I wish there were an option for “It’s complicated” when I’m talking about who I am and where I’m from.
No, I’m not physically racially ambiguous in a way that makes people ask endless questions about my ethnicity, demand to know my heritage or call me exotic. I am, in fact, very black. I’ll never have to “come out” as such, and I’m not stuck between two cultures in a way that reveals itself through my face and my hair. So you might be surprised to learn that I can struggle at times as much as multiracial people we hear so much about when it comes to choosing the best way to describe my background and explaining where I call home.
With a biracial president (who identifies as black) and a fast-growing mixed-race population, most Americans understand that racial identity can be complex and that it requires people to make hard, highly individual choices. But deciding on and explaining cultural identity can be complicated, too. Especially when you can claim birth and upbringing on various continents and in various countries and cities—and when the way you have to explain how you identify changes depending on where you are at the time and on who’s asking.
I was born in the United Kingdom and lived there with my family until we moved to Nigeria, where I was raised through high school. Just after I graduated, we moved to the United States, and I’ve since lived in Kentucky and Washington, D.C., and become a U.S. citizen. I would like to claim semicitizenship in each of these places—Nigeria, the U.K. and the U.S.—because I feel as if I’m a sum of each of those experiences. But I can’t say I don’t find myself worrying, does it mean that I’m confused or, worse, trying to “pass,” or rejecting a part of myself?
Does everyone in my situation have an identical struggle? Is it making my life unmanageable? No. Still, it would be nice if more people could acknowledge that when you have lived in and identify with different parts of the world, that divide goes right to the core of who you are.
Even though I self-identify as Nigerian, I can claim Nigeria only by blood, but not birth. This poses no inherent conflict within the country, since Nigerians focus on the patrilineal bloodline. But outside the country, it can be difficult to explain to others that I’m from there when I was born in the U.K.
To white Americans, I’m black. To black Americans, I’m African. To Africans, I’m Nigerian and to Nigerians, I’m Urhobo—my father’s ethnic group located in the Delta region of the country—although my parents are from two different ethnic groups. My mother is Yoruba, and my upbringing was tailored to maintain a balance between both, so my siblings and I identify as both and take great pride in our dual-ethnic background.
Beyond that, even how to use the simple word “home” with other people can be tasking. Home in the American context can signify where a person was born or where a person’s parents reside. To Africans, going home often means going to one’s country, and to Nigerians, home isn’t just where one grew up or where one’s parents reside but what town or state one’s bloodline hails from. See, it’s complicated, right?
I get antsy when asked, “Where are you from?” and usually just blurt out “Nigeria” because it accounts for my name’s origins, which is often what the curiosity on the part of the person asking is about. But when people ask if I was born there and I explain that I wasn’t, it usually leads to follow-up questions that make it harder to explain and sometimes make my Nigerian citizenship feel watered down or less authentic. Add this to the fact that some people think of Africa as one monolithic continent rather than a continent of many different countries, and you can get really bogged down trying to explain things in a way they can understand.
In addition, I speak English without an accent (or, rather, with an American accent), so some people assume that I’ve always been here and want to know where in the States I’m from. I don’t really know how to answer that. Is it where I went to college? Or is it where I now live, which is separate and far away from the rest of my family?
My answers to questions about my home or citizenship lead to more questions from some people, and I have smiled to keep from wincing when an answer of “West Africa” has led someone to ask me if I know such-and-such from Kenya or Tanzania or another African country (because all Africans are friends?).
I’m not fully comfortable speaking of myself as “African” among my American friends when I’m specifically Nigerian. Similarly, it can be uncomfortable explaining to my Nigerian friends that I’m Urhobo and Yoruba and not just one.
Having traveled, lived and claimed citizenship in so many different places, I don’t feel entirely comfortable picking a simplified cultural identity. For now I’m working on ways to tailor my answers to suit the questions I’m asked, while keeping them easy to understand and still true to who I am.
The color of my skin might make it look simple, but it’s not.
Omonigho Ufomata is a public-policy professional who resides in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter.
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