Born To Stand Out: an essay on finding my identity
"Where are you from?"
"Kenya" I always reply, proudly.
"No, where are you really from?"
"You look Spanish."
"You sure you know where you are from?"
"Were you adopted?"
"They have white people in Africa?"
"You are too pretty to be African."
My mother is Kenyan and my father is Irish. I was raised by my mother's mother in Nairobi and I did not know my mother or my father growing up, all I knew was that I come from a history of warrior women who come from the Mau Mau tribe, I know Kikuyu and Swahili and I know that cucu will always be my first definition of beauty.
I have always stood out no matter where I am. My earliest memories of standing out were when I started to become aware of my body and I remember asking my grandmother "Why don't I look like you if we are family?" I remember her telling me as she always did, "We are all beautiful in different shades and if everyone looked like me then the would be boring place, wouldn't it?" I would always laugh, cucu always knew what to say to make me feel good at least for that moment.
School was always a place of confusion for me, I remember the kids would make fun of me and call me "white girl" and everywhere I went I was always "Indian" or something other than what I identified with. I would come home crying most days and I would feel even more lost because there was no one that I looked like, I thought I was adopted for a huge chunk of my life, my mother was beautiful and had the most glorious fro you ever did see, I had long curly hair to my waist, even my mother in the few time I saw her growing up would joke and say "you got that good hair baby." I longed to fit in so badly, I just wanted to be accepted to feel like i had a place in my own country, the place I call home.
Things got even more interesting when I moved to London to live with my mother for the first time, I was eleven, this is early 2000's gritty South London, I went to a public middle school that was not too far from our flat in Brixton and I remember at this time being called "mixed race" for the first time and immediately connecting with other "mixed race" and black kids in school. It was the first time I felt I belonged that was until desire became a thing.
It was 7th grade english class, I will never forget, Jermaine was the most popular and the most attractive guy in our year by far. He fancied me and I fancied him too. I was sitting in the front of Mr. Swabrick's class and suddenly I hear a bunch of people laughing. I turn to look at my friend Jasmine and she look horrified, "Jade just threw a massive load of chewing gum in you hair." I do not recall what took over me all I know is i saw red and immediately got up and went right for her throat. "You mixed race girls want to come around and take or guys. Well take that, you think you are beautiful because you have nice hair and you speak all these fancy languages." The more she spoke the more I choked and hit her, I remember at some point her blonde hair was on the floor in bits. That was the only time I ever had a physical fight in my school career. I remember sitting in the principal's office and being told that I needed to be less aggressive and when my mother was called in, they blamed it on race saying that i was another angry black girl lashing out at a white girl. I was so furious, I realized in that moment that I was "too white for the black kids and too black for the white kids" and it affected my entire self esteem.
The following summer mama and I packed our bags and moved to the countryside, she figured it would be a nice change of scenery and she felt safer there. My first memory of moving to the country was us walking down the street and some white men in a small silver Nissan Altima slow down and ask my mother for directions, "I am not sure, I just moved here." she said in her sweet voice, next thing you know, "Fuck you, Jamaican bitch, go back to your country and they threw coffee right at her face." I ran after the car, "You are just going to let them do that mum, without saying anything. No way." the rest of the walk home was silent.
I realized at that moment that racism was real and it was no longer something that I had just heard about in school.
I hated my new school, all the white kids would pick on all the black kids and the only other mixed race girl I was friends with was Annabel, she was from Malawi and we got along really well but I still felt like no one looked like me. I was always mourning leaving my home, the only place I felt connected to, I miss my sisters so much too as they are the only ones I felt understood me. I was on a mission to figure out who I truly was as I did not feel connected to London or my mother at the time.
Fast forward to September 11th 2001, a day I will never forget, I was sitting in my mother's apartment and i remember screaming, "Mum, what if dad was in the twin towers." she laughed "I doubt it, your dad is not that kind of guy." "What is his name?" She gave me his name and I went to my Uncle Steve's house, he had wi-fi and his husband was really tech savy, they helped me look up my father on yahoo search (google was not around yet). "that's it mum I am going to find my dad and move to New York. I want to live there and get to know my dad." "Good luck to you, he has never showed interest your entire life, what makes you think he will show interest now?" I shrugged her off. I was working as a newspaper delivery girl at the time and instead of spending my money on candy I decided to buy myself my first calling card. It took me about 2 weeks to actually make the call and when I finally did, my step mother answered the phone, she was really warm and sounded very nice, which made me even more excited. I found out that day that I had a little sister, she was four years old at the time, "You going to take a taxi come see me?" she was the cutest little thing and from that day I had a plan, I was going to do whatever it took to get myself to New York city to live with my family.
A year went by and my father came to visit with my step mom and we had a really good time, I decided that I was going to move to New York for high school and that is exactly what I did. The summer I moved to Flatbush Brooklyn was one of the best summers of my life, I am talking "04, Fab blasting out of every car, hydrants on, double dutch, stoop chilling, everything I had seen on the t.v. and more, and here I was, skinny girl from Nairobi with a thick British accent and long curly hair. Those beautiful memories got cloudy real fast when I was met with a lot of cat calling and street harassment,
"Yo ma, you look real good."
I went home to my father and told him that men were cat calling me in the streets and he replied "It's the way you dress. stop dressing like that and no one will bother you." "Like what?" I asked super confused. "You dress super ghetto Njambi, you are always getting conrows and that is why you are being hollered at."
None of this made sense at the time but as I got older I started to realize that my white father did not understand what it was like to raise a mixed race daughter who grew up in Africa and spent time with her black mother in London before coming to live in New York.
My father made my life even more confusing and I felt even more isolated because he would always praise the parts of me that he thought were not associated to blackness. He has his own set of politics and this story is not about him but it is about how I have come to love myself as a mixed race woman who identifies as black and is not afraid to walk tall and stand in her truth. It has taken me years to get to a place where I can even tell this story and I am proud of myself for always choosing myself no matter what society, my parents, my friends, the world throws at me, choosing to love myself consistently and to own my identity separately from what identities have been placed on me my entire life have truly helped me become the woman I am today.
I can firmly say that I love the woman I am becoming more and more each day. I have tried so hard to fit in my entire life until I realized there is nothing to fit into and the idea of fitting in is really an illusion, we were born to stand out.