A recent dinner conversation, which included two of my southern African friends, revealed that until they each moved out of their home country, they had never considered themselves “black”. That revelation surprised me. I have personally always been conscious of being “black”, although mostly as a physically identifying feature, free of the implications that apply in a myriad of ways in different societies.

I was also surprised because having lived in their home country, where in those days there was a pretty obvious (albeit relatively harmonious) divide between black, white and coloured (that is, of “mixed race”) it had never occurred to me that for my friends, that divide did not cause them to identify themselves as black, consciously in contrast to those who were white. Maybe it was because I was an outsider that I felt differently, and had assumed for all those years that others of my race had too.

So I’ve been mulling over what makes people “feel black” and whether it is different from considering oneself as “African” or “Caribbean” or simply of “African descent”. In this piece I can only speak from my own experience as an African living in Australia. I appreciate that many (including the two friends) may see things differently.

I think of myself as African, but that does not necessarily mean “black”. There are plenty of non-blacks that are African. So what did my friends mean when they said that they only started “feeling black” after they had left their home country? For one of them, even more so having moved from the US to Australia.

A lot of Africans I know (myself included) living in the diaspora, experience what I will call “invasive socialising”. It happens when we are enthusiastically quizzed about where we are originally from (when most of us know we’ll only get a blank stare once we respond) or how come we speak such good English (a lot of us have been speaking the language since we were in diapers, or have been living in Country X for decades.) I know I am going to sound uncharitable to many who embrace the multi-cultures in their cities and really are interested in the answers to those questions. Don’t let me deter you from asking them. Just bear in mind that often, best intentions notwithstanding, it can get tiresome.

It’s in those interactions that people like me start to feel black. Because as much as we work with non-black people, have non-black friends, take our kids to school with mostly non-black kids, the feeling of otherness is deep-seated and constant. I say this with the comfort of having never had a blatantly racist encounter in Australia. I’ve experienced plenty of ignorance, falling short of prejudice, but those are tales for another day.

We may feel black because the way we say “necessarily” or “business” may cause confusion; because others don’t understand why we call older non-relatives aunt and uncle, and why we are raising our kids to do the same; or because we can’t buy our hair products at the supermarket. These examples reflect how the sum of our encounters changes us from African to black.

I’m African wherever I go. Back home, I blend into the comfort of just being me. A woman with a job, who enjoys spicy foreign cuisine, has some friends who happen to be white, Indian or “mixed”, and whose family is somewhat colourful. There, I rarely feel like I need to deconstruct my racial identity, because it’s not interesting or curious or different to anyone else’s objective identity.

So when we “feel black” away from home it’s because of our interactions with others, including other nomad Africans. We “feel black” because in that feeling there is something that identifies us as being distinctive from society at large, and we find ourselves stepping back to look at ourselves from the “other” perspective. We know we look the same, sort of talk the same and act the same as we do back home, where we are just Ugandan or Angolan or Zambian, but we don’t relate to the world in the same way. It’s almost impossible to explain, but the quandary isn’t unique to Africans. It also seems to be an issue that arises for our African-American friends.*

You don’t see the difference between “African” and “black” (or you simply just don’t care)? Well, it may indeed just be a matter of nomenclature, and I for one, couldn’t explain it to you in one sentence. Let’s just call it “a feeling”. It’s neither negative nor positive. It just is.

* See recent American commentary regarding the use of “a black” (as a noun) following a Bloomberg News article in April this year: http://www.politico.com/blogs/media/2013/04/an-african-american-or-a-black-160773.html

About The Author

Sifa Mtango

Sifa is a Tanzanian nomad, who today calls Sydney, Australia home. A practising solicitor, Sifa has represented clients from various industries conducting legal disputes in New South Wales and the Federal Courts. Outside her day job, Sifa is passionate about international legal and social issues and as a student, she published articles on human rights topics. Today she continues to engage with community and professional groups on issues of significant social relevance, particularly concerning the African diaspora. As a mother of two, Sifa’s greatest joys are her family and friends. She enjoys music, theatre and reading – making time to indulge in these activities as often as the “real world” permits.

3 Responses

  1. Janet

    I enjoyed reading this piece. I can relate because as a women who is a first generation American bi cultural (Dominican and Ghanaian) woman I can honestly say that I lived my life as a women of color not a “black woman”. In America a Black woman has been made to be synonymous with African American, thus I wasn’t “Black”. But it was in college that I was able to learn the history of the African Diaspora in the America’s spanning North, South and the Caribbean, through that history I began to identify as a Black Afro Latina Woman in the sense that I am a direct descendant of Africans and I am intrinsically linked to the experience of people of color in the diaspora.
    The idea of Black is rooted in colonization, white supremacy and slavery. It is a object of society, taking away from the rich, deep and mosaic history of Africans. This is a direct reason why I am wiry of the term because I believe that it contributes perpetuating the idea that the idea of “race” is real. Thank you for the post!

  2. Tidenek

    I can completely and totally relate to this as an Ethiopian who didn’t think of myself as black until I lived in America. It’s always comforting to hear from others who have had a similar experience.


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