Ambiguous and ambivalent: what does race mean when you’re misidentified in the U.S.?

    Upon noticing her long, braided hair and dark skin, one might make the assumption that Weinberg freshman Demi Oluyemi is African-American even though she’s actually Nigerian. Sure, her accent and the spelling of her name are uncommon, but for someone unfamiliar with the Nigerian accent and spelling, skin color is easily linked to an identity.

    If anyone bothers to ask Oluyemi about her heritage, she would explain that she’s from California but grew up in Nigeria. But more often than not, Oluyemi is mistaken for being African American by both students and teachers; it’s an identity she doesn’t relate to because she identifies with her Nigerian identity as an international student and has only grown up in the U.S. for part of her life. This is especially awkward when people approach her with questions about issues in African American-related history like slavery, something she empathizes with but doesn’t completely understand in an American context.

    “I remember my first time learning about slavery from this [American] point of view because I did learn about slavery in Nigeria. In Nigeria, we learn about European history because we were colonized by the British,” said Oluyemi. “When I came here, I remember the first time they mentioned it. Everyone turned around and looked back at me and I was just confused. I was like ‘Why are you all looking at me?’ I feel for Black people who do connect with that, but it doesn’t necessarily affect me because my ancestors weren’t necessarily slaves. Sure, most of the people who were taken were from sub-Saharan Africa, but I don’t know of any of my ancestors who became slaves.”

    And more often than not, Oluyemi finds her particular racial category missing in many documents and forms in the United States. Left without a choice, she has to pick the closest option, and acquiesce to the difference between the identity she “chooses” and her true identity. For Weinberg freshman Chidi Ohia, who’s also Nigerian, it’s a question she grapples with regularly.

    “It’s such a struggle. I had this whole phase in high school where I was so confused because in my country [Nigeria], when we’re taking [standardized] tests [that require you fill out your race/ethnicity], we don’t have to check what race we are because we’re mostly from different [ethnic groups]. So I knew I wasn’t African American in the definition of it, but I knew I was Black,” said Ohia.

    When Ohia and Oluyemi check off what race or ethnicity they are on tests, they are forced to consciously “compromise” their own identity simply because there’s no option that describes them accurately.

    “I usually check 'African American' [when filling out my race on forms] even though I know I’m Nigerian. I also have to remind myself that I’ve been in America long enough that I’ve become a part of the American Black society,” says Ohia.

    “[People] are still going to look at you as African American. I check both,” said Oluyemi.

    Psychology professor Onnie Rogers said that people who are seen as racially ambiguous make sense of their identity in different ways, one of which is by passing on as another race. For example, if someone is perceived as being white while they might actually be Hispanic/Latinx or Middle Eastern. They might find it acceptable to be misidentified, either because they may not feel a strong desire to emphasize their racial duality or because they could be entitled to more social benefits by not disclosing their true identity. However, there are also students of mixed races who identify strongly with their “minority” status or label themselves as biracial or mixed.

    For Ohia and Oluyemi, while they are forced to “pass” as African Americans depending on the circumstances, more often than not the issue of being misidentified propels them to clarify their identity. Still, even the label of being Black has an entire history associated with it within the U.S., from segregation to racial profiling. Oluyemi said her father was once followed home from work in California because he was wrongly accused of a nearby burglary. Such baseless accusations are common occurrences in the their neighborhood.

    “The cop is stopping him and banging on our door asking questions, and I realized that they didn’t hear my dad’s accent. He [the cop] realized my dad was Nigerian and he tried to get out of it, but in that moment it made me realize that they don’t really care where you’re from. Once they look at you, the first thing they think is your skin color,” said Oluyemi.

    A similar type of misidentification happens to Hispanics, Latinx and Middle Easterners who might come off as ambiguously white.

    Such is the case for Medill sophomore Tala Salem, who is from Jordan.

    “Sometimes they assume I’m white, sometimes they think I’m Hispanic, but Arab and Muslim aren’t first on the list,” she said.

    Salem believes that she’s not typically assumed to be Middle Eastern by others because she doesn’t wear a headscarf or other Middle Eastern garments. Without the garments, she’s frequently categorized as ambiguously white. Salem explains that being misidentified doesn’t bother her and attributes that to the idea of her ambiguous whiteness.

    “I never, ever in my life thought that I looked white or a little bit white, not very Arab. But when I thought about it, maybe the reason why I am so integrated and happy in the U.S. is because I don’t look that Arab,” said Salem.

    At the same time, Salem recognizes that there are privileges associated with her skin color and the fact that she may not look like the “typical” Middle Easterner, but pass as an ambiguous white person.

    “I don’t wear the headscarves. There are definitely privileges associated with that with my paler skin. I feel like if I were to wear a headscarf, I would be treated differently, especially in racial lines at airports,” said Salem.

    While passing off as white creates privileges for students like Salem, ambiguously-looking black students like Ohia and Oluyemi are not afforded these same advantages.Their dark skin represents – a racial group that has a long history with systemic oppression and discrimination in the U.S.

    While Ohia and Oluyemi say that it’s unavoidable, and sometimes troubling to be misidentified as an African American, they both appreciate what a double identity can bring.

    “I get to relate to other international students on other issues and at the same time African Americans, and primarily Nigerian-Americans and other Africans who live in America on other issues. I get to have all of those roles and at the same time I’m still struggling having all of that,” said Oluyemi.

    Graphics by Emma Kumer / North By Northwestern


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