R. Ayité Okyne is The Lifestyle Maven™ and an advocate for living the life you love and loving the life you live. He is an adventurer, foodie, style connoisseur and cultural ambassador. He is very passionate about social justice and is a social commentator. Ayite has lived in Switzerland, Russia, the UK, Ghana, and now lives in Los Angeles in the United States.
The Other Afrik - West Africa - Ghana - International - Panafrica - United States
My Body Politic: Race, Culture and Me
An exploration of the question of skin colour and attitudes to skin colour including self-image, overt and covert racism, being black but not African American in America, and the possibility of a post-racial society.
It was April of the year 2004 on a trip to Ghana. I was going through my personal belongings after making the decision to move to the United States and picking out what items of sentimental value I wanted to take back with me. I started flipping through an old album of mine – you know, the kind with the sticky film – when I stopped at two pictures of my grade school class at the École Anglaise in Geneva.
My jaw dropped.
I blinked several times to reset the image I was seeing. This could not be! I was the only black person in my class! Why didn’t anyone tell me? But the question to myself was how I had never noticed it before in the many times I had gone through that album? My head reeled with this new information.
I rushed to my mother with the album, declaring, “See, I am the only black boy in the class!” She slowly looked up from the book she was reading and said, “Yes”, sardonically as she took off her reading glasses. I’m sure in her mind she was wondering when that qualified to become headline news. Clearly, she was waiting for an explanation.
“I – I – I didn’t know I was the only black person in the class?” I stammered.
“Of course you were,” she replied, rather bemused. “And your point is?”
“I really don’t know what my point is,” I said, “but I am stunned that it took me more than 30 years to notice this.”
She just shrugged.
Slowly, it began to come together.
In the few months I had been in Los Angeles, I had been sucked into the paradigm of the racial divide. Communities are segregated by color and race. Your blackness can be determined by which side of the I-10 or I-405 freeways you live on. People can be described as being ‘not black enough’ if they do not conform to the unwritten code of ‘African-American-ness’. – a code, which in my understanding can be distilled to an attachment to the slave identity and a staunch repudiation of what the ‘white man’ represents. President Obama had to fight that label during his campaign to garner the votes of some African Americans who thought he did not represent their idea of an African-American. He was biracial and the son of an African, not the descendant of an African slave. He also did not proclaim his blackness or speak against white-on-black injustice – instead, he seemed fit comfortably in the mainstream. He was no Martin Luther King Jr. or Jesse Jackson. Not black enough.
Before Los Angeles, I had never noticed the ratio of Caucasians to minorities represented on television or in movies. I had never noticed the roles that minorities typically played in movies. But being among African-Americans, I had that pointed out to me more than a few times. I do not label this not noticing as a good or a bad thing – it was just a result of my personal experience. Living in Europe, it was not unusual that there would be more Caucasians anywhere I went – I was in Europe. Living in Ghana, of course there would be more black people, period. And I was never made to feel like I was different in any way – not by my family and not by the people I associated with. Everyone was just another human being to me.
So with the fervour of the idealist in me, I became something of a black activist by default in my adopted home and eventually went to work for the Greater Los Angeles African American Chamber of Commerce. I also began a newsletter for a men’s discussion group and got into an editorial dispute because one of the contributors was not black. I began to realise that my black experience was very different from the black experience of someone who grew up in South Central LA. I was not one of them just by reason of being black. And this fact was made abundantly clear to me in a discussion where I was making a point about black people moving beyond slavery and being victims of an unjust system to a place of self-direction and self-actualization; a place where there is a true emancipation from blaming someone else (reference: the white man) for all one’s woes; a place where life is lived without the crutch of victimhood. “You don’t understand; you can’t understand – you’re not from here!” was the response.
Ouch. Very ouch.
But it wasn’t about me. It was about race versus culture.
No, I’m not from here. I’m not the descendant of slaves. I didn’t grow up in the projects or in South Central. I did not have my blackness highlighted as a difference – good or bad – so that I became conscious of it every waking moment. I was never told that it would be difficult to succeed in a white world. Or that I had to try harder because I was black. I did not face the unnerving possibility of being in jail before my 21st birthday. (But I do realise I still could be pulled over by the cops for DWB – Driving While Black).
No. That is not my experience and I don’t presume to know how it feels like. But I too have experienced racism. Living in Moscow, I heard the taunts from across the street: “Abezian”, (meaning ’monkey’), “Uncle Ben’s” and “Snickers” were the usual ones. My favourite story takes place on the bus, where a Muscovite woman asking me a question as she raises her head stops mid-sentence when she realises that she’s speaking with a black man. Getting off the crowded bus, she tries to squeeze past me without any part of her clothes – or heaven forbid, her skin – touching me. But I put that down to ignorance and fear. Just like any other prejudice.
But I do know one thing: the only way to make colour a non- issue is by not playing it up – or down. By harping on the colour of one’s skin – negatively, or, even, positively – focuses on differences, not on equality. Now this does not mean ignoring the fact of skin colour, but it means keeping the issue of skin colour in context; not painting it as an obstacle to overcome or an advantage to have. An excellent starting point for the discussion on skin colour and our perceptions of it is “The Black Body”, an enlightening anthology of 30 essays by black, white and bi-racial contributors edited by Meri Nana Ama Danquah. I highly recommend it.
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