In December 2014 I made a decision statistically uncommon for people of color. I decided to study abroad in the tiny European island of Malta.
Thus far, it has been a window into different cultural views and perspectives. I have learned previously unfathomable things but among the most significant was I don’t truly know my ethnic roots.
In ordinary small talk, one of my flat mates asked me where my ethnic roots are from. “Um...Africa?” I said hesitantly.
He then asked what country, and I said, a tad embarrassed, “Well…I really don’t know.”
I then realized that most African Americans are unaware of their ethnic roots. To discover our ethnic origin before the shipping and enslaving of our ancestors, from my understanding, we have to take pricey blood tests.
This directly ties into an observation I’ve made on race. Here in Malta and other places in Europe, people are classified and identified based on their country of origin, not purely color.
When I meet people, they don’t ask “are you black?” Instead, they ask what country I’m from. No one assumes I was born in Africa because they are not basing my identity on the stereotypes and generalizations that come with a darker complexion.
There are two people I know from London. One is black, and the other is white. No one refers to them by their color. We all refer to them as being from London. When we cannot remember someone’s name, we do not say, “the white girl with brown eyes and short hair.” We say, “the girl from Poland with brown eyes and short hair.”
So how did America get to a place where we identify people by skin color? Well, let’s take a look at American history.
When Africans were shipped to the United States, each slaves’ cultural roots were not tracked. In turn, Americans grouped Africans the easiest way they knew how — by color — and not by their ethnic origin (e.g. Nigerian, Libyan, Egyptian, Moroccan, Ethiopian, Angolan, etc. — all of which are African with different customs, traditions and lifestyles). Consequently, the cultures and customs of each African country went unwatered and were lost.
I know now why enslaved African Americans created their own songs, dances, customs, foods, etc. They were creating a culture for the new label: “black.” Just as Africans were grouped and labeled, Americans similarly group all people by color and the little we know of each individual’s ethnic background.
We often assume that all white people are from Europe, not considering the fact that there are “white” people on virtually every continent or that people and lifestyles in different European countries vary.
Furthermore, we often assume that every person who looks Asian is Chinese or Japanese, when really, it’s just us who are too small-minded to learn of other Asian identities and cultures.
Despite our classifications, it’s clear that color and continent can have little to do with commonality. Each European here is different from the next because of the different countries they are from, not because of what they look like.
Truly, I am most like other Americans here, not the “black people.”
We are such generalizers. Whether we come from poverty or a silver spoon — Africa or Antarctica — we all, in some way, play a part in the generalization of people and the perpetuation of stereotypes.
Shame on us.
Azani S. Fitten, who was reared in Wichita, is a junior studying communications at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.