The Evolution of my Blackness
An East African woman’s perspective on Black lives in America
by Khadijo Abdi
I am an immigrant of Somali descent who grew up in Kenya, which means I am a black woman. But for the first 16 years of my life I never identified as black. There’s no reason to identify as black in a place where everyone is; unless you are especially dark in pigment and you have night-shaded skin. So we (in Africa) have other ways of sorting ourselves out. We identify as nations like Kenyan, Somali, Ethiopian, Ghanaian and Nigerian; or as tribes like Kikuyu, Maasai, Fulani, and Oromo; or even as Muslims, Catholics, and Christians.
So it was different and strange to me when I was new to America and called Black. I would bring it up to my mother whose only answer was, “You are definitely not white.” The thing is, when you are an immigrant and you join an existing society, you end up wearing the labels they put on you, along with the ones you came with. And in my case I am a Muslima and I wear the hijab. I see myself as a hijabi and as a Somali. And thanks to America, I now see myself as a proud black woman.
My college professor would always turn to me before he’d state a fact about the Middle East by saying things like, “Correct me if I am wrong, but the oil embargo on Saddam Hussein didn’t have the desired effect on that region.” I couldn’t correct him if I tried! Mainly, because I know as much about the region as CNN reports. To some, headscarf equals Arab/Middle Eastern.
Once, I was checking out at the fast lane of a grocery store and next to me there was a little four-year-old boy staring at me, in an innocent way as four-year-olds often do. His mother turned to him and said “Stop staring, she is just from somewhere else!” By that she meant, people who look like me and wear headscarves like I do are not from here. It was all so normal to me and I would only see the strangeness of it when I would go places with my white friends and they would be so unsettled by how much people stare at me.
I have a hard time figuring out if some of the racist comments that are sometimes flung at me are because of my blackness or my faith. On the opposite end, I have been accused of not being “black enough” for acting and sounding “white” by black co-workers (in all fairness I do talk like a Valley girl). I have had many discussions with African-American Muslim friends who allege that the immigrant Muslim community is either racist towards or not receptive to the struggles of the African-American community. As much as it makes me uncomfortable, there’s a lot of truth to that.
I remember right after I graduated, I booked this interview over the phone. The interviewing manager and I had a long, friendly conversation over the phone. She stated I was well qualified and it looked like I was in. Until I showed up in person and I watched this white lady’s face fall when I introduced myself. She spent the first fifteen minutes of the interview backpedaling and explaining how hard the position was, and how inexperienced and under-qualified I was. She never really asked one question or gave me an honest chance at the job. I remember walking to my car thinking, did this happen because I am black or because I am Muslim? It doesn’t matter in the end, discrimination is painful and depressing. And it makes one feel low.
The biggest thing I have failed to understand is, all along I was living the black experience in America while seeing the world through a hijab filter. By that I mean, I would think a lot of the shady, racially-tinged happenings that do occur in my life was because I was targeted as a Muslim, but that was not always the case. For example, it became normal for my brother to leave work late at night and to have the police tail his car. It was normal for me to go into grocery stores with my two teenage boy cousins and be followed through the store by security. And it became normal for me to feel that unless things change for the better, if I have sons in this country, that they would not be safe from unfair scrutiny or from police brutality, and that is really really unsettling.
Being an immigrant and a POC, I know that we have to work twice as hard to get the same level of success as others who do not carry these labels. And that is fine with me, I am not afraid to work hard. I have also evolved in that I understand I don’t need permission to succeed among white people, and I don’t need validation and acceptance to identify as a black person. A Muslim, a black woman, a Somali, and an American, I am all the above.
Khadijo Abdi is a corporate foot soldier by day and Soapcrafter by night. She is currently working with her sister and building a premier Somali-owned skincare company. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram with the handle @saboonlove1