how being a first generation black immigrant shaped my cultural identity

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So you’re Nigerian?

Yes.

Were you born there?

No.

So your parents are Nigerian?

Yes…

You’re Canadian, then.

If I had a penny for the amount of times I’ve heard some version of this conversation, I would be sitting pretty right now.

I am a first generation Canadian, born abroad from an immigrant family. I am a child to two born-and-raised Nigerians.

If you asked me how I self-identified, I would say somewhere between a foreigner and a native; I am a bit of both my worlds. Growing up I was rooted in Nigerian culture–the food, music, clothing, etc. I knew where I was from and the culture my parents worked so hard to hold on to and transfer. But I lived in the West (Europe and North America) and that was my day-to-day.

Now, if you asked others to identify me, it would be quite an interesting dialogue. To Canadians I am of course black but specifically, I am Nigerian. To many Nigerians, I am ‘oyinbo’ white/Canadian. In quick chats with Nigerian friends (born and raised in Nigeria, but living in Canada), they’re often quick to tell me I am not really Nigerian. DNA is not enough to win this argument. I don’t ever win this argument. I can soak up the culture as much as possible being here in the west but it is simply not the same or considered legitimate. So let’s review here: I am not quite ‘Canadian’, I am also not ‘Nigerian’ enough to be Nigerian.

Now you’re beginning to see how complex this can be. Natural hair blogger, Jouelzy put it well:

Figuring out how to hold on to one’s cultures while becoming American enough to survive. Dealing with not being All-American enough but no longer being *insert country*-an enough. Straddling the line and defining what is acceptable while each side tells you you are not enough. You’re shortcomings are always representative of what you are not enough of, leaving you wondering what you have a right to identify as. Are you allowed to raise your voice up and speak for either side?

I’ve dealt with the issues mentioned by Jouelzy far too many times. There’s a constant straddling between two worlds and the opinions of two groups. To me both are legitimate. I am as much of one world as I am the other. My voice should be as legitimate when raised for one side as it is when raised for the other.

Labels and the Views Attached to Them

From my experience living in Toronto, the majority of black immigrants have come here by choice and identify strongly with their home country roots. When asked to self identify often times you will hear “Jamaican, Ghanaian, Ethiopian, etc.” Black Canadians are often aware of their origin and usually do not identify as solely black. I’ve heard my fair share of African vs. Caribbean jokes but in my day-to-day life don’t see bifurcation of people of color in Toronto similar to the experiences of those in the United States. To the non-black community, whether of African or Caribbean descent you are often labeled black in Canada. But in contrast to the experience in America the comparison of the two groups with one being superior to the other is not common and/or mainstream.

I am aware that my experiences working through the complexity of self-identification is not a single story. The discourse south of the Canadian border is much different. The identification of people of color in the United States is of primarily two opinions. One, “you’re/we’re all black” – this opinion is that whether you are African American or an African immigrant you as a people are grouped as one, as expressed by writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.” The other opinion compares the two groups against themselves. African Americans (a descendant of slaves brought over to America in the 19th Century) are different from Africans (immigrated to America by choice) and one group is inherently better then the other.

Research done by the political scientist Christina M. Greer shows how widespread this native-black/immigrant-black schema seems to be. “In a survey of Black New York City public service workers, she found Africans were deemed the most industrious of all Blacks. Afro-Caribbeans were ranked nearly as favorably. Black Americans, however, were perceived to be the least hard-working — even by native-born Blacks.”

The bifurcation of people of color has even been noted in the way President Obama spoke to Africans vs. Black Americans. Donovan X. Ramsey wrote a piece for New York One observing:

A distinct difference in the way Obama addressed the audience of young African fellows and the way he consistently speaks to American blacks. Where the fellows received praise, support and inspiration from the American president, American blacks are too often dressed down with messages of respectability, charges of pathology and calls for accountability.

Even if you are sure as to how you self identify the outside world constantly has their own opinions. It would be one thing if they kept their opinions to themselves but we know that doesn’t happen. Their opinions are projected and as a result groups of people are treated a certain way making it challenging to stand firm in their own identity. I myself, identify as a Nigerian – Canadian. I am Nigerian first, but acknowledge the influence of living in Canada and with pride take on the secondary label of being Canadian. Nigeria has my roots, the story of my ancestors, my culture, my genetic makeup and so much more but to deny the influence of being and living in Canada would be unfair. When others label me, as they do, I often correct and share how I self-identify. Both labels are valid to me and none less legitimate than the other. What I’ve learned is the importance of getting used to exercising the habit of challenging identification labels and rejecting those that are imposed and often used in an unfair manner to categorize and often discriminate.

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Team Unruly
Team Unruly
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