Identity is complex, nuanced and ever-evolving. Dictated by space, race and ethnicity amongst other factors, it is something that is both personal and universal. It pulls us together, connecting us through similarities but also pushes us apart in crippling ways.
In her latest multimedia project We Are: Black British Nigerian, 34-year-old creative producer, photographer and writer Tols Abeni explores what identity means to her community through a series of interviews and photographs. “It was important to me personally as a way of exploring some of the internal and external conflicts that can come with being Black British Nigerian and how others have navigated these hurdles, but also leaned into the joy that comes from that identity,” Tols says.
Identity is complex, nuanced and ever-evolving.
Speaking about identity can be difficult, especially when different layers and dimensions come into play. Oftentimes the people around us make choices for us about how we should identify based on their experiences and what they perceive ours to be. This was something Tols wanted to challenge with her project: “I thought it could open up the conversation, in a more diplomatic fashion, between British Nigerians and Nigerians. I still get challenged on my identity, what I can and can’t call myself, by home-grown or home-based Nigerians up to this very day. I find it’s mostly done in quite a dismissive fashion, which–I’ll be honest–can get me defensive. I usually now just say, “I’ve done a whole project on this, take a look at it,” which silences them up for the most part because that requires them to critically engage in a nuanced fashion with the debate, and many aren’t willing to do that.” For many participants, the project also allowed a safe space to explore the nuances of their identity. “Some of the first feedback upon me launching the project was how relatable what the interviewees had said was, and essentially feeling validated in the identity of Black British Nigerian. That made me really happy as I was intentionally trying to create a safe space in which to have those conversations.”
“It was important to me personally as a way of exploring some of the internal and external conflicts that can come with being Black British Nigerian and how others have navigated these hurdles, but also leaned into the joy that comes from that identity”
In catching up with Tols, we dove a little deeper into the complexities of identity and how her Black British Nigerian project allowed her to reflect a little more deeply on what identity means.
Do you see your own identity as fluid and how?
I think the concept of being Balck British Nigerian (which I see myself as), is fluid in the sense I regularly move between the three of them depending on the circumstance. As explained before, I might refer to myself as either Black, British or Nigerian, for either greater understanding, a specific merit or to defend my upbringing and experiences.
Photos by Tols Abeni
Do you feel as if those labels (Black, British, Nigerian) can exist individually to describe your identity? (ex. Would you ever describe yourself as Nigerian and exclude the other 2 elements?)
I absolutely would describe myself as Nigerian and I do that both in the midst of other Nigerians (of descent or birth), and in settings where I am the ethnic minority. I do believe all those identities can exist independently, and I frequently interchange between them all. And I note that this is very much a privilege, even as it poses some challenges in the way other Nigerians may see me. How I use each depends on the context–I would probably only go out of my way to say I am Black British Nigerian if the distinction could afford either greater understanding, a specific merit, or to defend my upbringing and experiences.
What does each element add to your identity?
Being Black is self-evident. This, before British and Nigerian, is how others see me, it influences the biases (conscious or unconscious) that I experience in life, and it’s not an identity I could erase or hide like the other two. It could be seen as the most flippant and homogenous descriptor of my personal identity, yet for me, this might be the most powerful part because it is undeniable. By anyone. I am securely situated in that camp and it holds up under pressure, scrutiny and dismissiveness.
Being British, especially Black British, is a trip. It’s despairing of my birthplace, its politics, its disregard for my wellbeing in general, yet also feeling insurmountable pride in the achievements of people like me, the counterculture we have built, and the fierceness with which many of us oppose any suggestion that we do not belong or have a right to be in the UK. Being Black British is being resilient.
Being Nigerian is knowing I am accountable not just to myself, but generations before and after me, it’s understanding the politics of respect, it’s a commitment to supreme excellence, it’s wrestling with cultural traditions, it’s craving a better future for Nigeria, it’s wanting to help but not knowing what to do, it’s highs, it’s lows, it is literally “and still I rise.”
Being British, especially Black British, is a trip. It’s despairing of my birthplace, its politics, its disregard for my wellbeing in general, yet also feeling insurmountable pride in the achievements of people like me
Many of your participants mention a sort of internal conflict they feel between their British and Nigerian identities and feeling a sense of not fitting in within either space. In what instances do you feel this dichotomy presents itself and when is there a sense of peace between both identities (when they exist comfortably side by side or when identity doesn’t seem to matter)?
I think this conflict presents itself often when other people express that they do not fit into these spaces. I think most people would be happily comfortable in the identity of Being Black British Nigerian if it wasn’t constantly challenged. That in turn leads people to gaslight themself and ask “but am I really?” I think peace comes amongst others who are accepting, and understanding of the complexity of that identity, and/or identify the same.
Photos by Tols Abeni
The Black identity is often seen as monolithic and our experiences as Black people in Britain can often be conflated with a Black American experience. What do you see as the differences and similarities between Black American and Black British culture?
The conflation occurs due to lack of exposure. If Black Americans are the only Black people that are seen (movies, TV shows, music etc.), understandably whether consciously or unconsciously, others (including us sometimes) will project that perspective and experience onto us. The similarities reside unfortunately in many of the negative aspects e.g. racism, dsicrimination, but also in terms of how we both have developed exciting and diverse countercultures within largely hostile environments, to the extent that those practices are even plagiarised, stolen, or replicated without honouring us. This is because our value and our worth in our respective countries, are not seen as things that should be equal with the predominant country culture.
Is there anything you’ve learnt about identity specifically since embarking on this project?
I’ve learnt that I am who I say I am. Sometimes people question your identity because they detect a small slither of uncertainty within you as to who you are. When you know who you are, the counter opinions of others can matter, but they certainly do not hold significant weight. Now when someone challenges the assertion that I am Nigerian, I challenge what their understanding is of being Nigerian. What’s the cut off point? Is it eating the food? Being born there? Speaking the languages? Visiting every year? And the more some people try to justify their dismissiveness, the more their petty reasonings become apparent and the conversation may peter out unceremoniously.
When you know who you are, the counter opinions of others can matter, but they certainly do not hold significant weight
I don’t deny some of the behaviour of Nigerians in the diaspora can be problematic… but again… does that make them less Nigerian? Is it not possible for us to be Nigerian amidst our triumphs and our errors? Does being of Nigerian descent make me less British? Does being racially Black mean that is the sum total of who I can possibly be at any given time? Questions for everyone.