The first time I was introduced to the Black, Minority and Ethnic (BME) identity was in my sabbatical year. Being the only black sabbatical officer during my tenure meant that I was the only full-time officer who could deal with the BME campaign. I was expected to work and support the elected part-time BME officers in furthering the aims of the campaign.
I was reluctant at first, for two reasons. I had only ever defined myself as an international student. Being black had never been part of my conscious identity. In Kenya, we are gender, tribe, class- but race? We don’t quite understand what it means to be black. Most poignantly, there was a stigma attached to being black- becoming black would also mean I had to embrace the burden of being black. I didn’t want that.
As a black international student, you quickly notice there’s a shame associated with being black. It’s apparent in the questions about where you’re from and who pays your fees. So whenever you have the chance, you want to disassociate yourself. You want to wriggle yourself out of the negative immigrant stereotype. That’s why you’ll hear so many international students boldly remind everyone how much they pay in fees whenever Teresa May announces new immigration rules. As if your deep pockets make you more worthy of crossing the border. I’m irritated by this school of thought but also reminded that I too, thought like this not too long ago.
This desire to place others beneath us to enhance our own status is a theme I remember reading about in The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, many years ago. In the book, light-skinned and black Maureen is placed a level above darker-skinned and black Pecola. In the hierarchy of immigration, international students are Maureen.
In Africa, our hierarchy is based on gender, tribe and class. The conversation on race is mostly irrelevant (with some exceptions- hi, South Africa). I’m still trying to figure out whether being black means anything to Africa.
Living abroad has helped me discover and appreciate new identities. Despite the fact that I was hesitant to identify as black, I finally did. I have the Black Students Winter Conference 2014 to credit for that. The conversations and interactions at the conference made me realize that the perceived shame and stigma associated with being black was externally imposed- through structural oppression, colonialism and reinforced stereotypes. They were not intrinsic characteristics of black people.
The conference helped me feel empowered and comfortable enough to be a representative and voice for BME students on campus, despite my previous feeling of inadequacy. Today when I look back at my sabbatical year, I am most proud of my work with BME students. I no longer feel embarrassed to speak up on increasing black representation, protecting black-only spaces and tackling structural oppression. My identity is multi-faceted and I feel proud to be a black, African woman!
© Tessy Maritim