Blog 1: Can I Not be Black Any More?

So I wanted to talk to you all about my thoughts on Switzerland thus far, but I actually have some other things on my mind. I attend an all brown, all women’s institution. A major reason why I chose to attend an HBCU is because I was tired of being the black girl at white institutions. Upon attending a historically black institution my perceptions of white people completely changed; they just really made me feel some type of way. I think a great deal of those feelings can be attributed to the knowledge I gained at my HBCU. My school showed me the other side of history, it taught me to embrace my blackness in the midst of a white washed world.

My boyfriend and I have had many intense debates about the black experience and in a nutshell he feels that we should all try our best to look beyond stereo typical norms and accept people for who they are. His “color blindness” has definitely rubbed off on me, and I have been making valiant efforts to live a more racially inclusive life. When I came to Switzerland the last thing I wanted to do was segregate myself amongst the brown people. I was already a little nervous about living with a white family, but I entered the experience with an open mind…Then I landed in Switzerland and I was quickly reminded of my blackness. While waiting at the airport a young man in my program proceeded to speak to everyone except myself and my Spelman sister…okay. A few days later we met our host families. On the car ride to my homestay my host mother tells me how her and her daughter found my Facebook page and thought that I was so pretty. Then she proceeds to say that before showing my picture to her boyfriend she had to tell him that “my skin was different” but I was still beautiful. Not only did she say this verbally, but she pinched the skin on her arm to make sure that I understood she was distinguishing that I was black…ATTENTION ATTENTION

TELLING SOMEONE THAT THEY’RE PRETTY FOR A BLACK GIRL IS NOT A COMPLIMENT IN ANY LANGUAGE. I know that she didn’t mean any harm by the comment, but that does not mean that no harm was done. Once we arrived at her home the real questions began. “Where are you from” and I would respond “the United States” “Yes, I understand you’re from the U.S. but where is your family from?”…”The United States.”

This conversation was particularly frustrating for me because last summer I stayed with an African family in the South of France and they too had the same face of confusion and frustration when I couldn’t provide a satisfactory answer to “Where are you really from?”

Days later I faced a similar interrogation by my host mother’s boyfriend, “where are you from?” “The United States, I am American my mother is American, my father is American, my grandparents on both sides are American, and so are their parents.” Only to have him respond,

“I know you’re American, but are you African or Hispanic” BRUH. I told him “African” but I couldn’t answer any further questions regarding specificity. . If I had to assume where the source of his confusion lies, I would assume it is because of the long curly hair on my head right now. My problem is that I am so tolerant of their inquisitiveness even when it’s uncomfortable, but I have a hard time believing that my white counterparts on this trip have had to face any similar interrogation. I’m sure simply being American is always an acceptable answer for them.

I guess I just wish, that one day I could be neutral. I just wonder what that feels like. I wonder what it feels like to board the train every day and not face inquisitive eyes or uninviting glances. I wonder what it feels like to not have to wonder if you should sit next to, or speak to someone because you are unsure of their prejudices against you.

Sometimes I wish I could go places in this world and people just see me for who I am. Not black, not white, not racially ambiguous. Why can’t my presence simply be enough?

30 thoughts on “Blog 1: Can I Not be Black Any More?

  1. Hey Mikaela, I studied abroad this summer in Budapest, Hungary for two months and experienced similar incidents while living there. It is amazing how these people are extremely unaware of our being from our skin to our hair even to our heritage. I wrote a post about my racial dissatisfaction with Hungary on my study abroad blog too if you would like to take a gander (https://afrithmetic.wordpress.com/2015/06/25/negro/).

    After two months of being in a city and country that is ethnically clean of people who look like ourselves, I had to understand that for 97% of them I was there first interaction with a brown/dark skinned individual EVER. They do not see it as being racist because race is not a thing in their country — only ethnicity. They were realistically amazed and were never prepared for such an encounter. I challenge you one day when you are walking down the streets or entering a market to ask an individual (who knows english fairly well) why do people stare at you. They will give you an honest response and then decide how to approach these daring eyes for the remainder of your time abroad. I did just that in Hungary and I detail the experience in that same blog post.

    I wish you the best abroad. It was the best experience of my life overall to where I plan to earn my Masters in Germany now. Something I never believed would be a goal prior to this summer. I look forward to reading more of your post throughout your stay. Explore. Learn. Enjoy your time away!

    -Michole Washington (GT)

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  2. Hey Mikaela, I studied abroad this summer in Budapest, Hungary for two months and experienced similar incidents while living there. It is amazing how these people are extremely unaware of our being from our skin to our hair even to our heritage. I wrote a post about my racial dissatisfaction with Hungary on my study abroad blog too if you would like to take a gander (https://afrithmetic.wordpress.com/2015/06/25/negro/).

    After two months of being in a city and country that is ethnically clean of people who look like ourselves, I had to understand that for 97% of them I was there first interaction with a brown/dark skinned individual EVER. They do not see it as being racist because race is not a thing in their country — only ethnicity. They were realistically amazed and were never prepared for such an encounter. I challenge you one day when you are walking down the streets or entering a market to ask an individual (who knows english fairly well) why do people stare at you. They will give you an honest response and then decide how to approach these daring eyes for the remainder of your time abroad. I did just that in Hungary and I detail the experience in that same blog post.

    I wish you the best abroad. It was the best experience of my life overall to where I plan to earn my Masters in Germany now. Something I never believed would be a goal prior to this summer. I look forward to reading more of your post throughout your stay. Explore. Learn. Enjoy your time away!

    -Michole Washington (GT)

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  3. Michaela, What an eye opening experience you are having. I’m sure you will expand the unenlightened lives of everyone you meet. Just be your intelligent wonderful self and open minds one at a time.

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  4. Hey Michaela! I actually studied abroad in Nyon, Switzerland when I was at Spelman. I will say this, I did spend time with most of the people in my program while there, but I had no issue when I just needed to be around people who got it. I did enjoy myself overall, but as it was said earlier, I did come to realize that for many there I was the first interaction they’d had with an African American Woman. I hope your trip improves and you can take in the overwhelming beauty of the country.

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  5. Hi there! I have traveled abroad with groups where I stand out because of my brown skin and curly hair but I found that other ethnicities are also asked about their ancestry. Unfortunately, as a descendant of slaves, my answer does solely lie in the Americas. But my white, African, and Asian counterparts can say, “My family is from Ireland”, “…Senegal”, “…Jiangsu”, etc – those are LITERALLY their answers. I don’t think what you experienced is only isolated to brown folks but I have personally felt the issue is in the destruction of our ancestral ties through humans being treated as property.

    I want to encourage you to take the viewpoint of those in other countries because they realize that the US is a melting pot and we all (except those that are 100% Native American) do have ties to other countries, whether or not we still have those connections. I live in Atlanta like you and have met so many brown folks that are not descendants of slaves because their family migrated in the 1980s, etc. – those people are forthright and proud to articulate the multi-facets of their heritage. Truth be told, they get downright indignant if they are lumped in with such a generic term as “African-American”. The world is a big place so hopefully this helps you to recognize that curiosity may not stem from a derogatory place in all instances.

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    • I am very much aware that what I am experiencing is not isolated to brown people. However, being that I am brown & speaking in first person, I am only reflecting on my experience in particular. I am not implying that their curiosity stems from a derogatory place which I why I said I am tolerant of their inquisitiveness. This blog is a reflection of frustrations I have felt in efforts to maintain that tolerance.

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    • Lee,

      I want to say that …. perception is EVERYTHING! I can identify with your response almost completely. I have lived in Germany for almost 11 yrs. and traveled throughout Europe very frequently. My first encounters with Germans were somewhat abrasive until I became fluent in their language. When I began to speak German and immerse myself in their culture, I was able to understand how they think and socialize. (I do understand that not everyone has the time to do this)

      I find that once people see that you’ve taken time to learn what they do and how they do it, this sets you apart from some of the stereotypes and possible fears they originally had. It allows one to bridge the gap in at least one way. I like to say that we are all human beings who, for the most part, want to live freely and connect with others…we just go about it differently.

      I realized that the questions from Germans I have met (and people from other countries) came mostly out of curiosity, some stares were simply because I looked different and a few because they harbored a fear within them that stemmed from some past experience.

      In the states staring seems to be considered rude. Most people I know were brought up NOT to stare. This action has a different meaning in other countries. In my personal journey I found out that trying to interpret the meaning behind everyone’s stares left me exhausted and questioning my self-esteem.

      As soon as I realized this, I just decided that I would try to come from a place of love in all of my actions. I decided to take the opportunities I had and speak to them purely from my own experiences. While sometimes you can’t escape the generalizations or the “Where are you really from?” it’s best just to react positively and doors started to open for me.

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  6. I am excited to find your blog. I’ve lived all of my life in the United States, born in Southern California,now living in the South, Atlanta, Georgia and of most recent Florida. I am an American, most would call my family African American. I have the lightest shade of skin with blonde curly hair and a face full of freckles. Everyone else in my family is lovely shades,of brown including my husband and my son.

    Recently I’ve looked around and found that most of my friends are not shades of brown. I’ve become exhausted of trying to constantly fit in with my own people, trying to prove I am ‘black” enough. In my life’s experience, it’s been my own people that have prejudices against me.

    I agree with being color blind, sometimes we can create our own obstacles because of how we really feel about ourselves. Everyone communicates and perceives different. Once I was able to get out of my own way and embrace other races for who they are and the way they perceive, my life has been happier. It’s not how we look physically, it’s our mental outlook.

    Best of luck.

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  7. Unfortunately the title of your blog will be skewed into something that it is not meant to represent. Most will see the headline and make a mockery out of it and say “See…even Black don’t like their own kind.” I completely understand the point that you are trying to convey. It’s synonymous with what Dr. King noted as his dream for his children. Growing up in America, we have an extremely slanted perspective on how others in the world perceive life. No more than 50 years ago, most groups of people in America identified with their family’s cultural identity and native homelands, particularly white Americans. There was the Jewish neighborhood, the Italians, the Polarchs, etc. Certain conditions led them to abandon these identities but that’s a completely different conversation. Unfortunately, African descendants were not afforded that opportunity as our history, cultural relevance, etc. was completely eradicated and bemoaned by our country’s power structure. I encourage you to continue to expand your bounds to obtain various perspectives of life. However, I challenge you to be accepting of the extensive and rich cultural history of the people of Africa and know that you descend from a great people and never shy away from that notion. Connecting with familial lineage is a key aspect of human life. Remember…having love for your culture does not mean that you hate that of others. Be encouraged and continue to “try to find your own way.”

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  8. Hi Mikaela,

    I must start with a big congratulations on your courage to even travel and study abroad; I must also admit I’ve had some of the same experiences dealing with white people. All throughout school from elementary thru high school, it was never uncommon to be the only brown person in a class. This actually prompted me to go to an HBCU really for some of the same reasons you stated.

    Now far along in my career, it seems like white people still responds to the differences of our skin tone the same way. Mind you not everybody—but there is a noticeable difference how sometimes my white colleague are viewed and even some of the opportunities provided. I say to you with all sincerity — stay true to yourself! There’s nothing to be offended or to be discouraged about! I think it goes back to the untrue perception conveyed by media outlets. Accept the challenge and represent yourself with the utmost respect for yourself!

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  9. So you go to a country that is 0.6% black (and lacks the history of race relations that we have in the United States) and wonder why people are curious about your heritage and skin color? That’s an awfully naive view of the world.

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    • I’m actually in Geneva, Switzerland where the majority of the population are migrants. I see brown people everyday, the problem in Geneva isn’t a lack of diversity but a lack integration. I do not “wonder” about their curiosity hence what I said, “I know she meant no harm” “I am tolerant of their inquisitiveness.” I even spoke on a similar experience, but with an African family in France. What I am talking about is not limited to Switzerland, nor is it limited to race. So if your response is all you that you were able to take away from reading the blog I encourage you to read it again, for you have an awfully narrow minded interpretation.

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  10. Hi Mikaela,
    This is cousin Jerry from Baltimore. Please know that I am so proud of you and I know that God has destined you for greatness.
    God has created you for his pleasure and nothing else matters.
    Though I have not studied abroad and probably would be considered old school, I can relate to the skin color issue as an established black male entrepreneur for more than 30 years.
    Always remain confident in who you are, stay focused and allow God to use you for his GLORY.
    For M. L. King said it best when he said let us not be judged by the color of our skin, but the content of our character..
    Baby girl your character and integrity speaks for itself.
    Stay young at heart, gifted and BLACK and continue to let the world know that BLACK GIRLS ROCK.
    All the best,
    Cousin Jerry

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  11. Hi Mikaela,
    I very much appreciated the insights you offered in your blog post. I have had the opportunity to travel and work in several African countries (Kenya, Ethiopia Uganda, South Sudan, South Africa, Nigeria, Benin Zambia and Zimbabwe) as well as Asian (Korea, Thailand, Myanmar), Caribbean, and European countries and throughout the US. One of the realizations that I have come to is that Africanness is a distinction with a difference. Being from different parts of the continent and even from different sections within each country could give a clue about culture. Its at times fascinating. While Africannes, Indigenousness, or Mestizoness can give clues to culture, “Blackness” become a political designation with clear resource and structural implications.

    Don’t know if that makes any sense. I was in South Sudan and they told me “Professor, you’re not even tall enough to be BLACK!!” there are certain places where Blackness is a plus others where it is a minus, but it is always political..

    Keep up the great work

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  12. I’ll tell you what’s funny. I’m an olive skinned Black man with racially ambiguous features and my ethnicity gets questioned on a pretty consistent basis here in America by all people. White people will go someone who they feel is unquestionably Black and ask them “what” I am. Black people will just question me outright with no discretion or sense of timing. “What are you mixed with?!” (I don’t know why that question bothers me more than others) When I get my travel money up I will be interested in seeing what questions about my ethnicity I’ll have to entertain. Hahaha! Great post!

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  13. Pingback: Blog 1: Can I Not be Black Any More? | Black Away from Home's Blog

  14. Congratulations on accepting the opportunity to study abroad. Spelman will continue to inspire and uplift you. I, of course understand the feeling of always Black. I would encourage you to take this opportunity to educate the host family and associates on YOUR history. Please share with them how and why you are brown with long curly hair. The racism of our American experience must be shared and discussed. Consider yourself their race teacher and don’t assume that they know. We African Americans should have a knowledge of our heritage, but in most cases slavery serves to eliminate any link to our ancestral origins. Enjoy,and embrace your uniqueness.

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  15. I enjoyed your article and felt saddened by it at the same time. I recall my years at Bennett College and traveling abroad to the former USSR in the early 90’s. This was right at the time of Rodney King and I can recall the Russian news replaying the whole incident and people looking at us in the hotels and asking if we knew him or why does this happen? Like I had the answers for what happened to one black man. I also recall people always wanting to feel my braids and just touching them without asking. One little boy even rubbed my arm continuously and I realized he was trying to run off the black! As much as things change, they remain the same . My prayer is that people will want to know you in all of your blackness because God does see color; He created each of us differently and that should be celebrated!

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  16. Great post and such a shame that there are places in Europe where people are like this. Girl, get you butt to London where you will be glad nobody will be checking for you. There are far to many black people in all shades for anyone to be asking the questions you are entertaining in Switzerland.

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    • Bianca, London is a different “animal” (nothing negative intended). Hell your country caused most of the racial issues in this world (kidding). Enjoyed your city. No language barrier. Cultural diversity. London is one of my favorite cities.

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  17. Great Post!! I too went to an HBCU
    I’m an airline pilot for and I fly primarily international to Asia, Africa, South America and Europe. I can relate very well what your saying. I’m 6’5 and I ALWAYS get asked “do you play basketball?”
    When Im asked where I’m from and I say America, that usually doesn’t satisfy their questions. I tell them I really don’t know because I’m descendants of slaves and my grandparents were born on a sugar plantation in Louisiana. Dead silence then change of conversation.
    Enjoy your travels and learn as much as you can so you can come back to your community and share your stories with children so they can hear that there is more out there for them than what’s in the hood.

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  18. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, but I can’t help but roll my eyes and say, “Really?”

    Girl, please. Don’t go to a country in which Black people constitute maybe 2% (or less) of the entire population and complain about standing out and people being too inquisitive. YOU’RE DIFFERENT. YOU’RE INTERESTING. YOU’RE UNIQUE. And quite possibly the first person of color many have seen and/or had the opportunity to engage with. Instead of whining about being neutral (who wants to just blend in anyway?), use the opportunity to educate others about your culture. Which is probably one of the reasons they agreed to host an exchange student, to learn and embrace something new. It’s not malicious, it’s genuine interest.

    They want to know where you’re from because people in pretty much every country except America know their ancestry on a deeper level. We have not been afforded that luxury. So yes, it’s a bit baffling that all you can say is ‘America.’

    You’re right, saying that someone is pretty for a [fill in the blank] isn’t a compliment, but guess what, it happens right here in America where people of color are abundant, so why are you any more surprised or offended that it happened in Switzerland where we’re scarce?

    I lived in Paris for two years, so I understand the feeling of being a fish out of water. The curious stares, probing questions, wanting to touch my hair. It was frustrating and alienating at times. But it was my choice to be there. So I embraced what came along with it. And the experience has forever changed my world view and outlook on life. I was blessed with a privilege that not many people get, so I allowed my grateful spirit to dominate my critical spirit. That’s what I encourage you to do.

    Embrace this and create teachable moments. Educate. Enlighten. Pave the way for the next young sista that takes the journey. Make an impact. But please, stop whining. And especially don’t downplay or denounce your Blackness, because Black is Beautiful. You’re beautiful. And you should celebrate it every chance you get, no matter where you are.

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    • “I’m actually in Geneva, Switzerland where the majority of the population are migrants. I see brown people everyday, the problem in Geneva isn’t a lack of diversity but a lack integration. I do not “wonder” about their curiosity hence what I said, “I know she meant no harm” ‘I am tolerant of their inquisitiveness.'” But thank you for reiterating what I have already expressed to know.
      I am not complaining nor whining, I am acknowledging what I have experienced to in fact pave the way for the next “young sista that takes the journey”. I am saddened that’s all you were able to take away from this. I am not down playing my blackness at all, I am clearly very well aware of it. What I am saying goes beyond being black. It’s not at all that I want to “blend in” but in fact the exact opposite, that I would like to be recognized for things besides the color of my skin. I am very well aware of the fact that I am “different, unique, and interesting” externally, but even more importantly INTERNALLY. That is what I am saying, that’s what I am making a statement about, to encourage people to inquire about things beyond the obvious variations of color.

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      • Nothing to be saddened by, this is simply a dialogue with contradicting views. I appreciate your perspective, regardless to whether or not I completely agree. Conversations like this should be had more often in our community.

        I do agree about Geneva, lack of integration is a problem. I made similar observations in France. But now knowing that you’re there, that almost underscores my point in another way. Because there is such a lack of integration, they’re ignorant as to how to perceive and categorize you. They don’t know how to be tolerant of you as you claim to be of their inquisitiveness.

        I think the reason it came off so much like a whining rant, is because none of this is new information. You shouldn’t be surprised by any of this. I’m sure you had to have been prepared or in some way expecting varying levels of these interactions. But I understand, this is your blog and your space to express yourself and vent how you choose.

        What was problematic for me, and not just in this case, but in general, is that so many of us want to be ‘neutral’ as you put it, for their ‘presence to be enough.’ I think this is noble, but not necessarily helpful. Asking, “Can I not be black anymore?” is problematic for me. No, I of course didn’t take it literally, but I don’t know that I’m convinced that being ‘colorblind’ gets us where we need to go. I think that integration, tolerance, acceptance, unity, etc. is actually most effective when ALL differences are embraced, not washed away so to speak. I don’t see anything wrong with wanting to be known and loved as a proud, educated, bold, BLACK woman with a huge heart and witty sense of humor. My identity as a BLACK woman is just as important as my identity as a WOMAN or HUMAN. I think when people are able to accept one another IN TOTALITY, we will have achieved something.

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