I am Trinidadian. That is my nationality. In the segregational considerations of that country, I am, more specifically, Afro-Trinidadian, but the color of my skin says that I am black, and that is an indomitable fact. I’ve been in New York City now for four years, and although I had been here and in other parts of the United States frequently before that, the things you feel when living somewhere are different than the those you feel while visiting. In those four years, few things rival the friction and contention that I have with the African-American populace and their engagement of the race issue.
In an unexpected fallout in the hours following the wins of Lupita Nyong’o and 12 Years a Slave, that friction reached a tipping point. A series of tweets, illustrative of the congregation of stupidity that often occurs on Twitter, voiced the opinions of some African-Americans that actress, Lupita Nyong’o, actor Chiwetel Ejiofor and director, Steve McQueen were not theirs to “claim”.
When you get past the initial shock of first reading the tweets, the simple point that they, both, want to make becomes clear. Neither Lupita (Kenya/Mexico), Chiwetel (Britain) nor Steve (Britain) are African-American. But when you dig deeper, both into the tweets and into their usage of “black”, the issue that sent me over the edge becomes even clearer than before.
This is problematic, to say the least. The idea that the label or concept, “black”, is only used in America has the stench of pure ignorance. Whether that is a failing of the American education system, or a product of American nationalism is a debate far beyond this discussion. Indeed, it is far less important than the consequences of that idea. The people that feel that black is an American label fail to understand that the blacks around the world suffer through a multitude of similar experiences. Contrary to the tweet below, those experiences are a consequence of our color, not nationality.
In an effort to be consciously objective, I will say that there is some relevance in her tweet. There are cultural idiosyncrasies that affect the forms that racism takes, and consequently, the effects that racism has on the subjects of a particular culture. Structural racism, for example, is dependent on the country in focus and its history. Subsequently, the psychological effects of structural racism differ across nationalities. Learned helplessness differs across blacks according to where they have undergone their culturally, morally and ethically developmental years.
So, the reality is that I understand the desire to separate oneself from others, culturally. I, like many other Caribbean people that migrate to the USA for a variety of purposes, often explicitly and subliminally distinguish myself from the African-American populace. This is an observation that is often made of Africans that migrate here as well. From the end of the migrator, it is often a dual-layered reason - pride in one’s home country and dissatisfaction with components of the local intra-black culture. My dissatisfaction is not meant as an affront to any African-American. Aside from the fact that I’ve met many good people while I’ve been here, I’ve also gained a better first-hand understanding of the structural factors that influence the way that so many think. The truth is, however, that there are just a variety of things that I cannot agree with, condone or endorse - from what I perceive to be too frequently playing the race card, to destructive interactions between black men and black women and the way that black men here approach and speak to women.
Still, we cannot fail to differentiate between internal perceptions and external perceptions. We do not always get to successfully project the way in which we want to be perceived. Regardless of how one feels the situation should be, the actuality says that we are all black. That is how the white perceiver will view us. We don’t get to stop the racist in the street, the subway or the office and tell him, “Hey, I’m from Kenya by the way, not America. My descendants didn’t go through the slave experience, so please judge me differently”. It simply does not work that way. The Grandmaster of Calypso, Kitchener, said it himself - “if you not white, you considered black”.
Now, Lupita Nyong’o has received a slew of support and love, especially from the black female community in the recent month and a half, and it’s easy to see why. She’s a beautiful woman. She’s a beautiful dark-skinned women. Personally, she is not very attractive to me (making the distinction between a perception of beauty and a state of attractiveness, I believe that attraction is much more subjective), but that has absolutely nothing to do with her skin color. Spurred on, or irked by the support that Lupita has received from the black female community, the members (regrettably) of the black male community have shown their colorism in excessive numbers (indeed, even if it were just one, one is one too many).
And this is the problem. One of the accounts on that tweet belongs to a black British man. The negativity against black skin (and by extension, blackness) and in this case, self-hate is not confined to America. The experiences that black women go through are not unique to America.
The black stakeholders of 12 Years a Slave may not be claimed as African-Americans, no. But they can be claimed as BLACK. Black people, regardless of their nationality can find joy, solace, inspiration, or whatever else they want to take away from the victories that were earned at the Oscars 2014. In black women, there is a community that has been psychologically molded to believe that lighter is better. Given this, it’s no secret that Lupita herself says she once, “prayed for lighter skin”. Regardless of what I, or any other person, thinks of her physical attractiveness, she’s a woman of substance that Hollywood is in love with for non-sexualized reasons. She won the highest recognition in her field for her first role out of university. Even more importantly, she deserved it (unlike Halle Berry where it can be, and is often argued that she won her award for submitting herself to Hollywood objectification and sexualization).
I am no Lupita fan. That isn’t my domain. But I recognize the importance of resisting the resistance towards her that comes from inside my own race. Divide and conquer isn’t just a cliché.