Whenever I tell people, especially Americans, the ones that were born and raised in the USA that I never knew that I was Black till I came to this country, they are confused and I am sure some of you are too.
My first “racial” shock started in the airplane when I was coming to the U.S and the nicely dressed flight attendant handed me a white piece of paper that I was supposed to fill out before landing and that I should present to the immigration officer at the airport before being allowed in the country.
On the paper, personal traveler’s information where asked such as date of birth, age, citizenship and so on. The one thing that caught my attention and got me thinking for over 60 seconds was the “Race & Ethnicity” section. I was asked to choose between: Hispanic or Latino, White or European Descent, Black or African American, Asian, Native Indian, or Other. For an 18 years old girl who has never spent over a week in a foreign country and who has always identified her ethnicity by that of her grand-father, it was extremely disturbing. So I chose “Other” because I didn’t really see myself belonging to any of these groups.
Few minutes later, we landed and I was once again disturbed with the two lines that were available at the Washington Dulles Airport. One was for the American Citizens and was moving quite fast and the other was for all-non Americans and I could see how everybody in the line I belonged to looked tensed and seemed frustrated by the slow rate at which things were moving here. I was actually not upset about these two lines. On the contrary, I wondered why the same thing couldn’t be done in my home country Togo whenever we cross the borders from Ghana and Benin in order for us Togolese to feel special when we come home instead of being treated by custom officers as if we committed a crime by leaving the country in the first place. Well, I am in America now and everything is about to change.
Things changed indeed when I got to the TSA agent who asked for the little white paper I was holding in my hand and my passport. He checked my passport, my visa then checked the paper that I later found out was the I-94, and he simply crossed my “racial choice” and checked “Black or African American”. It was Ok, I told myself because I didn’t expect to have to answer that question ever again. Unfortunately I was wrong.
On every form I have to file in the United States, whether it was a college application, a job application, a medical form, I had to mention my “Race”: Black or African American. I have to admit that at first, my main concern was that by checking that group, someone would take me for an African American and with all the extremely negative stereotypes that I had about African Americans, I definitely did not want to be identified as one of these “drug addicted rappers who do nothing but shoplifting or abusing substances”. I am Togolese, not even African and I was very much upset whenever someone asked me if I was Nigerian because for me, Nigeria was the country of “criminals”.
But then I had to drop the case because first of all nobody ever knows what Togo was and I had to use Nigeria or Ghana to give people an idea of where Togo is located in Africa. I had to accept a new identity. On paper, I am no longer Tchokossi like I am on the Togolese National ID, but I am Black. And whenever I am asked where I am from, I no longer answer: Togo but Africa. From then on, Nigerians, Kenyans, Ivorians, Congolese and all other Africans were automatically brothers and sisters whenever I meet them. As for the African Americans, I still do not see them as brothers and sisters not because of the negative stereotypes that I no longer have but because most of them, would rather be an African American than just a Black person. We Africans are the Blacks now and to many of them, we are inferior to those that slavery had “graced” with the opportunity to come to America before those of us who remained poor and hungry according to the books they are fed with.
Once I was asked if I have ever been victim of racism in America and I answered No because for me, racism was what racists have defined it as being and I have never been in a situation where people mistreated me because of my skin tone. But when I look back, I believe I actually am a victim of racism. The simple categorization of people based on the color of their skin is racism. The fact that one has to choose his/her race is racism. The fact that the employer and the admission officer need to know what race you belong to is racism. The American society is racist and every single group is affected by it especially the ones that are identified as “Black” or “White”. I always wondered why is it that these are the only colored identities to choose from. Why don’t they ask Yellow or Asians, Red or Indians but it’s only Black or African Americans and White or European descents?
The colored identification of people came from the European elites who needed to justify their superiority to other people, especially to those whose labor they needed to enrich themselves. The Bible was even used to explain that those they call Black are the descendants of Noah’s cursed son. These were the basis of slavery and the exploitation of Africans. Unfortunately, when the enslaved Africans struggled for their freedom and later on their descendants fought for less discrimination during the civil rights movement, they asked for what they thought is the proper way to call themselves. They went from being called Colored People to African Americans, excluding all those Africans whose ancestors were not slaves in America. They kept the “Black” for us because they themselves are no longer colored. Africans are now the Blacks. I can’t help but being upset whenever I read things like “I am proud to be Black”. No, I am not proud of that identity that was forced onto me by a society which believes color defines people. I am proud to be an African but will never be proud to be Black. It’s just as if someone nicknames you “stupid” and instead of rejecting the negative nickname, you embrace it and make it a pride.
I became Black by coming to America, the colored nation where people have a color, politics has a color, states have a color, music has a color, sport has a color and even food has a color. The American Dream is the colored dream.