Exploring African identity as a post-secondary student in Canada

The experience of moving to a new school is one many are familiar with. Throw in race, gender, historical colonial context, and its lasting legacy, then you have an intersectional mix that fewer are able to relate to.

As an African, Kenyan, moving to a predominantly white town and university, one could flippantly say I was affected by culture shock. I would argue otherwise. I had watched enough movies throughout my life, travelled, spoke English as my first language, engaged with Western culture more times than I could care to count, I even knew more Western-focused history than my own—I was ready! Perhaps in this sense I was. What I was not prepared for was the West’s reception of me. I knew of racism, had experienced it each time I had travelled off the African continent, knew how to deal with it. What I did not know how to deal with, what no one had prepared me for was the new deep set ‘need’ I felt to be a quieter, more palatable version of myself as a Kenyan, as an African, in order to fit into, and in essence be accepted, in my new society. Suddenly, my earrings and beaded necklaces were too loud a statement, my accent unintelligible, my name too much trouble. The worst part? No one explicitly said these things to me.

The legacy of colonialism is such that ex-colonizers’ culture, and Western culture in general, continues to be promoted and elevated above others’. This stems from the imperial-time belief that “the morals and values of the colonizer were superior to that of the colonized” (Igboin, 2011). Perhaps more significant is the reason this idea was and continues to be perpetuated. Under colonial rule, attributes deemed desirable were those of the colonizer, and those “who came closest to emulating them were accorded the highest social status…a premium was placed on the acquisition of the “appropriate” cultural characteristics” (Moore and Johnson, 2004, p. 12). Still alive today, this method of social ranking carries on in the very same categories of “speech, Western…style dress; Christian beliefs and practices; legal, monogamous marriage and the nuclear family; [colonizers’] customs, ideas, values, and morals, sports and entertainment, arts and music, furnishings, societies and associations,” (Moore and Johnson, 2004, p. 12). If you are reading this and share a similar context of colonialism, you may be remembering how you were instructed not to speak ‘that language’ in the school halls, maybe even how there was a punishment for those who did, the way you were ridiculed for not sounding ‘right,’ how you were repeatedly told to ‘do’ your hair (whatever that means) because it looked god-awful and untidy in its natural state—your afro. What is more, is that such hegemonic ideals are embodied in the institutions of once colonized states. Schools reinforce it, families perpetuate it, churches police it—and I for one have never seen a five-star hotel offer githeri (Kenyan traditional meal of maize and legumes, mostly beans of any type mixed and boiled together) on their menu. What does this say about the ‘acceptability’ of traditional foods, are they simply not ‘good enough,’ ‘sophisticated’ enough to be served at such establishments? Instead, you must eat pasta and meals you cannot pronounce, from countries who eat said meals as their traditional food. Are sushi, boeuf bourguignon, and lasagna, acceptable because of their nation of origin? Why do I mention this?

To illustrate how hegemonic ideas of what is acceptable and what is not pervades every aspect of human life, even food.

So, what does this have to do with moving to Canada? Finding myself in the middle of a culture I had subconsciously been taught to revere, trying to be African felt wrong. Wearing beads to an event, not using an English name, these became things I was hyper-aware about. Is this a bad thing? No, not inherently. It has more to do with the thought process that follows. It is not Canada’s job to make me feel comfortable, nor is it my job to combat or educate ignorant individuals who feel the need to stare, give unsolicited opinions or label me. What is my job—and yours as well if you find yourself in a situation much like my own—is to grow conscious of discourse I have internalized that keeps me from completely expressing my authentic self.

In a discussion with other students of African descent in predominantly white spaces, two distinct categories of responses emerged as the reason for identity affirmation. The first, like myself, acted out of a place of perceived pressure. Most agreed that it simply felt safer to fit in rather than stand out, particularly in smaller towns where you are more obviously a minority. This is to avoid being treated differently or however ‘full Africanness’ would warrant. One begins to see that the more they adapt and conform to their new society, the easier it is to go about life in many ways, leading to the subconscious acceptance that difference is undesirable. Some feel a pressure to defend their Africanness, for there exists an expectation of what an African is supposed to look like, sound and act like. This definition, of course, is often one-dimensional and ill-informed, but is another obstacle one finds themselves having to navigate. The fear of not being African enough. It may be important to note that this is a label that gains traction once back on African soil, where an acquired accent, increased agency, and new world perspectives mark you as ‘too Western.’ Too African across the sea and not enough African at home, a phenomenon that can be discussed in an essay all of its own.

The other set of responses reflected a vastly different rationale for affirming identity. The main question posed being, what’s wrong with standing out? Instead of feeling pressure as one of few Black or African students, they saw this as a space to, for lack of a better word, shine! “What’s the point of conforming?” I was asked. I, of course, was taken aback, but remain in awe of such powerful spirits. It may be important to note that only two of the thirty people I spoke to expressed this opinion.

So how does one reinforce their African identity in a foreign land? Many mentioned that clubs and groups on campus created spaces that relieved the pressure of self-regulation, of having to police their Africanness, providing a place to ‘just be.’ Others spoke of food, how it not only brought a piece of home to an otherwise foreign environment but also allowed them to share this with others. Sharing pictures of home also fulfills this dual function, both revealing the beauty, or organized chaos, of one’s nation and acting as a personal reminder of where you are from and why you love it. Also noted was how speaking a different language became more significant, with many taking advantage of any opportunity to speak their native tongue. When alone, if you are not gassing yourself up in another language in front of the mirror, then music from the continent is probably doing that for you, acting as a grounding force in the process. Accent and expressions are another means of identity affirmation. What do I mean by expressions? You may have heard a Kenyan say, “kwenda uko,” a Ugandan say “banange,” the widely used “ehe!,” or my personal favourite, “haiya!” which denotes surprise. Just like the English phrases “you’re kidding, right,” “wow,” or “that’s crazy,” the above phrases, among countless others, punctuate conversation, expressing a myriad of emotions. They may have to be explained initially to those not sharing a similar context but should not, I feel, be a reason for insecurity and self-regulation. Bring your authentic self into conversation, unapologetically.

One respondent mentioned how she loved that she had no English names because it forced others to acknowledge her ethnic identity. I contrast this directly to countless others who, casting aside their ethnic names, choose instead to go by nicknames or English names, subduing, indeed, suppressing the truth of their individual identity which includes the ethno-cultural. Though there may be various reasons for this, I would like to pose a question: if you do not see the significance of your own name, why should others? That lecturer is not going to put any effort into pronouncing your name right if it simply does not seem to be of importance. That friend is not going to give a second thought to your ethnic name if you so quickly throw in an alternative. Although we must all adapt to our new environments, I suggest that we must decide and hold fast to parts of our identity that we will not compromise on.

Regardless of how you choose to affirm your identity, the bottom line remains the same, seek to understand the voice in your head that tells you to ‘tone down’ and in so doing, show up as your most powerful self—however that may look for you. I-dentity. How you see and define yourself needs to be subjective. Silence the voice that says you must look, sound, or act a certain way. Your power may just be found in what sets you apart.

Igboin, B. O. (2011). Colonialism and African Cultural Values. African Journal of History and Culture, 96-103.
Moore, B. L., & Johnson, M. A. (2004). In the Shadow of Morant Bay. In B. L. Moore, & M. A. Johnson, Neither Led nor Driven Contesting British Cultural Imperialism in Jamaica, 1865-1920 (pp. 1-13). Kingston: University of West Indies Press.

About Wacera W. Muriuki
Wacera W. Muriuki is a student studying International Development at Trent University with a deep love and appreciation for African history. She holds a particular interest in how elements of this history affect society today.

2 Comments on I-dentity

  1. John Acton // May 19, 2021 at 5:56 pm // Reply

    Every bit of information I’ve read here helps my own consciousness. Thank you.

  2. John Palmer // June 4, 2021 at 10:15 am // Reply

    Wacera has gone through, and is still going through, the same struggle for self-possession and self-affirmation as a nonconforming person that has shaped my whole life. I am able-bodied, white, male, straight, of British background, and therefore probably in her eyes in possession of every kind of hegemonic privilege that can exist in Canada. However, I was a non-athletic, nerdy, gifted, priggish kid unwilling to talk the vulgar lingo of my peers, so I knew a painful alienation akin to her own. I also can see with great interest that her approaches in finding a modus vivendi with the society that surrounds us are akin to mine. We have had the same struggle, irrespective of the racial divide that she fixes on. We have much to share. I salute her successes, and I hope she may recognize that social life has dynamics that go beyond the politicized oppositions of Critical Race Theory and identity politics.

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