back in his native Senegal. On Facebook, there is a picture of him looking contemplative as he paddles a canoe. I look at that picture and try to imagine what he was thinking at that moment. Perhaps he had layered thoughts about his future. Maybe he was thinking about how he will continue to navigate an existence in a country where his skin color and religion were both considered weapons against the dominant race.

How much collective grief can an entire race take?

Two months before he was killed, he wrote the following on his Facebook page:

 Look here, life is full of ups and downs, my friend. However, never let life obstacles or anything someone says or does bring you down. Keep your head up and keep pushing forward brothers and sisters. Desire and determination will overcome any obstacles. Love you all…

A young family man who demonstrated tremendous resilience to accomplish so much, only to have his life cut short because some people thought he was different from what they would like to see.

How much collective grief can an entire race take?

A prayer from the Qu’ran: Inna lillahi wa ina illahi raju’n.

Translated from Arabic, it means To God We Belong and to Him We Shall Return.

There is a tenderness in those words that in confirming the inevitability of our mortality, we acknowledge the weakness of our human existence and that an all-knowing God is waiting to welcome us with open arms.

In her beautiful poem titled Be, Ijeoma Umebinyuo encourages us to:

Use their hate
as an ointment
to glow even more

let them wonder
how people like you
they have tried
to break
still shine

 

The phrase Black Lives Matter continues to reverberate throughout the world. It serves to provoke different feelings in different people. Some counter it with a chant of All Lives Matter as if that was ever in dispute. I realize that the countering likely comes from a place of fear and anger. A combustible mixture that signifies how some are threatened by the notion that by elevating Black people’s lives, the world is somehow diminishing the lives of people of other races. The reality is when it comes to Black lives, matter is the minimum.

Black lives are worthy.

Black lives are cherished.

Black lives are needed.

Black lives are precious.

Black lives are beloved.

Black lives are irreplaceable.

Black lives are royalty.

And even as Black people’s skin has been burnished with the ointment that makes us glow, we still rise.

 

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Jola Naibi

Jola Naibi was raised in Lagos, Nigeria, went to school in the U.K., has lived in Switzerland, and now lives in the U.S. Reading and writing fuel her energy, and her first book, Terra Cotta Beauty, which was published in 2014, is a collection of short stories set in Lagos. She writes as she remembers.