The African American in the Room

When I got to school, there was some confusion as to where I was from, despite the fact that it was announced in the school assembly. Now I know that there are many teachers and students in the school (around 2,500) but for some reason, the information didn’t spread to everyone that I was from America. I have to be very careful when I explain to people where I am from. I am here on a grant representing the United States and it needs to be clear that I am an American first before I go on to explain that my parents were born in Africa. Being a first generation African American is a very important part of my identity and I feel the need to emphasize that I am an American citizen regardless of the color of my skin. I am still working on how to handle myself in moments when people appear confused about where I am from. I strive to handle these awkward and sometimes clumsy interactions with the most graceful, smart and matter of fact answers. At times, I even ask questions, too.

On the first day of school, one of the teachers came up to my table and greeted me by saying “Dumela.” I looked at her in confusion. She sensed that my facial expression required an answer, “It means good morning,” she said. I was still confused, “I thought Shuprobhat was good morning,” I said assuming that she was speaking Bangla. Then she shook her head and said, “That’s what they say in Botswana.” “Ohhhhhhh,” I replied, “I’m from America.” The moment got a little awkward. It was kind of like in Mean Girls when Cady walks up to the table of “Unfriendly Black Hotties” and says “Jombo” and they all look at her like she is crazy. If it wasn’t for that situation, I wouldn’t know how to say hello in Setswana.

For my first lesson I had the students respond to a set of true or false questions. They had to stand if they thought a statement was true and sit down if they thought it was false. One of my statements was: I was born in the US. The point of this statement was to explain my Ghanaian heritage and the diversity of American citizens. I always asked the people that were sitting down why they thought my statements were false. For this statement there were always a good amount of girls that answered South Africa. One time, when I asked one student why South Africa, she answered with a very candid and logical answer, “Ma’am in our textbooks we see people from South Africa and they have the same skin color and hair as you. ” Ok, that makes perfect sense. I think about this response often. It is so much more than a simple observation. I wonder what the Americans look like in her book. How about in the media? In thinking about that response, I have arrived at another question: How are African American women portrayed in India? Is our message exported properly through the media?

Our maid cooked dinner for us the other day (she noticed that our gas cylinder stove was out and insisted on bringing loochi, aka fried yumminess bread) and she brought her 20 year old daughter over to chat. The daughter told me that I look like Michelle Obama because of…wait for it…my hair. She also told Stacia that she looked like Kate Middleton. Those of you that knew me before I chopped off my hair at the end of May know that if I resembled Michelle Obama at any time, it was then–before the chop. I laughed it off but I was actually really excited about this. Let’s be real, who doesn’t want to be compared to Michelle Obama? But even more important, it was so comforting to be reminded that Michelle Obama is one of the faces representing black American women to the world. She is exporting our message.

I see the same few black people in the newspaper here, Usain Bolt in the sports section, Barack Obama in the foreign news part and Rihanna and Beyoncé in the gossip/celebrity pages. Also, if I happen to see a black person, it is usually a man. How are people to know that we females exist? What are the implications of this lack of representation around the world?

Furthermore, thanks to blogs, books and magazines it is easy to indulge in the experience of  ‘westerners’ in India. Some of it good and some of it bad. Even if some people in society don’t want to admit it, there seems to be an eternal link between, having white skin, being of privilege and being a ‘westerner’. But what does it mean for people with dark skin? On top of that, what does it mean for a woman with dark skin?

Perhaps it means nothing at all. But in the land of Fair and Lovely (skin-whitening cream), I can’t help but wonder.

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One thought on “The African American in the Room”

  1. I can definitely relate to this feeling. I just recently started a new teaching position (as a Spanish teacher) in a traditionally homogeneous part of suburban Cleveland. I am the only African American teacher in the school. Our school makeup is approximately 40% Caucasian, 30% Hispanic, and the final 30% is a mixture of everything else. While my coworkers and most of my students are polite and friendly, I still unfortunately perceive subtle instances of racism. One of my students said during class, “Can’t all of them just learn English? Why do I have to learn this if they’re in this country?”. And during curriculum night (like an open house, but without the grades aspect) I had an ugly head rear up. After saying that I would teach vocab, grammar, and culture to help create conversational skills, one of my parents actually asked out loud and in front of everyone “Will you be teaching about how Mexicans are lazy and ignorant?” On top of this, while telling my woes in the teacher lounge, one of the teachers says, “You should have just said, Well how about we talk about welfare or low income housing too.” How inappropriate. That just goes to show you the amount of entitlement and privilege that still exists in America.

    Keep your head held high and just think, you are forever forging a promising, positive message of strength for women and darker skinned Americans in your students’ minds. Good luck!!! #teacherlife 🙂

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