There were many things I knew about being a biracial woman living in Nigeria. Growing up, I heard many things about how I was prone to better opportunities, or how I was more special than ‘regular’ Nigerian kids who did not have a foreign parent, but I never really understood what it meant to be a half-black woman until I arrived in the United States. As a twenty-eight year old Lebanese-Nigerian woman undergoing her postgraduate studies in Political Science, my move to the US was the imperfect eye opener to the reality that followed.
For many, I was not black enough to be known as black and for others, I was not yellow or brown enough to be Asian. It was a different experience from what I knew back home. As a biracial person living in Nigeria, I was always spotted out amongst my peers. There was some sort of bias that came with the skin, and the hair, and the coloured eyes, and just the fact that I had the blood of two races. Being mixed in Nigeria, you are regarded as Oyibo—a word that meant white—even when you are half-Lebanese or half-Chinese or half-Indian. The average Nigerian down your street would call you Oyibo. They would see you as gold to be treasured. They would consider you the prettiest in the room. They would consider you lucky and if you’ve never met your ‘foreign’ parent, then you must be a lucky bastard. It is both uncomfortable and honouring at the same time.
But when I got to the US, I experienced for the first time the reality of the saying about one man’s meat; another’s poison.
I was not the only biracial person in a class of twenty students. There was Lena, the Armenian-American, and also Kritika, the British-Indian. The rest of the class was made up of six Black Americans, eight Whites, two Latinos and, a Japanese. Still, it felt strange being the only biracial person of black skin. The question of if I was black or not made me wonder if there was something wrong with the colour of my skin.
For all I knew, no one gets to choose where or to whom they are born, to be black or white, or any other colour that may exist on the racial spectrum and yet, when a person is born, his or her identity becomes one of the most difficult things to explain to the world.
A few weeks into my graduate program, every form of honour or preference the mixed skin had given to me back home in Nigeria was reduced to questions that demanded me clarifying to a bunch of strangers who I was just by the colour of my skin and the texture of my hair.
It was the first day of class. I sat in the front row, clinging to my notebook and a pen stuck in my mouth as I chewed lightly on its cap. Everyone slowly settled down. I looked around, feeling unusual, uncomfortable, like I did not belong. My fingers trembled lightly. It was a feeling that had stuck with me since my move, like fishbone in one’s throat.
While I struggled to numb the tremble in my fingers, Noah walked into the classroom. He was a fine boy from Southern California who I met during the orientation week. I watched his steady gait smiling at him. He was easily the face that lit up the room for me. With his charming smile and his deep grey eyes that caused me to feel swoon, I took a fast liking to him. He waved at me and walked to the seat next to me.
“Is this taken?” he asked.
I shook my head. Somehow I had lost the art of speaking in the seconds he stood before me. I gawked at his T-shirt, jeans and baseball hat like I had never seen a man wear those before. He smiled and sat next to me pretending not to take notice of my obvious drooling. I breathed deeply and grinned.
“Your hair…,” Noah said.
“What about it?”
I had packed my thick, full and very curly hair in a bun. I tucked a stray curl behind my ear as he spoke.
“Thank you,” I managed to say, visibly blushing.
Just then, Professor Specter walked in, saving the moment.
“Good morning, everyone. I’m Professor Joseph Specter.”
He took a good look at the class, and then continued.
“Welcome to my class. I like to chat and that’s what we will be doing today. Why is politics your business or anyone’s business at all? What do you think about politics? Why should you even bother about politics?”
I scanned through the class to see if there was a show of hands and then I lifted mine.
The professor motioned that I go on with my point.
“Everyone should care about politics. A person would not care about politics only if the world suits them and they are not affected by the hardship or the discomfort that government or the politics of their society creates. And oftentimes, nobody is ever satisfied with the world as it is.’
“You are…?” Professor Specter asked.
“Otito Elias, sir.”
“O-tee-toe,” he savoured. “Where’s that from?”
“It’s Igbo. Eastern Nigeria.”
“Oh, Ibo. Beautiful. So, Otito, enlighten us on the political system in your country,” he continued with the drawling syllabic pronunciation of my name.
Well sir, I’m from Lebanon and Nigeria. Would you like me to talk about both or either? I wanted to ask this badly but I knew what he meant when he said in your country. It was the country my skin, my afro-Caribbean hair and my name — Nigeria.
When class was finished, Noah asked me to a cup of coffee. I took a rain check. I hated coffee. And to add to that, I was not sure where this friendship with a white boy will lead to. I had already had enough to deal with being mixed and to add an interracial relationship to that? That I wasn’t so confident about.
He was clearly not going to back down so I surrendered.
So, the next day, as planned, we had coffee. It was my least favourite drink but I had promised Noah and besides, his fine self was enough consolation for me drinking some toasted-bean beverage I detested.
“So, uhm, for your first time in the US, how’s it treating you so far?” Noah asked, taking a sip of his coffee.
He nodded, “Honestly. Tell me.”
“I feel strange.”
I kenned that he was not exactly sure what I meant.
“Don’t get me wrong, I know I’m not the only biracial person walking the streets of New York City but still, I feel strange in my own skin. It’s different from what I’ve always known, you know.”,
Noah looked at me, uncomprehending.
“I know, you don’t get it and that’s fine,” I said.
“No, please. Tell me. I want to understand.”
“You are white so you won’t have been faced with this question but just imagine someone asking you this every time they see you, ‘are you mixed?’ and when you say yes, they ask you ‘what are you mixed with?’ like you are some baking dough. What are you supposed to answer to that?”
Noah was unsure how to answer. He drank from his cup uneasily.
“See? That’s how I feel,” I said.
“Hey,” he said, reaching out for my hand.
I shook my head. He did not have to feel bad or sorry for me.
“It’s almost time for class. Let’s go,” I said, cutting the pity party short.
The first time I came to understand the huge disparity between being biracial in Nigeria and in America was a day at the bus stop waiting for a bus. Sitting next to me on the bench was a Latina with a baby. She was yelling on the phone in Spanish, little of which my eavesdropping ears could understand from months of learning Spanish on Duolingo. The woman turned to me and politely asked me to hold her baby for a moment while she finished her conversation with whoever was on the other end of the line. I took the baby with open arms. She was the cutest little being with the tiniest of hands and feet and a smile that beat the glow of the sun.
Just then, my mother called and we spoke in Igbo as we always did. The baby sat still in my arm calmer than she did in her mother’s. When I dropped the call, the Latina, who was now finished with her call, asked what language I spoke on the phone.
“It’s Igbo from Nigeria.”
I could hear the surprise in her stentorian voice.
“You don’t look Nigerian. You look eh…,”
“My mum is Nigerian. I’m half-black,” I said, smiling.
“Oh, I understand now. ‘Cos I know black people don’t usually have freckles,” the Latina continued, as she took her baby from my arm. “You are really pretty. Thank you for holding my baby. You must be really good with babies.”
I smiled wryly. I could not find any words to reply. Black people don’t have freckles? Was there some insult somewhere or was it some compliment or some sort of revelation to her? It bothered me as much as my favourite doll getting broken did when I was six. I had felt like a bad doll mum then, and now, I felt like there was a problem with me all over again. I had a thousand and one questions running through to my mind.
The bus arrived, cutting my thoughts midway and we got on. Throughout the drive until my stop, I watched the Latina and her baby and kept trying to understand the meaning of her statement. Then, it dawned on me that being half-black and half-Asian; I was always going to be posed with upsetting questions and remarks. At that moment, I wanted my skin to be completely dark. If I had to tan every day, I would. I wanted to not have to answer to why I had dark, thick, frizzy hair on such light skin or why I had freckles yet I spoke fluent Igbo and said I was from Nigeria. It was the first time I was faced with the question of who I was in different ways. I began to wonder if I had to tell people that I was Asian, White or that I was Black. For the first time in twenty-nine years, I was faced with the issue of cultural and racial confusion. It was the first time I truly realised that colour defined people, and not always in their favour. But for my hair, I was not phenotypically black and so I felt the urge to prove my blackness just as much as I wanted to prove my being Asian.
After that encounter, I straightened my hair out many times, just to look more Lebanese and not black. I thought of changing to my middle name, Adeline. Besides everyone could pronounce that and not ruin it like they did with Otito. A name that I cherished deeply. I thought of many ways to fit into my skin and not have to answer the slapping questions that came at me every time I was in a group of people very different from me.
Although I was raised in Lagos, I had never truly chosen a side to my roots. I went on holidays in Beirut with my father and his family and I learned Lebanese traditions as well as my Igbo traditions. I loved them equally. Back in Nigeria, I had always told my peers from my primary school days until university that I was half-Lebanese and half-Nigerian and I was always accepted that way. I had never had to choose or explain how being both was possible. And at almost thirty, I am faced with the dilemma of having to choose where I am truly from. A question I never thought would come.
I remembered how uncomfortable I used to be when people called me Oyibo back home yet I got used to it that being “half-caste”—a term many did not know was offensive—in Nigeria warranted you being called Oyibo. But even though I was called Oyibo, I was never asked to drop my identity as a Nigerian. I never imagined how difficult it was to be boxed into having to make a choice about one’s self. It was either I was black or white. There were no grey areas.
Noah was joy to me. We studied together and discussed American and Nigerian politics. I knew everything about him and him, about me. He knew how people in Nigeria would wonder if I truly was my mother’s daughter because of the clear cut difference in our appearances like the difference in day and night. My mother was dark-skinned, like ebony. And I was fair-skinned, just like Sherman, the Indian who lived three houses away from ours. People often questioned if I was adopted especially since my parents were separated and so my father was rarely seen.
A single woman with a mixed baby was questionable in Nigeria. The first question on the minds of busybodies was either ‘how did she meet a Whiteman whom she had a baby for?’ or ‘where she see oyibo pikin carry?’ both questions meaning the same thing which was that she could not necessarily be the mother of the baby or she was so loose as to spread her legs for the first Whiteman she saw.
It was easier in Lagos for my mother after we moved from Onitsha where we had lived for the first five years of my life. There were more Oyibo children like me. This was why I thought it would be okay to be mixed in a foreign land but the issue of race was not as easy as day and night. It was a box for people. If the box says black and you are not phenotypically black, then you do not fit in and if it says white and you are not phenotypically white, then you cannot fit in. So where does that leave someone like me?
With all of this going on, Noah was growing on me. I loved how he saw me for who I was and how he never directly or indirectly made me feel like I was a specimen to be observed before being understood. He would run his hands through the forest of hair on my head, saying to me,
“Teach me how to make cornrows on them.”
This gave me a sense of safety and comfort in my skin. The many eyes that spoke to me at the park, at the stores, on campus and everywhere else asking if I was truly Nigerian whenever I spoke pidgin or used some Nigerian slang, and others asking if I knew anything about Lebanon because of how Nigerian I was, seemed to be lost in translation whenever I was with Noah. I loved his caresses and how he touched my body adorning my skin with kisses and eulogising it and how he called me his ‘African Queen’. With Noah, the questions Professor Specter threw in classes towards me about Africa in comparison to Asia in relation to their politics did not matter. The same questions that made me feel uncomfortable. Questions that meant no harm in themselves but they made me feel out of place. Like how he would ask if I would prefer to be in politics in Nigeria or in Lebanon or how he would insinuate that I was more Nigerian than Lebanese because I grew up there. With Noah, it did not matter that I was always asked to choose, to define who I was in clear terms with adding ‘half’ to the words. It did not matter that there were some others who considered themselves full bloods who had no problems of ticking black or white clearly as their race in survey sheets. It did not matter that some survey sheets did not give room for mixed race.
With him, I understood what it meant to live life on your own terms and I no longer felt odd being the black slash mixed girl with a white boyfriend.
The press and the media were buzzing with the news. A man, African-American, in his forties had been killed by the police. It was in that moment I realised that being mixed in a country like this one was both a blessing and a curse. I realised that I had never been seen as a threat before in a community of persons or in an elevator or on the street or in traffic, especially when I had my hair straightened out because no one would consider a fair-skinned, Asian-looking woman a threat on the basis of her skin.
“Does politics or the society play a role in some way in situations like this?” Professor Specter asked the next day during lectures. “Does anyone want to take a jab at this analysis?
I felt offended. I was sure the rest of the blacks in class felt the same way. This was a white professor, standing in front of us, asking us if politics had a role to play in the continual stereotyping, profiling and killing of black people in the country. I shifted in my seat, uneasy.
“Would you like to share your thoughts, Otito?” The Professor asked.
“Well, sir,” I paused.
“Yes, go on.”
“The USA has a 13.4 percent population of black people. That’s not even up to a quarter of its racially and ethnically diverse population.”
“A fact I believe most of us know.”
“Yes. That brings me to my point. Why would less than a quarter of a population be a threat to the remaining eighty-seven percent?”
Professor Specter remained quiet, keenly listening.
“I know your question is on whether or not politics or society or some sociological factors are the cause of this, but now my question is why fear a population that isn’t even the majority? Why profile, stereotype and kill people on the basis of the colour of their skin? I’m Nigerian and that makes me black but no officer or security agent has considered me a threat because I do not look black enough to be considered one. Why is that? Whether politics or society has a role to play, I wouldn’t answer to that, but unless you can tell me why a black person has to prove himself so worthy while a white person walks around with a higher sense of security, I would never understand that.”
There was an uncomfortable silence.
“Anyone else?” Professor Specter asked.
I sighed as Doug, one of the African-Americans, started speaking. Perhaps, I was being too passionate about the topic. I wasn’t hearing what Doug was saying. I was furious. How could this man even think of asking such questions? A man had just lost his life because he was dark-skinned.
‘I know you are upset about the ills going on, Otito, but you have to focus on the class and the reason for it. We can’t always let our emotions get the best of us,’ Professor Specter said to me, after the class.
I nodded and left. Noah was waiting for me outside the classroom.
‘What did he want?’ He asked.
‘For me to keep my emotions in check.’
Noah sighed, taking my hand.
‘Let’s grab some coffee.’
We sat staring into each other’s eyes. I was going to be here for a while and I had to adapt and grow a thick skin to the circumstances around me. As we sipped our coffee, Noah pitched an idea to me.
“Why don’t you start a podcast?” He asked.
“I don’t understand.”
“You know, like an audio diary but a platform for others to share their experiences as well. You can talk about your identity crisis and basically get others on the show to talk about theirs. It might be therapeutic and a way forward.”
I sipped some coffee, taking it all in. A few months back, I hated the taste of the beverage but now, I relished in it. I loved how Noah thought about me and how he considered my feelings. He felt like home away from home.
“A podcast isn’t a bad idea,” I said.
He raised his mug to that.
“By the way,” he said, “I never asked. Your name, what does it mean?”
“It’s Otitodilichukwu in full. It means, Praise be to God.”
“It’s beautiful. Like you are.”
We held hands, sitting there drinking coffee, staring into each other’s souls. I felt a certain way I had never felt before. I was no longer going to let anyone decide who I was or allow my mind be bothered by the quandary of being a person of mixed race. I was first human, before being of any colour or race and no one was going to choose who I was for me. I was a black woman and I was also an Asian woman living in America. That’s who I am. And whether or not grey areas existed was not of any concern to me. No one was going to define me anymore.
“So, what are you going to name the podcast?” Noah asked.
I took a sip of my coffee, replaced the mug and giggled. I had not really thought of a name.
“Anatomy of the Epidermis of a Half-Black Woman?” I suggested, rather sheepishly.
Noah laughed. I joined him.
“How about The Grey Areas?” He suggested.
I smiled, knowing that was the right one. Noah leaned in and kissed me.