The Blindspot: Owning my African Privilege in a Racialized America by Ehui Osei-Mensah
Before I moved to America, I was simply Ehui Nyatepe-Coo. Truthfully, other qualifiers preceded me thanks to my parents’ professional and social networks, the school I attended, and occasionally my academic achievements. I don’t remember ever being referred to by ethnic group though, which is a common identifier in Ghana. Perhaps because I was bi-ethnic, though more likely because my generation, is generally more tolerant, progressive, and a lot less tribalistic than our predecessors.
I arrived in America in the Summer of 2005 and suddenly none of my previous identities mattered. No one knew my parents or existed in their circles of influence. No one could even pronounce my name at first attempt, so I became a black girl. Just like that, my primary source of identification was reduced to the color of my skin.
It took me a while to notice I had become a black girl. I know this sounds ridiculous in the context of America where color isn’t just skin deep but permeates the nation’s history and persistently taints its conscience. In America where the concept of color was violently imposed four centuries ago and still scrapes the wounds of memories that cannot be forgotten, couldn’t I see that I was black? Didn’t I feel constantly othered? Well, not at first, and herein lies the privilege of being a black African in the diaspora.
I grew up in a country and a society where the population wasn’t only majority-black but all those who held positions of power were black. There was no shortage of capable male and female role models for me to emulate. My parents never had to worry about my brother and I being exposed to black teachers, black doctors, black politicians, or black policemen. There was never a time during my childhood where excellence was a color-coded virtue. I was raised in a family with two highly educated parents who were both present and stayed married, and while this wasn’t everyone’s truth it was the way the majority of my friends and schoolmates in middle-class Ghana lived. The fabric of our close-knit internal family and fun-loving external community was something I certainly took for granted and never saw through the lens of color.
Imagine my surprise as a young college student in America when the everyday mundane aspects of my life were received with stunning applause. “How come you are so articulate?” “When did you learn English? Gosh, your parents must be so proud!” “Africans that come here for college are so well brought up and intelligent.” These were double-edged patronizing compliments; I finally grew to recognize. Americans thought I was an African unicorn and were completely impressed by any good they discovered in me because I was after all from Africa where ‘nothing good’ was known to emerge from. Compliments tokenized my existence and indirectly alluded that Africans in the diaspora were a different kind of black – a better kind of black.
“Privilege is when you think something is not a problem because it’s not a problem to you personally.” – Unknown
The problem with this deeply patronizing accolade – being a better kind of black – is that it fans the flames of existing anti-African American sentiments in diasporan Africans and broadens the divide within the black community. “We have worked hard”, African immigrants often think, “we’ve fought the odds from less opportunity in Africa and moved to America often at great cost to our lives and families.” Many of us African immigrants, having come to America for a better education represent some of the most successful immigrant groups and most educated people in America. Because we have scaled the frustrations and anxieties of immigration, have secured envied jobs in America’s best corporations, and are literally living the American dream in white-picket-fenced suburban homes, there is the shameful temptation to underrate the impact of systemic racism within African American communities in America.
“Why can’t our African American brothers and sisters just do better”, we might wonder? As my brown skin matures after 15 years of living in America, it is now painfully obvious to me how misguided such misconceptions are and how blinded I have been by my own African privilege. As Dr. King explained, “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” How punitive it is to believe the lie that African Americans just need to try a little harder to better their lot when many Africans (excluding Southern Africans) have no concept of what it means to be born into and relegated to a marginalized identity defined by skin color in your own home country.
I am not entirely sure when I experienced the painful awakening to the gradual loss of my African privilege in America. It might have been that traumatizing traffic stop my husband and I experienced as newlyweds in Virginia during the tense aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012. We were maliciously trailed on our way home from church and wrongly stopped by a cop. Filled with righteous anger, my husband challenged the policeman into a heated argument which, but for the grace of God, could have ushered me into early widowhood. Or it might have been when my then four-year-old daughter questioned me in tears about whether her petty quarrel with a white boy at the gym could be because she was ‘brown’.
Slowly but surely, I’ve realized that to many Americans, there is no nuance nor is there diversity among people of color. Fellow Africans in the diaspora, we are all the same kind of black – let’s unite, build up our communities abroad and back in the motherland and resist racism together with our African American brothers and sisters. I know that like me, you have learned to code-switch and upspeak. You’ve learned to keep an even keel and show no emotion at work, chit chat with your white neighbors in the most non-threatening way possible, host and attend playdates, bake breads, cakes, and pies, and serve on the PTA. You’ve done all the things to fit your round peg into this square hole! Imagine the privilege of not having to do this for generations?
Before I came to America, I was simply Ehui Nyatepe-Coo. Today as Ehui Osei-Mensah, the wife of a black man whose entire identity is reduced to his skin color and white America’s unfortunate hallucinations of his apparent Machiavellian intentions, I see things a lot clearer. I live in an America where I could be shot in my sleep, or my husband, kneed breathless. We live in a neighborhood where our daughters and I must be the props that soften my husband’s image as a black man during his walks and runs. We live in a country where despite our resumes of prestigious degrees and work experience, we both have faced stifling frustrations and microaggressions professionally by virtue of the darkness of our hue.
“We need more light about each other. Light creates understanding, understanding creates love, love creates patience, and patience creates unity.” – Malcolm X
We must accept as part of our role as parents to intentionally instill a diversity of black representation in our children’s toys, and educational resources to make up for the lack thereof in their reality. In Summer 2005 when I moved to America, I first discovered that I was just a black girl. It is Summer 2020 in America and I am convinced that before anything else that I am or have accomplished, I am first a black woman. The same kind of black as Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshad Brooks, and George Floyd.
You can listen to a recent conversation we had with Ehui on Instagram to further unpack her post and the impact it has had on her life and the lives of thousands of others:
Ehui Osei-Mensah is a woman of faith, seeking to make a positive impact in each encounter she has. Originally from Ghana, she lives in Texas with her husband and two beautiful daughters.
She currently work as a Business Applications Specialist for Microsoft. In her free time, Ehui loves to read biographies, write introspective pieces, and travel with her family. This is not the first time she has written for us, and you can read her other thought-provoking pieces here.
Thank you Ehui for shedding light on this often controversial topic that honestly is not addressed enough, especially by us Africans. It is sobering to be able to put oneself in the shoes of your fellow black man regardless of where in the world they originated or what their perceived privileges may be.
May we as black people continue to fight for the freedom of our race in our different corners of the world. Today, it may be our African American brothers and sisters that need our fight, tomorrow it may be us. Let’s not wait until it hits close to home.
Thank you as always for reading sis. Please do leave your comments and/or questions for Ehui. Remember, we’re praying for you continually.
The bAw Team