I immigrated from Cameroon to the United States as an 18 year old fresh out of high school - an all girls boarding school no less - so it’s safe to say the culture shock I experienced was deep with many layers to it.
I had visited America twice before as a teenager with my parents, but coming as a tourist and going to Disneyland and Six Flags and hanging out with your cousins by the pool doesn’t really prepare you for life as a college student and a new resident of America.
From having to make new friends, learning how to drive, learning new colloquialisms, technology, fashion, food, and every other new, strange and scary aspect of living in a new culture, it was an overwhelming experience but one that was admittedly made easier by having extended family with whom I lived.
As depressed as I often was during this transition, I can’t imagine having to experience that completely on my own, having no family or familiar face from home, as some students have to do.
Of all the lessons I learned while acclimating to American life, one of the most impactful, was that I am black.
I am black, and I didn’t understand this until I lived in America.
This may sound strange to someone who has lived in the U.S. or similar culture like the U.K their entire lives but in Cameroon (I won’t speak for any other African country) as a mixed race person I was never seen as black and as a result I never saw myself that way.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think I was white.
My mother is white, but I never saw myself as white. I also didn’t see myself as black, like my father, my neighbours, my cousins, and my best friends.
The only people I saw myself in completely were my sisters and the handful of other mixed race or as we call them “metisse” children I knew growing up.
Growing up mixed in Cameroon was to be constantly “othered.”
To constantly stick out like a sore thumb at school, at parties, at church, on the road walking to buy puff puff or bread from the corner shop.
From early on in life I became accustomed to turned heads and long stares when entering establishments or strolling with friends, or walking through the market. My childhood in Cameroon is filled with great memories of my family, friends and the natural beauty of the coastal town in which I grew up; I wouldn’t want to be born anywhere else or as anyone else but the feeling like I didn’t fully belong, like I was almost the same as everyone else but not quite, is something that is deeply entwined in every part of my childhood experience.
It makes sense that a half-white person or in fact any non-black African person would stick out in Cameroon because it is after all an African country. Despite being colonized by Britain and France (after Germany), there were no European settlers in Cameroon compared to countries like South Africa. All the white people in Cameroon are immigrants like my mother, not settlers or descendants of.
Being “othered” wasn’t victimization, it was simply a recognition of difference, in fact it sometimes created a privileged status. For example, some Cameroonians automatically assume that white people or Europeans are more intelligent by default.
I did well in school academically, and people (teachers included) would make comments alluding to the fact that my mother being white contributed to my intelligence.
I noticed shopkeepers and other workers were often more polite to my mother than other customers. I would go to friends’ houses and their mothers would assume that I didn’t eat pepper in my food. At school it was assumed I was a softie who couldn't fight and didn’t do chores at home (the latter part was partly true but as in other Cameroonian households, that was a factor of income and not race.)
I wouldn’t say my childhood or upbringing was different than other Cameroonians of similar socioeconomic level, however I was hardly able to forget about my race. It was something people constantly brought up, even my close friends, fleetingly most of the time so that I don’t think they realized it. If I did something that was funny or deserved criticism it was always “chai whiteman” this or “ah ah metisse” that. I had a teacher in secondary school who only referred to me as “Enanga whiteman”. Once in high school my close friend recounted how a neighbor had asked her “Who is your metisse friend who always comes to visit you?” and she had to pause to think who he was referring to because she had forgotten that I was mixed. She told me the story as something amusing to laugh about, but to me it was a moment of great appreciation for her and our friendship.
So having lived my entire life in Cameroon with this constant awareness of being different, it was an interesting and welcome revelation to learn that in America I was simply black.
I don’t remember a specific instance when it came to me but it was probably a slow realization over time as I made American friends and friends from other nations. People saw me as black, they referred to me that way and over time I began to see myself that way.
When I first came to the U.S., when filling out questionnaires I would always check “Other” under race, and over time I began to check “Black” or “African-American”.
When there is a “Two or more races” box I check that, with hesitation.
In America no one refers to me as mixed race, just as “light skinned.” The history of slavery in America and the “one drop rule” of course forms the basis of how mixed race people in this country identify. We have that factor on one hand and on the other hand colorism, a lasting and terrible impact of white supremacy (worldwide) in which lighter skin is seen as more desirable and more attractive among black people.
In America, despite intense homesickness (which made me depressed for a long time) and other struggles as an international student on a visa, I was grateful for the ability to blend in (somewhat). To be inconspicuous while walking down the street or waiting at the doctor’s office or in line at the post office. When I meet other Cameroonians either by chance or at Cameroonian events or parties, I always get the skeptical or surprised look when I introduce myself or speak in pidgin. And there I am reminded again that I’m not quite the same.
When I go home to visit, I still get stares and the occasional “whiteman” catcall but it doesn’t seem as frequent and glaring as when I was a child, or maybe it just doesn’t bother me anymore because I’m so glad to be home and enjoying every moment of my vacation.
The announcement of the engagement of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle and their recent wedding has brought up interesting conversations about blackness. In response to media articles citing the impact that this engagement has on black women, I have seen some black women retorting that Meghan herself doesn’t identify as black.
What does it mean to identify as black?
I’ve heard others dismiss the significance of this union because Meghan is “white-passing” which I find is an interesting and valid point.
As a mixed person how do you identify and how do others see you?
This I’ve found based on my own experience, to be a product of your environment. A friend of mine has nieces who are half black (Cameroonian) and half Chinese, living in Hawaii. She mentioned to me that they don’t see themselves as black, but as Asian. Maybe the environment in which they are being raised in Hawaii, allows that but I wonder if it would be the same were they raised on the mainland, say in L.A. or Houston.
Will their point of view change as they grow up and are more aware of the nuances of race in America?
I am curious to know how people of mixed race people of African ancestry are seen and identify in other African countries and around the world.
Words By B.E. Lyonga