The #OscarsSoWhite scandal forced Nadia Sesay to re-examine her identity as an African living in the USA.
The #OscarsSoWhite Twitter campaign escalated into a call to boycott the awards ceremony altogether. But Stacey Dash (a news correspondent and Dee from Clueless) proposed a boycott of her own: to switch off BET (Black Entertainment Television), the first American television channel that targeted black American audiences.
She blogged, ‘They further divide us. I feel like it’s hypocritical to say that we’re all the same, but then to self-segregate into little enclaves of society.’ She also targeted Black History Month: ‘It’s time we decide as a society whether we want to care about race or not… There is no White History Month and there should be no Black History Month. Black history IS American history. We’re Americans. Period. That’s It.’ In short, Dash thinks that a race that criticises its own exclusion, shouldn’t practice it in turn.
What determined race was, first, colour and second, behaviour.
The backlash ranged from anonymous dissenters to BET, which posted its reply on Twitter. Perhaps the reaction was so vitriolic because Stacey Dash describes herself as ‘an independent-thinking black woman’ and they couldn’t handle the difference between Dash’s self-identification and her public views on race. It made me reflect on my self-identity and the construct of ethnicity.
When I immigrated to the US at age four, I attended a predominantly white – yet inclusive – private school. My public high school was more diverse but it was segregated. This was my first experience of an environment where cliques were formed and organised, mostly, according to your appearance or race. And what determined race was, first, colour and second, behaviour (so a white student was with an all-black clique if he ‘acted black’). In this divisive environment peers assigned my race (based, I believe, on my behaviour and not appearance) as being white or at the very least non-black.
My experience at home and in primary school had left me naïve to the social construct of race, and I was aloof about black culture. Overt blackness as an instrument of self-identity is typically not encouraged in African households. My family did not snub blackness, we just never discussed what it meant to be black in America. We lacked the experience of the American black history (like segregation, lynchings, and police brutality) and therefore were unaware of the intricacies of American race relations. This disconnection from Black America was cultural and it was ingrained, which I suspect resulted in my expulsion from the black community in public high school. My response was to reject them, in the way they had rejected me.
Particularly abhorrent, I ate fufu with a spoon. I simply didn’t ‘pass’ as African.
Being rejected as not-black in high school did however leave another category where my brown skin could convincingly fit in, that is as an African. Unfortunately I struck out there, too. Many of the African students were and I was, in their opinion, too culturally American to fit in with them. I understood Krio, the unofficial language of Sierra Leone, but I didn’t speak it well. Particularly abhorrent, I ate fufu with a spoon. I simply didn’t ‘pass’ as African.
In university, the social environment mirrored that of my private primary school. It was the American elite and therefore predominantly white. There, I was not labeled based on how adequately my behaviour appeared to be black or African. I also met a new type of foreigner – students who were proudly un-American. Those students spent holidays in their home countries and were vocal about their plans to return home permanently after graduating. Previously I had only encountered immigrants who desired to assimilate into American culture, but these students held onto their culture dearly. I had reaped the benefits of assimilation my entire life but I now realised I could benefit from what was left of my foreignness too, and so I did. I became a proud Sierra Leonean woman.
Is racial authenticity based on behaviour? Does race depend on context? Who has the authority to determine racial authenticity? This is why Stacey Dash is controversial. In launching a tirade against the racial group she identifies with, she raises these questions on identity.
I discovered the truth of an old adage: define yourself or the world will.
And while Dash’s affirmation of identity is important, I disagree with her view that ‘black’ is not a subcategory but is ‘American. Period’. I am black due to how the world views the colour of my skin but I am ethnically divergent. The immigrant identity is layered; I can’t only be American since that categorisation ignores a very present aspect of my identity. I am African. So, I specify Sierra Leone.
By the time I self-identified as a Sierra Leonean woman I discovered the truth of an old adage: define yourself or the world will. Throughout my adolescence my self-identity had been reactionary, based on how others defined black and African. While my own label, that of a ‘Sierra Leonean woman’ may appear to denote a singular meaning – a woman from Sierra Leone – to me it simultaneously encompasses my immigrant experience and appreciation of it. It is confidently un-American. And it doesn’t need justifying.