What speaking to my daughter about George Floyd taught me about my race privilege as an African
Posted June 10, 2020 6:00 a.m. EDT
CNN — "Why didn't you tell me, mummy? I'm so upset!"
"Tell you what?"
"About George Floyd."
My heart skipped a beat. My daughter is nine, and I had hoped to shield her from the brutality of that video.
"I wanted to protect you," I replied, completely taken aback by the conversation.
"But mummy, you have to tell me these things. I have to be ready to deal with this because I am black."
My little girl is already preparing herself for the hatred of others, simply because of her skin color.
"Is this why we moved to Nigeria?" she asked.
I took a deep breath and tried to answer her questions as honestly and openly as I could.
I explained that moving to Nigeria was partly because I wanted her to grow up in a world without racism and micro-aggressions, and the mental exhaustion that comes with them, just like I did when I was her age.
A world where her capabilities would not be pre-determined by her race.
A world where she would be part of a majority and not a tolerated minority.
A world in which she would be fully accepted and simply belong -- without the need to explain where she was from, or to justify her existence.
Freedom from racism
I was born in Nigeria in the late 1970s and lived there until my family moved to London when I was 12; I wanted her to experience the freedom from racism I remembered back then.
But times have changed. We now live in an interconnected world. And here was my beautiful black daughter telling me that I can no more shield her from racism than I can stop her from breathing.
My daughter was born in the UK. She was five when we moved to Lagos, and already had a consciousness of her race in ways that I did not have at the same age.
I think back to when I was nine years old, in the 1980s, living in a majority-black country.
The conversations then were entirely different.
I had no concept of the color of my skin until we moved to London in 1989.
From the "African bubu" taunts, to more insidious forms of racism. I once had a door kicked in my face. On another occasion, a white school friend told me one of his mates had asked him why he was hanging around with a "dirty African."
I was born into a well-to-do middle-class Nigerian family, and grew up with all of the benefits that brought.
But in London, it quickly became clear to me that our status had changed -- I was now an outsider, an "other," whose daily interactions would be characterized by her race.
From the college advisor who told me that there weren't many black journalists, so perhaps I should consider another career path, to being followed around by store attendants while shopping in south London, where I grew up.
The one that cut really deep -- and that hurts even now, when I recall it -- was the time I was walking my daughter, then aged three, home from nursery and a white woman saw us coming along the road and clutched her bag tightly in response.
Even with my young daughter by my side, this woman thought I was going to rob her.
There was simply no respite from it.
Micro-aggressions have been described as being like death by a thousand paper cuts. They were an almost daily occurrence living in London -- a city which considers itself very cosmopolitan, diverse, and "above" conversations about race.
So, when the opportunity came to move back to Nigeria, I grabbed it with both hands. I knew instinctively that I wanted to protect my daughter from the dehumanization of racism.
England had offered me a world of opportunities, but after three decades living in London, I was ready to move on.
And moving back to the motherland, as I jokingly refer to Africa, has allowed me to exhale, to put down a weighty load I hadn't even realized I was carrying.
I jumped at the chance to raise my daughter differently.
These days, she loves to watch Nollywood movies, in which the protagonists look like her, and she gets to imagine herself as the leading woman of her own narrative, not a bit part player in a story someone else has written for her.
For her, every day is black history month -- it's not just relegated to a few weeks of the year as a token gesture.
She knows that her history doesn't start and end with slavery.
I teach her that black history IS history.
We learn about powerful African warrior women: Queen Amina of Zaria, Nzinga, Yaa Asantewaa, some of whom took on colonial masters, and won.
Now I will add books about Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X -- among many others -- to our reading list.
She has shown that she is ready and can handle these more mature conversations.
Burden of oppression
This unexpected but vital exchange with my daughter has made me realize that, as Africans, we too have race privilege -- because we simply do not have to contend with race at all.
In a country where everyone is black, your identity is not in question. Instead, we have a strong sense of who we are.
I have visited the village where my grandfather was born, I speak my language and I know all about my culture and heritage.
Black people around the world whose ancestors were removed from Africa in chains during the slave trade cannot lay claim to those lost identities so easily.
Moving back to Nigeria has given me a respite from the burden of oppression that black people abroad have carried for centuries.
From slavery to Jim Crow, to the fight for civil rights and now Black Lives Matter.
The burden of being black is no longer my reality -- although life is far from perfect in Nigeria and identity divisions, mostly along ethnic and religious lines, do exist.
But as Africans, we are not exhausted from fighting an invisible and insidious enemy, much like the coronavirus pandemic, that squeezes the life out of you slowly, like a knee to the neck.
Fellow Africans, it is time for us to check our own race privilege: The privilege that gives us the mental safety net to move to America and pick up opportunities that African Americans have fought and died for.
In America, we have achieved the "elevated minority status" that Fordham University professor Christina M. Greer refers to in her book Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream.
"Foreign-born blacks are often perceived by whites and even black Americans as different and 'special' — as harder-working and more productive citizens than their black American counterparts," Greer wrote.
Prominent Africans have spoken out against police brutality and the killing of George Floyd and there have been muted solidarity protests in some African countries.
But there have also been many tone-deaf responses from Africans, both in the US and back home, which echo sentiments I have heard many times in the past.
There's a video of an African woman at one of the George Floyd protests in Washington DC. who can be heard saying "You guys are not oppressed ... Black Lives Matter is a joke ... You are lazy ... Go and get jobs."
Africans face our own struggles too, but all too often we are dismissive of the black American struggle, and so fail to show empathy.
There have been divisions on both sides for too long.
Far from "playing the victim," we need to recognise that black Americans ARE the real victims of sustained and continuous systemic oppression that has contributed to the chants of "we are exhausted" heard over and over again during the George Floyd protests.
The truth is that your Harvard degree, your job status, and your charming accent will not prevent you from experiencing racism -- nor will being a "model minority."
Amadou Diallo, 22, from Guinea, West Africa, was shot at 41 times by four plain-clothed police officers outside his home in New York in 1999. Diallo, who was unarmed, was hit 19 times. The officers later testified that the deadly shooting was a tragic mistake. They were acquitted of murder charges.
In the same way that white folks are required to educate themselves about race issues, Africans too must take the time to find out about this struggle, and to understand why African Americans are so angry, hurt, and tired.
An encounter with the police should not equal a death sentence. And yet that is all too often the stark reality for many black people, not just in America, but in the UK and parts of Europe too.
There's no sliding scale of equality. We are all humans and deserve the same level of humanity.
Black lives matter.