“You real fine and you pretty,” the smooth words rolled past his toothpaste commercial level white teeth and thick coffee bean shade lips. Before a girlish smile could plaster itself on my face, he added, “but you ain’t like, regular Black.”
“What the hell is regular Black?” I asked in confusion, halting my table wiping duties. He was leaning back in the chair next to his friend at the Hollywood club I worked as a waitress.
“You know, you ain’t like Black Black.” Then followed up with the phrase I’d heard so many times it should have been a one hit wonder, “Where are you from?”
His undivided attention should have filled me with butterflies. I never engaged with customers, it was always very procedural. Greetings with a forced smile. Get the orders. Pray they don’t make lewd comments. Serve drinks. Hope for a big tip. Then they leave. The one time I was eager to know a customer, the cutest one to walk through the door, left my mind mulling over what this “regular Black” concept was and instantly flooded me with all the other times I’d been “otherfied” from my Blackness.
As a Gikuyu, born and raised in Thika, Kenya, skin color was never part of my identity until I moved to Cedar Falls, Iowa at fifteen. My mother decided to pursue a Masters degree at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI), so she and my father brought my four siblings and me to the land of the free. My teenage brain was more excited about seeing snow and emulating every American show broadcast in Kenya, than forming an identity.
In the new country that my parents sought economic refuge, there was no escaping race. Starting with all the paperwork we had to do— school enrollment, medical forms, apartment, credit cards, IDs, lunch forms, etc. All wanted to know what color we were. The more forms, the more my parents got incensed. At one point, my mother got so angry she told us to check the “other” box, not the Black/African-American box. We weren’t Black/African-American, we were Kenyans or at least African and those were not there. She also wanted us to use our Gikuyu names instead of our English Christian names. I rebelled. I was already a fish out of the water at my new high school. I’d gone from a popular all-girls catholic boarding school, Loreto High School Limuru in Kenya, to a predominantly white school, Cedar Falls High School, in a very small town.
Out of almost twelve hundred students, less than twenty were Black. Five were mixed with other races and three rarely showed up. And now me.
One of the Black students, a star athlete named Shanice* was very kind and nice but I could tell she didn’t know what to make of me. We had the same chestnut complexion but my postcolonial Anglo-African accent made us completely different. Unlike the white kids, she was polite enough not to ask if I grew up in a tree, swam across the ocean, or had ever seen a computer. I was bemused why they would think that. I knew everything, well I thought I knew everything about America from TV and books but they acted as if I’d dropped from a different galaxy. Perhaps, I might as well have. I felt like I was in a time machine.
All the teachers were white. No school uniforms like all the schools in Kenya. Too many fast food restaurants. I counted thirteen types of cereal at the warehouse-sized grocery store. A mysterious cold and pure white substance falling from the sky called snow. Twenty-four hour TV. So many fat people. Five variations of the name Kate: Kat, Kit, Katie, Cate, Catie, Cathy. The English sounded fast and foreign, even though according to the placement test I had to take as part of the enrollment process put my score well above the juniors, despite only being a sophomore. The administration was shocked at how I could be so good at English after being in America for less than three weeks. Again, I was floored why as smart as Americans were portrayed on TV, they didn’t know that Kenya, among other countries, was a former British colony.
All of this culture shock was so much, I coiled into a shell of my former self. I never spoke to anyone unless I was asked a direct question in class. During lunch, I hid in my American Government class, the bathroom, and the library.
To help with my adjustment, one of the guidance counselors insisted I enter a Black History Month contest held by one of the other schools on Martin Luther King Day, for chance to win $100. Neither Black history nor MLK made sense to me at the time, but the money would come in handy. She gave me a study guide with a list of African-American achievements and tutored four of us in preparation for the contest. By the time she drove us to the adjacent town, Waterloo, the names Sojourner Truth, Malcolm X, Booker T. Washington, and Dorothy Dandridge became as familiar to me as Mekatilili Wa Menza, Dedan Kimathi, Steve Biko, and Chief Mkwawa.
The host of the contest, East High School, Waterloo, had a lot more Black students, and at 33% it was the most diverse school in the state. While my school only had one group compete, East High and the third school had several groups. My school couldn’t even amass enough Black students—an African (me), an Asian girl, a Black-white-Hispanic girl, and the lone “regular Black” girl who’d just relocated from North Carolina. We won the contest but the victory turned bitter when I suddenly remembered a conversation between my mother and one of the white women from the church we’d started attending. The well-meaning woman suggested my family live and go to school in Waterloo. My mother was confused, since it was a lot farther from the UNI campus. The implication of the well-meaning church-going white woman’s suggestion hit me like a ton of bricks as the teacher split the winnings among the four of us. My axis shifted as I replayed all my interactions since landing, and I started realizing just how twisted and complicated America’s relationship with race was.
Color in America wasn’t just the assigned identity but determined where you lived, went to school, job opportunities, and sometimes your safety. Cedar Falls was a 95.14% white town then, where people threw away brand new couches and TVs and had a school with the best technologies, sports programs, SAT/ACT prep courses. East Waterloo had crime, a higher unemployment rate, and homeless people sleeping on the snow. I understood my mother’s insistence on picking “other” as opposed to “Black/African American,” and the use of our Gikuyu names. An adult, a former religious and history teacher, she understood race relations better than me, and never wanted us subjected to the stigma that comes with being Black in America. She helped me understand the importance of MLK, so I dug deeper into Black History Month. The more I learned, the more the image of the America I’d been sold all my life dissipated. In my country, we spent months learning about Partice Lumumba and Cecil Rhodes, but in America the lives of Ida. B Wells, Otis Boykin, Daniel Hale Williams, and Fannie Lou Hamer were allotted a mere twenty-eight days.
In addition to the mounting knowledge on Black achievements, the kids at school reminded in subtle ways what box I was supposed to check. During a Truth-or-Dare game, all the other kids were asking each other to kiss, hug, share embarrassing moments or other sexual stuff, while I only got asked to demonstrate the new OH-OH OH-OH OH-NO NO dance from the Crazy In Love video. I wasn’t really sure how to do it because my mother frowned on pop music. And I also couldn’t dance, something that seemed to mystify my classmates. Yet even as I got older and learned more about my Black box in America, I still got the same question: Where are you from? I still had my Kenyan accent, and according to most people, “looked Ethiopian.” There was no winning the battle–I was perceived Black but still “othered.” And when I got to college, my identity crisis got worse.
I enrolled at UNI, where Mother earned her Masters. There 3% Black students and 4% international students respectively. My advisor suggested that I join the International Student Association (ISA) for immigrants and African Student Union (ASU) for Africans. One was a rock and a hard place. Some ISA members looked down on immigrants from Africa and usually had cliques based on geographical regions. And because I’d been in America for a while, I was disconnected from ASU, even though I’d hadn’t quite assimilated into the American culture. That American culture that was supposed to be my box got even further away when at UNI. I became friends with a classmate in my American History class, the only class I had, taught by a Black professor. Older, and from what he called “the hood,” Darrell* was very curious about Africa. He attended several ASU meetings soaking in as much knowledge as he could about the motherland, while educating me about his Black American culture. We traded our sources of oppression: slavery and racism in America and European colonialism in Africa. The gap created when his ancestors were stacked in the Jesus Of Lubeck carrack was irreparable, even in moments when we were both discriminated against for having black skin.
After a year at UNI, I transferred to the University Of Iowa, a school with just as little diversity. And just like my previous school, relationships between Africans and African-Americans were nowhere close to a kumbaya.
I opted out of the International Association and went straight to the African Student Association, ASA. My new role was as a liaison between the new Africans and America, since I’d been in the country the longest. Together with the other leaders, we reached out to the Black Student Union (BSU) to try and bridge the gap. As the minorities in a majority white college, a coalition seemed obvious, but there were too many myths, stereotypes, cultural differences, and goals, and struggle pulled us in opposite directions. We hosted BSU at one of our meetings in hopes to at least plant a seed of unity. There was not enough food, constant smiles, diverse music, or icebreakers to put a dent in the tension. It was thicker than the Iowa fog during a winter storm. It was maddening to feel the need to pour such forced sweetness on people who are essentially our brothers and sisters, and torn apart by things none of us neither contributed nor had the systemic power to continue perpetuating.
We moved from topic to topic, giving everyone a chance to express his or herself. Africans felt like African-Americans judged us in the same way that white people did but also saw us as competition for the already scarce resources Black people had been fighting for. African-Americans felt that Africans thought that they were better than them and didn’t want to risk having stereotypes stained on them. We went from myths to movies, particularly debunking Coming To America, to a heated debate about intercultural and interracial dating, and all the way to a friendly battle of the sexes. The energy had shifted, albeit for one night, it was something we all needed; though a meeting like this should not even have been necessary—we should already have found a common ground instead of being divided by our shared skin color.
And in America, our skin transcended culture.
For instance, a trigger-happy police officer would never pause firing to see if the Black body he pulled over was from Cameroon, Gabon, Chicago, or Philadelphia. Laquan McDonald, Amadou Diallo, Stephon Clark, and Alfred Olango might never have met, but their unifying fate was decided by the color of their skin.
After surviving college, I decided to take a chance and pursue music in Los Angeles. A fresh start in a new more diverse city, I told myself, would ease some of the racial baggage I’d accumulated in Iowa. I was only going to be known as an artist and nothing more.
I was met with a rude awakening while trying to define my sound—my Blackness gave the expectation of the R&B I grew up listening to while my ‘East African look’ and accent demanded I sound more like the videos of Africans on National Geographic. I felt like my mother when she was filling out those forms, except this time I was alone in a new city, no longer a ‘real’ African but never quite African-American. I learned to code-switch depending on the type of project and audience. When I auditioned for Black music producers, I tried to sound as Keyshia Cole-esque as possible. When I performed in North Hollywood for white audiences, I would play my Djembe drum, falling into the sort of African caricature they expected.
With the music looking more and more hopeless, I decided to try acting. The same issues plagued me because I could never figure out if the casting director wanted the fresh off the boat African or the “Heyyyy girrrl!” sassy attitude or a Black girl who “talks white.” No matter how many accent reduction classes I took, there’d be so much focus on my accent and exotic look that my talent would fade into the background. Once, a director told me I had read well enough to get a lead role for his project but he couldn’t cast me because he’d then have to find a way to explain my accent in the story.
The dream of becoming a superstar was slithering away as I toiled at dead-end jobs, waitressing at night and a cashier in the daytime. At both sites, colleagues and customers never missed pointing out that I was from somewhere else.
One co-worker at the club, an African American male echoed I wasn’t Black because I talked like a white girl, (despite having an accent), I couldn’t stand the Popeye’s Chicken he brought to work every day, and I’d never watched Friday. A fellow Kenyan called me ‘lost’ because I refused to speak Kiswahili and didn’t constantly invoke my ancestry in conversations. In his case though, it was a polite way of curbing him, not denying my heritage. A comedian at an open mic called me unAfrican because I told him I didn’t want kids. Just like in Iowa, white people asked me where I was really from, something they’d never ask a German or Finnish immigrant. One felt comfortable enough calling Black people thieves because I wasn’t “like them.”
At home, things weren’t any better. I was sharing a studio with a Russian girl who looked at my weave bundles and braids like foreign pests. People back in Iowa couldn’t figure out what was taking Hollywood so long to give me a break. I tried to escape these sunken places by writing happy Pop music, but no matter how good or bad the song was, it always came back to, “Where are you from?”
Finally after a few years in Los Angeles, I found a project that allowed me to express my frustration with battling two cultures. The major requirement was to submit a truthful story for a chance to go to New York, perform for a huge audience, and win some cash. I debated what to talk about— life in LA, Kenya, body image, or even stories about other people. I reflected on my life in Los Angeles, and whether I should even bother to submit yet another project when all they’d do is get fixated on my ethnicity. So I decided to talk about that.
I started exploring my complicated relationship with identity, or lack off. I called it “Regular Black,” inspired by the hot guy at the club. He’d opened a can of worms associated with Black identity in America. My mind boggled over, wondering how he, my coworker, and the director could confidently “other” me with all these sterotypes and by the same token, call white people racist when they used the same prejudices to define Black people’s identity. Or how Africans could point out that I’d lost my culture by not embodying certain cliché African attributes, but call out Americans for their prejudice against Africans when they assumed those same clichés. This prejudice might not carry the same institutional racism a white person’s does, but they’d caused me a lot of grief over the years.
Though I lost out on the story project, I experienced much needed personal growth and came full circle with my identity. I was also inspired to turn my regular Black story into a satirical song called “What The Hell Is Regular Black?” Unlike my previous music, I wasn’t going to pick a box or code-switch. I embraced it all with the song and every other that followed.
I’ll always be African, a Gikuyu from Kenya, because that’s my heritage. As long as I live in America, I’ll always be Black because of my skin color. And whether I like it or not, these two things, especially skin color will, a lot of the times dictate attitudes, experiences, and opportunities. At least now, instead of being that rattled teenager hiding in the library during lunch, I’ve found solace through music, and other forms of art.
I hope that others still trapped in the maze, trying to come to terms with their identity, will find productive ways to make the journey a little bit easier. A nd together, we can end these stereotypes.
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