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Defining Self

I believe that the most important thing for anyone in this world is knowing who you are. When it comes down to it, the anxieties and realities of life are often easier to handle when someone is confident within. That being said, because a sense of self is such a valuable thing to hold, it tends to be really hard to find. Throughout my life my background has been a source of contrasted emotions. Isolation coupled with belonging, confusion mixed with understanding and embarrassment matched with pride. I think that the majority of this is a result of having parents from two completely different places; my dad is black from Namibia, and my mom is white from America. It was not until recently, say the last couple of years, that I realized that this conflict of emotions is one that will last forever, and that knowing who I am is accepting this ongoing internal battle.

I am black. I know that there are many layers to identity, and that having a mixed race background does not cancel out the fact that I am black. However, I also know that black is perceived and defined differently around the world as a result of different experiences and encounters with other races throughout history. Living in America, where sometimes even just one black grandparent can categorize someone as black, it is interesting to observe and compare this complexity of blackness when I am abroad. In Senegal, for instance, I am much closer to being white (I have been called white already), and I am often referred to as a ‘toubab’ which is basically a name to describe white or wealthy foreigners. It is also different having travelled in South Africa and Namibia where the term “coloured” historically differentiated people who appear like they could be mixed race from black people, but who would still be considered black in America.

Although I have only been in Dakar for a little over two weeks, my sense of self has already been greatly impacted. Something that I am still coming to terms with is how visible I am, which comes from looking obviously different from the majority of the population. While my hyper visibility is sometimes really uncomfortable, I am going to make the effort to use it as a mediator; to embrace puzzled glances or long stares, and to answer questions about where I am from, confidently. I am being challenged everyday (or every time I step outside) to confront the fact that other perceptions of who or ”what” I am are not defining. My name, which is Namibian (and clearly not American), leads to further questions about my identity, giving me the opportunity to elaborate on my background to people in a new place who are genuinely curious. The constant explaining that my mom is American, and dad is Namibian has brought me a newfound assuredness in who I am because it solidifies that that will never change, no matter where I am.