I remember once upon a time, working at a Research Lab. Of course, being one of the few Black persons; at least the only one of West African descent in a predominantly East Asian and European descent office, sprinkled with some South Asian descendants, I truly stood out.
On top of that, as I mentioned before, I was the only one of West African descent. There were other Blacks — African as well — but were of East African ancestry. One, as I had discovered over time through discourse, was, by ancestry, from South Sudan. The other, I don’t know where she was from, but may have been Ethiopian.
At the time, I was in my final year of University, completing my independent research project. The other Black person there at the time, the South Sudanese I mean— let’s call her Zainab — was just in her second year but had attained a research opportunity. After the end of the semester, I became the only Black person in that Lab… and building.
Then, the following semester, the Ethiopian girl, let’s call her Ruth, joined our Lab. At this point in time, I believe I was in my last semester. Or I may have completed my degree and was just waiting to graduate. Either way, I was still volunteering at the Lab. When Ruth joined, and she was there very briefly, I perceived her anxiety. She was always afraid. To do the wrong thing; say the wrong thing; administer the wrong thing; fill out the wrong thing. More importantly, I knew why she was afraid. I did my best to reassure her when I saw her. It was clearly not enough, because she ended up not staying. I don’t know whether she opted out, or she was let-go. Likely the former. It was a volunteer role after all.
There is a type of fear that is foreign to most people, but familiar to those of us who occupy spaces in which we are marginal. It is the type of anxiety that is often symptomatic of the reality we face when we occupy spaces it is believed for us to not belong. Where we know we are more heavily scrutinized, because everyone around us, is banking on our failure. Because, upon entering said spaces, we have been indoctrinated, along with others who do not look like us, that we are neither deserving nor worthy of occupying said spaces. Even when we do and know that we are in fact, deserving and worthy, those we work with, may not regard us in that light. We have had to toil through more hostile, overt and covert, passive-aggressive, condescending comments, remarks, and behaviour, about our ability to occupy said spaces.
We know of the repeated assaults to our person-hood to get to where we are; the toiling it took and obstacles we conquered to achieve our goals. Those with privileged ignorance are often oblivious to this reality. Yet, they are usually the first to critique and comment on that which they have no say in.
Ruth, every time she would conduct an experiment, would do so, shaking. Nonstop. It was as though she thought, one little error and something horribly wrong would happen. That was how frightened she looked. Quaking as though she was experiencing internal turbulence. Probably because there had been MANY instances where she had dealt with this type of scenario.
While this may not be deemed unique to Black people, and perhaps it isn’t, I believe we endure this the most.
The fact of the matter is, unlike other races and ethnic groups, Black people are the most marginalized and derided when it comes to academic achievement and progression. People are more likely to be offended or ridicule me if I were to mention that I wanted to become a Neurosurgeon as an example, or something they do not “deem” attainable by the likes me. As if, I am violating some implicit social order of which I am obligated to comply. Thus, they limit the likes of me, with their racist mindset, while simultaneously jeering or sabotaging us for entertaining such prospects.
In the West, a dichotomy I have typically noticed between the Blacks; that is, Africans not originally from here, and non-African Blacks whose descendants were oppressed systematically in the West, is that, non-African Blacks are more likely to strive towards athletic achievement. This is not inherently wrong; what I find problematic and insidious about this, is the underlying motive for the pursuit.
Many Blacks in the West, including their Parents, are more likely to “push” their own towards athleticism. Indeed, there is an over-representation of Blacks in sports, than any other domain, and I often wonder if this is intentional.
When I first came to Canada from Nigeria — I was eight years old — where academic achievement is of utmost priority, I wouldn’t call myself athletically gifted. In fact, I wasn’t. Back home, I was never selected for relay, or soccer (which is very popular from my place of origin), or any other type of sports. I simply wasn’t fast enough and did not appear to have the agility. If I ran too fast, I always, ALWAYS tripped and fell. I appreciated sports, but not being a participant hardly mattered to me. And still doesn’t.
However, on arriving here, I remember this so distinctly; when I was in Grade Six, despite my average athleticism, the Gym Teacher at the time, would push me so much! Push, push, push! I cannot say I was pushed in this manner in my Math class, Science class, English class, or any of the other classes for that matter. But, during Gym, I was suddenly one of the persons of interest. It was in Basketball, and, as I mentioned, I was not that great at sports. But here was this Gym Teacher pushing me like I was the best, when in fact, I was just as average as everyone else in my predominantly White school at the time.
Teachers, knowingly or unknowingly, internalize belief systems which orient their behaviour. Many of them often harbour or have internalized racist beliefs, whether or not they are willing to admit to it. She did not push me because I objectively had athletic talent; there were many in my class who participated in a soccer camp or other sorts of sports camps. I was not in any camp. I was not even fit at the time. Although my weight was still healthy, I was treading into the overweight spectrum. I recall my pulse at the time being 90 beats per minute. While some of my classmates were 70 or below. So why she pushed me so much remains a mystery.
Well… not so much. I was the only Black person in that class, in that grade even, and she pushed me the most because of her internalized beliefs of Black people and athleticism.
The system in this society propagates the idea that certain groups of people are suited for certain things. This is not overtly mentioned. But it informs the public and thereby promotes certain behaviours which eventually lead to self-fulfilling prophecies. I know MANY non-African Blacks in particular, who attempt to become the next “Lebron James” or the next “Serena Williams”. It seems as though, every Black person in this part of the world, in particular, think their destiny is tied to excelling athletically. I see young Black boys specifically, playing sports at a very very young age (again, I am not saying there is something objectively wrong with this. But one has to consider the underlying motive), because, perhaps, they, as well as their parents, have internalized the belief that this is their “calling” or only route to success in life. More energy and time is expended in participating in athletically-based activities, compared to any other pursuits. Again, I am not saying that ALL Blacks in this part of the world do this, but, from my observation in my daily life, I have seen this to be a frequent occurrence.
I did not grow up like this. On the flip-side, although very gradually changing, sports in Nigeria, is mostly seen as recreational and admittedly regarded as a waste of time. While deemed fun and entertaining, it is not often perceived as a career route for many. And it rightly shouldn’t. Like singing, sports is fundamentally an entertainment, and, while it can promote physical health and well-being, it should not be perceived as one’s direction and ultimate destiny in one’s life. The probability I believe, of any person becoming a professional athlete, to the level of the athletes mentioned above, and are well-off due to their athletic prowess, assuming they do not incur an injury that would derail their professional career, is extremely slim. Much like becoming the next Beyoncé or Madonna. Like many Nigerian parents would say, it is an unrealistic and impractical goal.
Yet, such aspirations are often shoved down the throats of many young, Black minds in this part of the world. They are more likely to be pushed and encouraged by their Parents, their school, and society at large, that this is what they are best suited for. Such as the way I was pushed by that Gym Teacher in Grade Six. And of all things, in Basketball. I find this an evil tactic or a futile one at best.
When you do care about your fitness, and become fit like everybody else, because I am Black; something that took me years to attain, people would assume me to be an athlete of some sort. The same cannot be said if they were talking to an East Asian, South Asian or Caucasian if they were to attain the same thing. Which goes to show, that this society has internalized views of Black Athleticism, whether or not it’s their aspiration. A Black guy, who happens to be tall, is automatically oriented as an Athlete, or Basketball Player. Nevermind that individual has never played sports in their life.
The fact of the matter is, society has prescribed “roles” for every individual that they believe they are best suited for, usually based on their race, or what “they” feel “comfortable” in seeing them in. The moment someone, especially from a marginalized group, threatens that norm or violates the status quo, that person is often attacked, belittled, and undermined. People in this society are not ready and do not really wish to see Black people occupying spaces they don’t believe they belong to.