Let me tell you a little bit about one of my very good friends. She and I had many a fights when we were going through that process of becoming actual good friends. You know, those fights where you have to decide if you would prefer a superficial friendship or a deep one. One of our biggest points of contention was our differing understandings of generalizations, assumptions, and stereotypes – particularly ones tied to the jokes she seemed to love telling at the expense of all Nigerians.
Those storms that threatened the bliss of our budding friendship were often borne out of me taking offense at something she had said or laughed at when it came to “Nigerians in general”. I did not take those jokes lightly, and I let her know EVERY single time (Letting her know was a sign, on my part, that I did want us to be real friends – hopefully she’s got that part by now). Was she irritated? Yes! Did she think I was overly sensitive? Definitely! And, did she react positively? Not really. You see, at first it just seemed like she stopped propagating Nigerian stereotypes through her jokes but only when she was around me so that I wouldn’t get offended. She walked on eggshells for a quite a while. But in time, and after many many intense talks between us – with me straining to explain my reasoning and her struggling to grasp it – I think she has come to understand that it was much bigger than that. It was much bigger than just a few harmless jokes, and a seemingly prudish and oversensitive girl.
You see, we can’t always help ourselves when it comes to believing in stereotypes to be true and complete representations of others. It is much less difficult to hear and believe a single story about a community or a people, than to painstakingly get to know a lot of the individuals that make up that community. I must concede that stereotypes are very handy and convenient little things, and they are like the Sparknotes* of inter-cultural relationships. But, they also hamper real (individual) unassuming human connections in ways we cannot always conceive of.
Every individual has a story: a patchwork of labels, events, and identities that, as a whole, is uniquely them. Unfortunately, stereotypes are more concerned with picking specific labels, and passing them off as “all you need to know” facts, thereby disrupting the unique tapestry of identity, and discrediting the complex nature of each idiosyncratic human story.
I remember a time when I did not like telling people I was Nigerian the first time I met them. This was not because I disliked, or was ashamed of my country, at all – Nigeria is great, and she is mine! However, I do realize that there are so many stereotypes about Nigerians, most of which are unfavorable, floating around every part of the world. We are everywhere, and while that has its advantages, it also has its demerits. For instance, when the first thing people find out about me is that I am Nigerian, I very frequently lose the opportunity to make a first impression as an individual. It is so automatic. Suddenly, I’m no longer me: I’m a country, an abstraction, I’m the loud life of the party, the money lover, the crook, the jovial friend with an agenda, the smart go-getter, and so much more.
“I had no idea you were Nigerian, you’re so quiet!” – The astonished words of a girl I had met two or three times before, on the occasion of her discovering my nationality.
Sometimes, our prejudices, and subliminally conceived assumptions are transformed into micro-aggressions, often delivered with well-meaning intentions. It’s like the time I wrote part of literature review for a group project, and my otherwise very friendly and kind team member couldn’t hide her shock when she said “OMG! You’re such a good writer! I had no idea you could write so well!” Never mind that we were all taking a class to become writing tutors, which I’d think is indication enough that we were good writers all. Never mind that we had all been nominated by professors for having this very skill. I could take the more flattering route and speculate her compliment was borne out of the notion that my writing was particularly exceptional and maybe genius, but I highly doubt that was the case. Literature reviews are not the most stimulating things to write, and I most likely had a “get it done” approach to that assignment. So, what WAS that about? Was it about her thinking that I couldn’t write well because I was Nigerian (black, African)? Was it about her thinking that since English was not my first language, I couldn’t command it nearly as well as she? Was it about her having lowered expectations of me because of her unvoiced assumptions? Or did she simply perceive my “get it done” writing to be exceptional?
I don’t intend to claim that I never am a perpetrator of assumptions, generalizations, and/or micro-aggressions. A particularly now-cringe-worthy incident comes to mind. I remember incessantly asking this guy, “What are you?” in regard to his ancestry, and I could not, for the life of me, understand why he seemed to be taken-aback. If anything, I was a bit annoyed by all the fuss he was making because, to me then, it was just a simple question. I should probably point out that I’d not had a lot of experience with race, so I was not informed enough to channel my curiosity into a better phrased question. I just came from Nigeria, and you were either black, white, or “half-caste”/mixed race. I’m really not trying to make excuses for myself, the point is that it takes a conscious effort, and awareness to avoid incidents like these.
Maybe the girl from my writing class didn’t mean anything by it. Maybe she was actually appreciative of my writing, and did not understand that her expression of shock might be perceived with different connotations. What this means, is that we all have to put in extra effort to identify, scrutinize, and terminate our prejudices, lest we rob other humans of their chance to be persons.
But until everyone gets to that level of consciousness, I have decided that any assumptions another person makes about me will be their problem, not mine. So, heck yeah! I’m a Nigerian! Do with that what you will.