What Does Being A Black Girl Mean?

The Significance of Skin in Nigeria, in the UK…and to Me

Ada Akpala

I was born in Nigeria in 1989. I grew up in Lagos with three brothers. Lagos at the time was the federal capital of the country (the capital is now Abuja). With approximately 14 million inhabitants, Lagos is one of the largest and densely populated cities in Sub-Saharan Africa.

My childhood was brimming with fun, laughter, and a solid and secure family unit, both immediate and extended. My family members have always set a good example for me. From my parents to my aunties and uncles, I am highly privileged to have had a great deal of appreciable influences and professionals around me – doctors, teachers, company directors, lawyers, and entrepreneurs. I remember them being hardworking, responsible, disciplined, resilient and strong-spirited. They took their education very seriously and made sure I did the same. Their work ethic was strong and they instilled this mindset in me, too. These were people who did not care for excuses. Failure was never an option for them and they always seemed to find a route or a way to reach successful outcomes.

I lived a very full life in Nigeria and lacked nothing as a child. There was always good food on the table, we always went on outings and trips, and on every birthday,  my brothers and I were presented with the best toys and gifts.

I find that some in the Western world have the wrong perception of Nigeria—and of Africa for that matter. They believe that the whole country is underdeveloped and difficult to inhabit. This assumption is mostly driven by the media, yet the opposite is true. Although this West African country does face several problems, those with reasonable financial means and good social standing can reside there comfortably, just like anywhere else in the world. Fortunately, my family had both.

In Nigeria, I was not cognizant of my skin colour and there were two primary reasons for this. Firstly, with a population that is over 99.9% black, everyone resembled me in terms of skin tone. In fact, I do not recall seeing a white person whilst I lived there; I only saw them in movies or on TV shows. Therefore, skin colour was not on my mind at all, and it was never the main topic of conversation either. We did not describe anyone as “the black shopkeeper” or “the black doctor”. It was not a necessary adjective that we used to classify each other, for obvious reasons.

Secondly, I was not ‘conscious’ of my skin colour because I had not heard of it being a hindrance to anyone’s success. In such a homogeneous population, this kind of talk was and is uncommon. People attributed their struggles in Nigeria to governmental issues, systemic corruption, or prolonged violence suffered in some parts of the country, but not skin colour.

For these reasons, skin colour was not a key part of one’s identity in Nigeria, or rather it was not treated as such. A friend of mine who grew up in Nigeria but currently resides in the United States explained that skin colour was not something she thought about in Nigeria because no one’s skin tone stood out. She explained that identity markers in general were not obsessed over in Nigeria, i.e. the colour of one’s skin, their sex, gender, sexuality, status of privilege, etc. These were not even considered an afterthought as there were many other things that people prioritised or were more concerned about, such as making ends meet, taking care of their family, and so on.

Fast forward to the year 2000. I left Nigeria and stepped onto British soil during a very cold winter and I was ready for a new chapter. I am always asked what the main difference is between being black in Nigeria and being black in the UK. In Nigeria, there were no behavioural norms or expectations that were attached to having black skin. Immutable characteristics were immaterial. I remember that more emphasis was placed on a person’s character, integrity, values, actions, work ethic, traditional values, and so on.

Being black in Nigeria meant nothing at all. However, being black in the UK meant something, and in some situations, it meant everything.

In Nigeria, I was just Ada—a girl who was described as full of life, intelligent, and naturally intuitive. When I came to the UK, I was still that girl. However, there was a difference: being “black” became a part of my official description and seemed to be pushed to the forefront of my identity. It became the preeminent part of who I was.

That was not necessarily a problem. After all, I am a black girl, so being described as such was correct and welcomed. The problem was that I constantly had to try to stay within the invisible boundaries of maintaining this “black” part of my identity, and I felt as though I was striving to do this more with black people than with people of other races.

My biggest challenge in this new multicultural society was not racism. I faced racially charged encounters on many occasions and as unpleasant and humiliating as they were, none of them deterred me from achieving many successes in different areas of my life. So whilst racism provided unique challenges that I would never have anticipated had I stayed in my homeland, my biggest challenge was instead trying to constantly stay within the obscure confines of what it meant to be black, especially due to the fact that the standards of what constituted “blackness” appeared to be ever changing.

In the UK, many black people have expressed grievances about not being accepted in most places, especially in places where the majority of people are white. Many black people report feeling a certain level of distress and discomfort in these spaces, as they fear having to deal with micro-aggressions or discrimination. However, during my teenage years in the UK, I found that I was more uncomfortable in all black groups than in groups of varied ethnicities or even where everyone was white. Some will conclude from this statement that I must have found myself uncomfortable in these groups only because I, myself, am uncomfortable in my own skin, and due to my internalised self-loathing and self-hatred, I cannot bear to be “with my own people.”

However, that was never the case. It was because in groups where everyone was black, there was always an underlying thought that one “wrong” word or “incorrect” ideological viewpoint could lead to a tiring debate that would leave me needing to defend my “blackness”.

So then, what—and who—defines blackness? What qualifies a black person as “authentically” black? What leads to their validation? Is blackness a state of being? A frame of mind? Or merely higher levels of melanin found in the pigment of one’s skin? These are questions I have not yet been able to answer fully. However, I do know one thing based on my experience of being a black girl in the UK and being a black girl in Nigeria; we need to focus less on the colour of a person’s skin. When you focus less on skin colour, you naturally focus on the individual—as a whole. You naturally engage with their unique story as opposed to a supposedly collective story thought to be shared equally by everyone in their group.

Is such a thing possible in a place like the UK, given its own complicated and dark past? Is it even fathomable in a society characterised by its multi-racial amalgamation of cultures? Is it a reasonable expectation to ask our fellow British not to see colour, especially given that the colour of a person’s skin is their most visible distinguishing feature?

I say it is possible. 

One can see the physical colour of a person without forming judgements as to who that person is, what their perspective on life is, how they would react to a situation, how they would react to you, the struggles they may have encountered, or whether their life has been decorated with idyllic rosy paths. “Not seeing colour” doesn’t mean that you don’t notice whether skin is relatively more dark or more light. It means that you judge people and situations as objectively as possible, not approaching them with internal biases and preconceptions based on mainstream—and often highly tendentious—narratives concerning race and race relations. 

For example, when I saw Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, what I saw was a man abusing his authority and status as a cop in order to cause serious and unjust—and in the end, fatal—harm to a defenseless and undeserving man. Others saw a racist white supremacist brutalising a symbol, the eternally victimised black man. That perspective caused them to buy into a narrative that does not represent the truth, a narrative that says that white police officers deliberately target and kill innocent black men in the USA. I saw something different because I wasn’t trained to interpret everything in life through a racial lens.

This is my greatest treasure.

“Not seeing colour” is not to deny racism and it is not to turn a blind eye to racial inequalities that linger in society. It is, however, to allow for a broader approach in tackling these issues and to guard against a “one size fits all” approach to addressing gaps between demographic groups. It also allows for other factors to be taken into consideration when assessing what increases the chance of an individual’s success: factors such as personal agency and motivation, mindframe, ideological viewpoint and beliefs, influences, cultural differences within sub-groups, and social class systems, with the understanding that not everyone in the same racial group is by default in the same class group. All these factors influence the path one takes on the road to a successful and happy life…or its opposite.

Skin colour is an immutable yet arbitrary component of a person’s being. My biggest struggle living in the UK has always been trying to make it clear that my skin colour is only part of my identity, it is not my entire identity. My identity is formed of my personality traits, character, values, principles, and my physical features, which include my skin colour. It is easy not to see colour in a homogenous society like Nigeria. I would argue, however, that homogeneity doesn’t only relate to what we call “race.” Homogeneity is defined as “the quality or state of being all the same or all of the same kind.” The word is Greek in origin, with homos meaning ‘same’ and genus meaning “race” or “kind.” We are all the same, human beings, part of one race, the human race.

True equality is found in this.

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