From BGLH — I didn’t know I was African until I left Africa. A loaded statement coming from a Nigerian; an Igbo girl. Nonetheless, it is exactly the way I used to feel, before my family relocated back to the States from Nigeria. Before I left the confines of my father country, declaring me an African person was redundant- a statement of the obvious – so I never had to consciously think about it. In Nigeria, particularly in my Igbo culture, my father’s name and my education were the two most important cultural indicators.

When I moved back to the US I quickly realized that I was now “African” and was constantly expected to represent a billion people. And that being anything other than “that African girl” was considered an upgrade.

Countless numbers of people thought they were complimenting me with reassurances that I didn’t “look African”. Some would wonder about my last name, and upon discovering that I was Nigerian, would give a range of responses;

“Oh wow! You’re African??”

“I thought you were just ‘regular’ black”.

“Oh! So, THAT explains your features!”

I remember an instance when a teacher told me that he just knew I was African because of my “big features”. I also remember cringing inwardly as he emphatically stressed that my African look basically boiled down to my full lips. That day, as I sat in his classroom, I fiercely wished that I could be the complete opposite of what he thought was the African look. I wanted to be thinner lipped and lighter skinned, solely to force him to recognize that his so-called African look, as dominating as the idea was, was a fallacy.

Whenever the African phenotype is mentioned, the stock image is usually the stereotypically flat description of dark skin, full lips and backsides, wide noses, and highly textured hair. To delve into the misconception even further, let’s lay out all the cards and attach “poor”, “dirty”, “backwards” and “starving” to the description. People seem to find it difficult to reconcile the notion that there are just as many people who might look this way, as there are people throughout the continent who don’t, but still identify as African, and that these people fall into all levels of social status. It’s irritating when we allow ourselves to mindlessly gorge on misinformation dispensed by myths and media, and continue to dismiss people for not fitting a narrow margin of the supposed African look.

Shouldn’t it go without mention that different people identify as African, and the current categories should be expanded? However, common sense ideas often seem to be the hardest to understand or implement. For instance, with a country like Nigeria, which is an arbitrary amalgamation of hundreds of ethnicities from Fulani to Igbo, facial features and body types vary incredibly. If we step outside of Nigeria, Alex Wek and Liya Kebede are both from East Africa.

(Continue Reading @ BGLH…)

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  • Alexandra

    From North, to West, To East, To Central, To South and years of immigration to Africa. You dont need to be an expert to know that all Africans look vastly different from one another.

    Cut the baloney and lets stop acting like we dont know what people mean when they say: “you look African”. There has been one particular look associated with Africans. And Alek Wek, Djimon Hounsou, Ajuma Nasenyana, fit that ‘look’.

    When we see people Africans like Liya, Iman, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Amelle Berrabah, the stereotype has been challenged and then you hear questions like, “you dont look African”

  • Teel

    Looking african is the BEST way to look. Nappy hair, dark skin and broad nose are the supremacy features of all mankind and first to exist. If someone says you don’t look African, you should take offense, not only are they insulting where you are from contextually but they give it a negative undertone. Simply reply am sorry to disappoint you but if I could go back in the hands of time, I would make sure my ancestors reproduced with the kings and queens who had very broad, African like feature, so I could look less like you and more like a true African. See what they say when you turn their supposed negative into something positive. IT’ll blow their mind. They say that as a way to shame you about where you’re from nothing else.

  • Dina

    I am sorry to hear you went through this, unfortunately its the mentality in the west. the west has yet to really embrace blackness and cringes from it. ( very generally speaking). alot of people have no clue what an African looks like or how diverse the continent is, i read somewhere it is the most diverse on earth as far as genetically, which makes sense if its the cradle of mankind.i have also noticed many people associate Africansn with all having broad features and being very dark, nothing wrong with that but that is just an oversimplified stereotype.

    There are Africans i have met whom i have assumed to be hispanic and other ethnicities and i found out they were from places like guinea and mali. some look like AFrican Americans too. whatever the case when i see someone whom i can recognize as an African, it may be because of a combination of features or the way they carry themselves( that mostly)I think Africans are gorgeous at any rate. I met a man one day returning from work, he was Ghanian, he had that African swagger, head high, lookin like he owned the street, he was a beautiful shade of mocha and had hte sexiest lips, i knew he was AFrican!

    anyway lol. theres enough ignorance to go around. i myself am AA, often taken for someone from Guinea or Senegal,alot of those ladies are gorgeous so i find it a big compliment. At the end of the day we are who we are, the people who have those ignorant hang ups and preoccupations with race and features, i feel sorry for them, they are missing out on alot, Life.

  • 4 Sep 08 at 2:34 pm