My different communities abroad have made me think critically about my identity in many ways. Per my first post, where I elaborated on the complexities of blackness around the world, it has been interesting having now been in Dakar for over two months and seeing where I fit in. I am one of the few students of color in my program that is composed of university students from around the US. This has been an interesting adjustment to make because my social circle back at GW is mainly black students and other people of color. On top of that, this is my first time traveling and living anywhere in Africa with a group of other Americans. At my study center, one of my greatest sources of community here, there is also a law school that is composed solely of Senegalese students. There is no forced separation between the two schools, and we are encouraged to talk to the law students and make friendships, etc. However, there is a natural separation that comes with taking different classes on different floors of the building, and the language barrier that still persists with French and Wolof. This dynamic - especially compared to my friend groups at GW - has caused me to reflect on what it means for me to be an American abroad because at least in this instance I am definitely seen as a part of a larger group, and that is something that I have never had to do so vividly. Furthermore, what it means to be one of a few students of color in a large group of Americans.
The running route that I have in Dakar was another community that I referenced in my last post. I think that more than anything, this has supported and strengthened my notion that I am independent, but it has also reassured me that there are parallels between people when we least expect them. Running has solidified my sense of independence because I made myself familiar with my running paths without any guide. That is not to say that the paths are challenging, and that people have not run them before, but in a new city with a completely different climate I was proud to do this alone. The feeling of independence is also matched with a feeling of comfort because of all the other people that I pass whenever I am on a run. A simple head nod, smile, or thumbs up from a fellow runner is enough to remind me that being in charge/control of what I am doing does not mean that I have to be completely isolated. I am running alongside people from completely different backgrounds, and with a wide range (young to old men and women, some running in flip flops and some in tracksuits), and this has reminded me that even in the midst of minor identity confusion I can still feel a part of something.
The concept of community becomes more important than ever when you are traveling/living abroad. While total integration is not really possible within the first few months (or ever), there are certain people and places that can definitely make you feel more at ease amidst new surroundings. I have attached a couple of mine:
One of the first things that I wanted to do upon my arrival in Dakar was find a running route. At home I run everyday, and before coming I was a little anxious as to whether or not I would be able to do the same here. It turns out that the neighborhood I live in, Ouakam, is right next to one of the longest roads in Dakar (Route de la Corniche) that literally borders the Atlantic Ocean. I have made it a habit to run around 6:30/7 most evenings after getting home from school, as the sun is setting then and it is much cooler. For the first couple of weeks I had to adjust to the unfamiliarity of where I was, and all of the car exhaust as I am not used to running right next to main roads, but now the ease of finding my way and knowing where I am going is really comforting. Every day I feel more and more acclimated to my surroundings, and the euphoria that accompanies running is something that makes me feel even more at home.
...continue reading "Defining Community"
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.