For most of my life growing up in Seattle’s Ethiopian American community, I had an eagerness to escape. As soon as I was old enough to question who I was, I had a feeling I’d never really be able to understand my identity while living in this country.
Instead, I aspired to move to Ethiopia, where I knew at least I’d be understood by my character rather than by the color of my skin. On my visits back there I found that I could blend into the majority — a feeling I’ve never had in America.
For that reason alone, moving to Ethiopia permanently was extremely appealing.
My understanding of America was blurry and complex. It had so many layers of narratives of oppression that I couldn’t see which story to identify with.
I had an idea of what it meant to be Ethiopian. But I didn’t know what it meant to be Ethiopian American
That all changed in March of 2014, when I went on a Civil Rights Pilgrimage to the Southern United States. I spent eight days on a bus with 39 people traveling through Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas. The route was intentionally set to provide the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement and the iconic moments and places where terrifying and courageous acts of humanity occurred.
Prior to the pilgrimage I had not been an “active” citizen engaged with politics. I expected the trip might give me more insight and respect for the right to vote.
What I didn’t expect was that the journey would provide me with a real connection to my American identity — an American identity that for once didn’t just talk in patriotic terms about our white forefathers, ignoring the experiences and contributions of people of color.
After the pilgrimage, I felt I finally understood the American part of my label as Ethiopian-American.
But I was curious as to how other black Americans felt.
Specifically, I wanted to understand the racial and ethnic labels used by people of African descent.
These labels are the words that represent our histories and cultures as well as our complexion.
How do we decide which identification box to check? What are the factors one considers in choosing their label? Is it really a label we choose, or one that’s imposed upon us?
Through an honors thesis at the University of Washington Communication Department, I was able to interview *black college students at the University of Washington and at the University of Mississippi and hear the stories behind the ways they identify, and what those words meant to them.
Terms like “black,” “African American,” “Nigerian-American,” “Creole,” and countless others line the surface of identity for descendants from Africa.
There are so many different terms that I realized I couldn’t only analyze the most commonly used labels, but instead needed to let the individuals tell me what labels they use and why.
You can read the entire 62 page thesis here — yep, super long!
I don’t want to give too much away, but the results I discovered were profound. The connections that can be drawn from the black experience are so similar and deep that it only takes a person to have African ancestry for them to have an experiential understanding of the implications, injustices, and mistreatment of being black in America.
A component of the study I did asked participants to look at a list of commonly accepted and used labels in America. These labels were somewhat dated, but indeed are still employed by some users to this day.
Two of the labels in particular struck the same chord of emotions and reasoning as to why the participants did not employ them. Participants unanimously dismissed the terms “Colored” and “Negro” noting that they reflected, “slavery days” and held “negative connotations” in their historical origins.
A black female student expressed that she did not employ either label because, “it’s just bringing us backwards to a place of oppression and just belittlement and inferiority.”
A black male student, who openly claimed his Ethiopian origins, said that he didn’t choose the label “Negro” in particular because he believes the word is a “western civilization word.”
Although these participants come from different upbringings entirely, there is certainly a racial affinity amongst those with the experience of being black in America .
Yet at the same time, ones family ties and origins can play a major role in the cultivation of the word that a black person uses to assert their identity. One of the female participants expressed her comfort in employing the label “Nigerian” because her father’s roots can be traced to that nation. She said that because she is knowledgeable of her family’s origins in Africa, she feels comfortable employing the label as part of her identity.
The wide array of results only confirms that the story of a label lies within the individual and not what they look like or how people see them. We all have a story and an explanation behind the way we identify ourselves. That story is for the individual to share, if they choose.
This is what I’ve found: As we deconstruct our perceptions of these labels, we find that the black experience is not a homogenous one — rather it is extremely diverse. So it’s no surprise that the words we use to identify ourselves are as well.
*I use the term black in this article and throughout my thesis as the general label to describe a person of African descent.