As Black History Month draws to an end, I wanted to share my own experience of connecting with my identity.
I grew up in a council estate in Salford. Both my parents were immigrants, coming to the UK as students. They knew the power of education and the doors it unlocked and so I was constantly told “get an education, go to university”. I sat the 11+ exam and gained entry to a grammar school…10 miles away from home.
I remember travelling aged 11 from Salford to Sale on a bus so that I could go to a “good school”. However, looking around my class, I was aware I was one of two black people in my year group, but I never noticed it, if you know what I mean. I was me, the girl from Manchester.
Where are you from?
Is that your hair, can I touch it?
I was tall and was immediately drafted into the netball team. That is when I experienced my very first episode of racism when a girl on the opposing team called me an “orangutan” and I should go back to where I came from.
Where I came from?
I came from Manchester. I was born in Manchester. I had been to Nigeria once when I was a baby, so England was all I ever knew and I didn’t connect with my culture in that way.
The majority of my friends were white due to the school I went to. Being a tall, black female, I always stood out wherever I went and my mum used to tell me “people are always going to notice you, so be sure they notice you for good things”. This has always stuck with me.
When later I moved back home after uni, I joined a predominantly black church and started to have more black friends. It was fascinating for me to learn more about my culture, but also be around people who were comfortable talking about it and expressing it, whether it was hair, clothes or music. I felt so out of place, but I was also intrigued. To them, I was a “coconut”.
Chichi you’re black on the outside, but white on the inside.
That was what I used to hear. They were educating me.
I was so desperate to find my place – at work, I was working for HSBC where again, the only black person, so I felt I had to confirm (in language, appearance and more) and become “more white” and then at church I was with my community and again felt I had to change again.
When I got married back in 2010, my in-laws planned a party for us back in Nigeria and this was effectively going to be my first time back. My only representation of Nigeria, was a recent “Welcome to Lagos” documentary that the BBC had done where all they showed was the slums, the crime and violence and all the reasons why you wouldn’t want to visit Nigeria. So to say I was scared was an understatement. I had no idea what to expect.
Fast forward and our trip was a success. It was so surreal to be in a place where EVERYONE looked like me and I didn’t stand out. I got to experience more of my culture, the history, the food and the people (oh the community is amazing) and I got my second passport – to make it official. Sure it’s not a perfect place, but where is?
I came back home determined to learn more about where I was from and didn’t want my children to not know where they come from and we vowed to go back at least every 2 years. They have visited Nigeria a number of times, they eat the food, know some of the Igbo language and genuinely love “going home”.
Today I am proud to be a Nigerian British woman. I take the best of both worlds and it allows me to really be who I am, whether it’s bringing jollof rice in for lunch or wearing my afro for work. The importance of connecting with your FULL identity and who you are can never be underestimated. I am grateful to be able to do that and even though in some rooms I am still the only black person, I proudly represent who I am, knowing that in doing so I am showing others that it is okay to do so too.