Home: Colour, Language and Identity

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With a name like William Moore to accompany my light skin in a society where identity is based on paternal ancestral roots, the role of colour and language in identity has always been a part of my life — even if I couldn’t always understand it. For me, the notion of identity went from being something I had never even thought about to becoming a mini life crisis as I grew into adulthood. Born in East Nigeria to a mixed-race father and a black mother, my skin colour had always marked me out as early as I could remember. Even as my age races for thirty, memories of my childhood being dragged along Onitsha Main-market to the sound of traders calling out from their stalls never fade.

“Yellow, oyibo¹, onyeocha², paw-paw.” And the word that eventually made me aware of the notion of racial identity, “Half-cast”.

Fortunately, much to my father’s disapproval of the use of the Igbo language in the house for fear of the accent poisoning our colonial lingua-franca, myself and all my siblings learned to speak our local language as good as any other Onitsha indigene. And just to put the nail in the coffin, attending secondary school in Benin City polished my pidgin English with the unmistakable Benin twang that makes me appear somewhat like a street boy when I speak the language. Today, when I speak like this amongst new friends from upper-class families, they often assume I am forcing an accent to assimilate as a local Nigerian. They struggle to reconcile what they perceive as my identity based on appearance with such language and I can understand why. After nine years in England, understanding the role of language in identity profiling was something I couldn’t escape.

As at the moment I boarded that Boeing 747 to England to go further my education, to me, I was as Nigerian as Nigerian could be — even if I didn’t know what it meant to be Nigerian or if it even meant anything at all. On the other side of the sea, I would come to realize that far from what I might have been called on the streets of Nigeria, I wasn’t just black, I was also African — instantly betrayed by the accent I spoke in until I mastered the British tongue twist for better assimilation. To the Brits, the drop of Caucasian in me counted only as much as my mass of black to the Nigerians — not nearly enough to be certified as one of them even if my given name of William Moore suggested some ancestral kinship. They always wanted to know — what is your African name?

While I was made aware of my blackness within only a few days of arriving, I wouldn’t fully understand the implication till a new friend of mine introduced me to his girlfriend and in innocent excitement I blurted out:

“Ed, you never told me your girlfriend was half-cast.” An awkward silence marked with shocked faces lingered like a foul stench in the air as they pondered on my utterance.

“William, you can’t say that?” Ed said.

“No no, I’m half-cast too, well, quarter. My dad is half.” I was still smiling, completely oblivious to the weight of my words and the meaning buried in them.

“Just say mixed-race.”

Ed was smart enough to figure out I didn’t have the slightest clue what it meant to be referred to as a half-cast in England. In Nigeria it is more or less considered a compliment on ones skin colour. Later, Ed would explain the concept of race to me and sow the seed of a fractured identity in my mind. This seed would germinate in the West but wouldn’t bloom to fruition until I finally came back home.

A few months into my stay in England, my accent went from the terrible American forgery I had learned from the movies to a stellar British one moulded in the image of the posh Harrogate way of speaking. I was so fluent that not even the Brits could tell I was a foreigner. You see, language is more than just the words we use and the accent we speak in. Much of it relates to a way of speaking difficult to express in words because it bears a semblance to art. In the art of conversation, everything is a tool used to shape identity. From the pace at which one speaks, the idioms and expressions used, the sense of humour reflected, knowing when to be appalled, when to act surprised, the list is endless. If you will, picture the art of communication as a sort of play acted out with both parties’ interchangeably playing speaker and listener. If you can play both parts well enough as an African, you can upgrade your identity from the Black Foreign stock to the Black Domestic stock.

Unlike the Black Foreign mostly met with understandable curious interest amidst ignorant media promoted stereotypes (poor, uneducated and corrupt) — the Black Domestic has little room for any curiosity at all on the subject of identity. This discrepancy in my opinion draws the major line separating skin colour identity perception between foreign blacks and domestic ones abroad. For example, a Nigerian friend of mine was once asked if he had ever lived in trees. He replied that he did, and since the colonial days the Queen has been lodged in a five star forest whenever she visits.

While asking someone if they had ever lived in a tree because they are from Africa is seemingly insulting, at least the subject is given space to assert their identity by answering and providing further information. In fact, it is this openness that leads so many British girls to fall for the classic “I am a prince in Africa” story from boys whose fathers are no more than small titled men in their tribe’s tradition. Generally, as a Black Foreign body, the lack of complete preconceived notions on Africans allows for the navigation of a wider identity space. And even when you fall short of the English standard of enlightenment like prophesying an Abrahamic religion as opposed to the more popular atheistic stance, your perceived error is forgiven because you are already assumed to come from a place of disadvantage. It is almost perplexing why this disadvantaged mentality is not extended to Black Domestics. My guess is that the underlying false assumption considers Black Domestics in a position of accessible opportunity and hence cannot be excused for being intellectually or morally lazy when shortcomings are considered. For the Black Domestic, the only space of asserting identity is by class and if you are assumed to be lower-class, you are boxed in a stereotype with little or no space to breakout. This is where language comes in.

I have always found the idea that human experience is limited by sensual perception very interesting. When it comes to our perception of other humans, we rely almost exclusively on our vision for how they appear and then our hearing for how they sound. For the most part, our vision can only really trust colour because depending on a person’s fashion choice, switching classes can easily be managed. When it comes to our hearing, this is where both what we say and how we say it influences how we are identified. A most hidden aspect of language is seeded deep in the ideologies we express with words. This is particularly hard to escape because naturally, the ideologies we hold are a result of the realities we have lived. In the world today, for example, identifying with liberal ideas are often considered progressive and sends the signal that a person is educated and edified even if they are only regurgitating information picked up from mainstream media. The style in which these ideas are presented and how a person speaks in normal apolitical conversations also point to certain class assumptions. For example, tri and quad-syllabic words point to being well educated and certain slang words will put you in a low-income bracket in South London.

As an expansive reader and private school educated child, by the time I made it to the university, I had both the vocabulary and accent of a well-to-do Black Domestic Brit. Where my diction stopped, a choice of Polo shirts and boat shoes against hoodies and sneakers finished. By the time I left England, to the average Brit, I was at least an upper-middle class young black man and that is very different from being a lower-class one. Even my run-ins with police were largely pleasant bar a day I travelled with a Ghanaian friend through Brixton. After being pulled over for playing grime music at high volume, wearing fitted caps, hoodies, sweatpants and sneakers in a BMW — we were asked to spread against the wall and patted down while dogs sniffed around our car filled with pharmacy text books. We were just on our way back to the university.

Till this day, my mind often travels back to that incident as I contemplate where racism fits into identity perception. While it is easy to lump all forms of discriminatory practice with the notion of race superiority and racially charged hatred, on one too many evenings driving around Lagos, I have found myself hitting the central lock button when I sight people of a certain class reinforced by stereotypes. These men for the most parts are just labourers or local boys with no intention of robbing me, but yet, an accessible car door is not a chance I am willing to take. In England, a group of black boys in a hoodies was often just as discomforting as a gang of white boys in Fred Perry polos, tracksuit bottoms and face caps. While they are of different skin colours, their attire regulate them to a class stereotyped for violence and as creatures that identify subjects by association, there is no escaping this bias. It is my opinion that bias is not always equal to hatred and hence not every act of discrimination is racists. It is one thing to act out of implicit biases out of our control, and another to act out of hatred that could or could not be inspired by a feeling of superiority. The latter is what I consider as active racism. The former at best is passive and in some form or shape, we are all guilty of it. Racism being an objective reality by default makes it accessible to all races even if blacks are not historically or institutionally empowered to perpetuate the act on the same level as whites. It will take my return to Nigeria to understand just how deep these biases run, and how they affect me as a native with an alien name and somewhat alien skin.

Coming back home, I was now well aware of the fluid nature of identity through spaces and how colour and language worked as tools for navigation. I began to notice my reaction to the usual terms of identification.

“Yellow, oyiboonyeocha, paw-paw and half-cast”

All of a sudden, I became sensitive to the suggestion of alienation and rejection pregnant in these words. For the new me, people asking me if I was Nigerian and wanting to know what village my parents came from and what my last name was now meant something else. I couldn’t claim the culture of my paternal ancestors like other Nigerians and I didn’t have the required license to fully assert myself as a son of the soil with roots only two generations deep. For a while, I was upset about this. For someone like myself born and raised in Nigeria, versed in the culture and history, even fluent in my native language, Igbo — my identity being questioned felt somewhat like a betrayal. A betrayal that cut deep because it was coming from a people I had claimed as my own. I had been to the other side of the world and now I was back as stranger in my own home. I found other returnees that deliberately wore their acquired foreign accents rather irritating and I considered them mostly pretentious. They were trying to be everything I was running away from.

I found myself wishing I could turn back the hands of time to an age when I didn’t know any better, when I required no validation to assert my identity. At a point I even began to doubt what I was, and that was when things began to fall into place. One day, I was accompanying my father to the supermarket when we came across two white men in danshiki tops. My father who is the child of two mixed race parents, both half European and half African couldn’t look whiter with his fine hair texture and emerald green eyes. He looked at the white men and laughed.

“These oyibo people always look so funny in these traditional clothes, and I bet you they get ripped off so much when they buy it.”

This moment was particularly revelatory to me because it truly exposed something about identity I hadn’t taken seriously before. Here was my father, a man so white-looking he constantly gets redirected to the foreigner queue at immigration in Nigeria. A man that was once refused a Nigerian passport even after speaking fluent Igbo to the official. He had to provide his collection of passports from as early as his school days before convincing them of his identity. He was no stranger to the inflated prices of goods for whites, and at home he also housed a wardrobe full of traditional attires he thought he looked great in. Yet, somehow, he managed to conceive himself a native and these men foreign. For his identity, he required no validation for assertion. He was a Nigerian Igbo man and that was all there was to it. No one could tell him any different.

Realizing how important it was for my sense of self to control the narrative of my identity, I became able to observe what I regarded as rejection from a more objective lens. I was Nigerian, just a different type more difficult to be readily identified. From this lens, it became clear to me that both a White Foreign and White Domestic in Nigeria were of better social standing than the Black Foreign and Black Domestic. Not only did most local Nigerians give so much space for assertion, which I took advantage of speaking with a local diction and using the local language when I could — even their assumptions were that I was rich and educated. For the most part, I consider this positive discrimination — privilege. An argument can be made that for those that fall short of this expectation, it can be a negative, but that is another investigation for another essay. From where I was standing, both home and abroad, the name William Moore was an advantage on job application forms. Abroad it saved me from extreme nationalist prejudices, and at home it saved me from tribal prejudice.

Today, I continue to navigate and explore spaces while questioning the very notion of assuming any identity at all as I sail through this existential prison. If I require no external validation to assert my identity to myself, why do I have to be one thing, many things or anything? After all, in the global village of today, no one person is a sum of only one geographical or cultural region. As it appears to me, the lack of untampered rooting in any culture in a post-colonial fast evolving world has negated the notion of fixed identities. Instead on trying to be any one thing, I continue to dip my paint brush into different cultural palates to beautify the collage of my being and existence.

However, whenever I find my identity too far away from the shores of home (my place of origin), I cannot help but feel a sting of abandonment and this guilt I cannot shake. It is why I always insert my native name “Ifeanyi” whenever I play the role of author. After all, the story of our culture is kept alive only by the steering of our narrative. And as much as some days I wish to exist in a superposition of both native and foreign, free to assume any whenever I feel like — I am also aware that what fails to define itself will eventually be defined by others. Alas it appears like life itself, our identities exists with ironies and paradoxes oscillating physical, psychosocial, literary and metaphysical spaces at the same time. I am defined by a lack of definition balancing between a past rich in history and tradition, and a future wild with evolution. Home is nowhere, home is everywhere. Yet, home is a place — a space of ever changing liminal kaleidoscopic landscapes.

 

  1. Oyibo: White skin

2. Onyeocha: White person

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