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Not always black or white

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Two women of different race. Photo: Atlanta Black Star

Identity has always baffled me. The only thing that one knows about themselves for sure and yet everyone else gets to speculate. If you want to delve into who I am, for instance.

I’d say I am Turkish by birth, British by naturalisation, Nigerian through marriage. Half Turkish, half Kurdish, progeny of a mother from the Turkish midlands and a father from southeast Turkey. I am, for all intents and purposes, white. Or am I?

While in Nigeria I am considered ‘thoroughbred’ oyinbo, in Obodo Oyinbo where I live, things are not always as black and white – do excuse the pun!

Over a decade ago, teaching at a rural secondary school where the student body and teaching staff were predominantly white British, I was one of the two ethnic teachers alongside a British-born Indian woman.

One year, I commissioned one of my Year 10 students who had incredible talent sketching her classmates as Simpsons characters to sketch the English department teachers so we could put these up on the teachers’ display board.

After a couple of days of what I can only imagine was an agonising wait, she came to speak to me. Hands wringing, speech stuttering, she timidly ventured, “Miss, I have a question, but I don’t know how to ask you…”

“Go ahead,” I said, intrigued.

“Please don’t take this the wrong way,” she said, her voice shaking, “You know how you’re slightly darker in complexion, I was wondering if I could sketch you in a darker shade of yellow.

“No offence,” I said, barely contained laughter, as this had already become a familiar thread of my first four years in the UK, especially in predominantly white British environments.

Parents would come to speak to the “slightly tanned”, “foreign” – and the most cringeworthy one to date – “exotic” English teacher. They would sometimes sheepishly add, “the Turkish one” or “the one that speaks with an American accent.”

19 years in the UK, and things are not much different. I still get mistaken for a Pakistani colleague or an Indian neighbour. I get asked if I speak Greek or Arabic, or just how my English is so good.

Only last month while catsitting for a friend I bumped into her cleaner who turned out to be a Brexit supporter who just couldn’t get over my foreignness. “God, you are dark, innnit?” she kept on saying, “You are really dark. I knew right away you wasn’t a national.”

“Excuse you,” I felt like saying, while I presented my British passport, “I am indeed a national”. Soon I came to see there was no point as she raved on about her love for Boris Johnson and Donald Trump – you don’t bother argue with a fool after all.

What has brought this, you might wonder. I remembered all this instances all at once earlier this week as I read a Nigerian friend’s Facebook post.

“My colleagues have been telling me how people describe me,” she wrote.

“They get calls from people who request to see me specifically, but due to their politeness and a need to be politically correct, they have used all sorts of descriptive phrases, just to avoid saying ‘BLACK’. i.e. Instead of saying ‘Can I book an appointment with the Black lady…’

They’ll say…

‘…The lady with black curly hair’

‘…The darker complexioned lady’

‘ …The lady who wears glasses’ etc
But the funniest one I’ve heard by far is this one…

‘Can you book me an appointment with the lady who appears to come from an EQUITORIAL CLIMATE?’”

So there you have it, in our emerald isle of United Kingdom, nothing is quite just black or white.


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