I’m nervous because in making a stand, on anything, I invite criticism. And taking a stand on identity — specifically my identity — feels like drawing a bullseye over my heart and asking anonymous assailants to take aim.
And for something so fundamental, identity can be a very fragile thing. Our understanding of our selves so tenuously grasped, the building blocks of our being so shoddily constructed. Even the slightest challenge can send it all crashing down and the result is a particular kind of devastation that is difficult to deal with.
At least, it always has been for me. I think this is in part because, as a youngster, like many, I struggled to find my identity. I felt stranded between Nigerian-ness and British-ness, not being quite enough of anything to be truly accepted by either group. And even as I got older and began to forge a sense of identity less reliant on group politics, the feeling of not-belonging still weighed heavily on me.
It still does in many ways.
Because, not only am I still striving to find somewhere to belong, but I'm trying to figure out exactly who I am, and who I want to be, and what that means. My teenage years were, for the most part, angst-free, and I feel like in many ways my early and mid twenties have been a sort delayed pubescent rebellion and struggle for identity.
I think a large reason for this is because so many things I knew about myself are things that I am now actively questioning. I have been politically minded from a very young age. Like many young Nigerians, some of my earliest memories are of my uncles and aunties loudly — very loudly — debating current affairs. And as is the case for many PoC, engaging with and understanding the socio-political climate is a necessary tool in making sense of why you are followed when you enter shops. But in recent years, a lot of the language and practice of social justice movements has edged its way into the mainstream. This, of course, has seen many of these principles diluted, their meaning lost to consumerism and empty platitudes. But it also means that more and more people, myself included, are engaging with modes of thing that would see us deconstruct some of our most basic ‘truths’.
How I see myself as a black, Nigerian man, born and raised in London, is a very different thing now than it was five years ago, for example. My relationship to blackness, and masculinity, just to name two facets to my identity, are being broken down and re-made constantly. The result is, for lack of a better word, an unsteady-ness. I am walking new, unfamiliar ground, and it can be scary, and frustrating when I fail — and I fail constantly. But the process of building oneself from the ground up takes time and patience.
A recent study suggests that this process is one that we engage with all the time. There is no ‘true self', inner or otherwise. According to a recent paper Reconstructing and deconstructing the self: cognitive mechanisms in meditation practice, a paper published in Trends on Cognitive Science:
‘self-processing in the brain is not instantiated in a particular region or network, but rather extends to a broad range of fluctuating neural processes that do not appear to be self specific’
In other words, we are constantly changing, and trying to find the 'true you' is a fool's errand. It means the old aphorism about creating yourself, rather than finding yourself has got science backing it up, and it’s within you to change all of the things about yourself that you’re not completely happy with. Which is a wonderful thought.
On the other hand, it leaves me in an awkward situation. I'm neurotic by nature, a trait that seems to deepen as I get older. The mechanics of an ever-evolving identity sometimes leaves me liable to a deep-seated sense of unease. Writing this is making me uneasy because I don’t know where I’ll wind up, but exploration of this kind is important. Whatever is uncovered is to be treasured, because growing, changing, evolving, necessitates discomfort. Perhaps even pain.
So, with that in mind, it’s time to bring the pain.
Identity is a weird, intangible thing, that seems to exist — however tenuously — at the intersection of body and place. There are other factors to be sure, but particularly when you’re black in a white world, your body, and how it exists in relation to the place that you find yourself in, informs a large part of your identity. And the body, entirely unbeknownst to itself, takes on a political aspect that white bodies generally don’t.
So, let’s start there. With body and place. The place is Dubai. At least, it is for now. I’ve moved here recently for work. No one seemed to be hiring back home. Graduates from BAME backgrounds are two and a half times more likely to be unemployed according to TUC analysis, and numerous studies have suggested that non-white sounding names are less likely to receive call-backs so I was on the verge of reinventing myself as Frank — that’s a name people still use, right? — when I was offered a job in Dubai, and thought ‘why the heck not?’. So the place is Dubai, but I was born and raised in London. Which, being a large part of how I see myself, is more pertinent to this essay.
The body is black. Nigerian, specifically. But the specifics occupy a Schrodinger’s space of being extremely important, and entirely irrelevant. The paradox arises because, although my being Nigerian informs a great part of my identity, blackness is often treated as an amorphous monolith. Certainly when viewed through the lens of whiteness.
If you move through the world in a black body, the white gaze consumes individual, specific narratives and leaves an easily digestible series of assumptions through which the world will view you. Personal identity is lost to the white gaze’s understanding of blackness and its associated stereotypical images.
These images are mostly negative. Even the ‘positive’ ones tend to put pressure on the individual to perform an identity. One that is often alien. The idea of the black person as overly sexual, as strong, as cool: These are all identities often unjustly foisted onto individual black people and the result is often an internal struggle. There is a desire to adhere to these stereotypes, particularly if it creates a sense of belonging, but what does one do when one doesn’t fit the mould? Or when holding on and being held to these ideals becomes toxic?
The trope of the ‘strong, black woman’ has been held up in numerous studies as one of the reasons why black women are less likely to seek and receive adequate treatment from their doctors. This is made all the more startling by the fact that in the UK, black women are more likely to suffer with issues of mental health in comparison to their white counterparts. As much as double, according to the Mental Health Bulletin. All of this suffering because an identity is assumed for the individual, rather than by them.
The act of asserting one’s identity is also fraught. Simply including ourselves within our own narratives, depicting ourselves in our own art, will draw antagonistic questions from critics and audiences. It becomes politicised. And so, too, in life. Something as seemingly insignificant as hair can become extremely political. Consider the number of black women who are fired from their jobs for wearing their natural hair. Society makes it very clear that all people should adhere to a Eurocentric standard, and those who defy that standard will be punished.
‘If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat’
These words are taken from the first few pages of Maya Angelou’s semi-autobiographical ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’.
I don’t remember reading the words for the first time so I can’t comment on my initial reaction to them. I don’t know whether their impact was immediate, a feeling given form in Angelou’s words, and fired point-blank at my head and heart, or whether it was something more subtle, the blooming of a delicately planted seed.
But however I first reacted to them, these words stuck with me in a way that few other words taken from the pages of countless books ever did. They seemed ever-present, somewhere at the back of my mind. Words that I could summon up instantly when I needed to articulate a thought or feeling and my own words didn’t quite suffice.
They spoke directly to something intimately familiar to me. I know nothing of growing up as a Black woman in the American South in the 1940s. Only that it must have been — and continues to be, supremely difficult. That Maya Angelou was able to do so with such grace, and poetry, speaks to the strength and resilience of her character.
But I do know something of displacement.
It’s a feeling I became accustomed to as a child. It was something that I spent a lot of time thinking about, questioning, exploring. A pastime that was a natural and unconscious reaction to growing up as the child of Nigerians, living in London. I was displaced in more ways than one.
And so, in order to better understand my role in the world, to figure out where I could slot myself, I was forced to think about displacement and what it meant. To find oneself in a place that one did not belong.
Growing up in a black body in a society in which whiteness is the default means a few things. It means being followed in shops. It means being acutely aware of the fact that no one else in the room looks like you. It means growing up being unable to contain your excitement when you see someone on television who looks like you. It means watching people cross the road, and lock their cars to avoid you. It means quickly learning that you are being judged. That the colour of your skin can raise a thousand negative connotations in the minds of those around you. It means knowing that you never just represent yourself, but all those who also occupy black bodies.
It also means living in perpetual fear of ashy knees and elbows.
I was the subject of many ‘ashy-African’ jokes. I regularly forgot to cream my legs, and on those occasions the result was skin so dry and pale, it looked like I could crumble away into nothing. I was quite fascinated by it, by what it suggested. That this country in which I was born and raised seemed to reject my body, or perhaps my body was rejecting my surroundings.
I observed this with the clinical fascination of a scientist, perhaps as a mask for a deeper feeling of betrayal. This country didn’t want me. Even if I could win over the people, the land itself rejected me. This may seem a dramatic lesson to take away, but I was a dramatic child, and when one is desperately searching for a place to belong, and has already experienced hostility, small slights can be devastating.
By contrast, going to Nigeria for the first time was a revelatory experience. My skin glowed, my asthma pump gathered dust on the shelf, and the sun soaked me in vitamin D, staving off the melancholy I was usually mired in. Here my body rejoiced. It was home. I was home.
And yet, even there I felt displaced. Yes, the colour of my skin no longer marked me as other, and there is something profoundly comforting about that. There is a joy to be found in the anonymity of one’s body in a place where everyone looks like you. But even still, my behaviour and accent still marked me as different. I was too British.
It was one of those ‘caught between two world’ type of things. Trying to reconcile all the aspects of my identity, and ultimately feeling like I didn’t quite belong anywhere. I was displaced.
Culture, like identity, is a messy non-concept that we attempt to fit into a neat definition for ease of use. And while it may be an abstract mess of a thing it’s effects are certainly very real. Culture is the thing that bonds a people together. In lieu of a colonising power drawing imaginary lines in the sand, it’s the thing countries are made of. It can also act to separate people. To divide them. To remind them of their differences. The political scientist Fukuyama spoke about the clash of civilisations, different cultures with fundamentally different foundations eventually coming into bloody conflict.
My own conflict wasn’t so much about culture clash — though I did experience a little of that, little things that reminded me that I was different. Things like Del Boy and Monty Python, like Queen and Debbie Harry, like Terry Wogan and Ronnie Corbett. Cultural touchstones that meant little to me at the time. So often a class-mate would make some joke, or refer to a TV show, or an album, some aspect of British culture that we couldn’t possibly be expected to know or understand without having been initiated by our parents, and my friends would join in the joke and I would go through the motions, so as not to draw attention to my lack of understanding.
That was when I discovered that one of the ways to belong was being a part of the culture. Being privy to the inside jokes. Another text I remember reading at school is Brian Friel’s Translations. It is a play that explores the power of language, as a tool of imperialism, and as marker of belonging. One of the characters — Yolland, an English soldier who has fallen in love with Ireland, who feels a deep sense of longing to be a part of the land that he has found himself in — pontificates on what it means to be a part of the tribe. He explains that it is not enough to know the language.
“Even if I did speak Irish I’d always be an outsider here, wouldn’t I? I may learn the password but the language of the tribe will always elude me, won’t it? The private core will always be … hermetic, won’t it?”
In order to truly be a part of the tribe, you have to know the subtle intricacies and nuances, without that you will always be an outsider.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression here, I wasn’t a complete fish out of water. My mum had grown up watching shows like ‘Keeping Up Appearances’, and spoke the Queen’s English, courtesy of the pernicious British influence in a formerly colonial Nigeria, so I did have a grounding in British culture. But I was regularly reminded that, though I was born in England, I wasn’t from there, in a deeper, more historical sense.
So often I was made to feel like an alien for seemingly the most insignificant of things; like not quite understanding how washing my dishes in a plastic bucket of now-dirty water was the best method we could employ to clean them, or how it would be offensive to avert my gaze from a teacher while being reprimanded, when I had been taught that to stare someone down was to challenge their authority, or being physically unable to call my friends’ parents by their names for fear that my mum would find out and punish me later.
I was displaced. I didn’t quite belong. I couldn’t reconcile my body and mind with the place in which I was born and raised, nor the place of my family and ancestors birth.
But like I said at the beginning, culture is a weird, almost made-up thing. Like many of the things that govern our world, it exists only in our minds. It’s constantly shifting and evolving. An organism that is indefinable and boundary-less, and changes by mere virtue of occupying a shared space with another culture.
And when you realise this, you realise that you can create your own. Your own culture, your own community, your own identity.To be honest, I don’t have a pithy ending for this essay. I’ve wrestled with my thoughts on all of these issues for most of my conscious life, and battled with these pages for a few months now, but I don’t have anything concrete to show for it. All I can say is that I will continue to celebrate all of the things that have gone into my foundations, and take joy in creating myself.