The Racial Identity Struggle

Discover how the perceptions of others effect the racial identity of one mixed race man.

  • Face Value
    Author Chris Abani explains that you cannot take a person at face value, it is impossible to look at someone and know their racial identity and where they come from.
    Photo by Fotolia/
  • The Face
    "The Face: Cartography of the Void" by Chris Abani is a memoir in which Nigerian born Abani explores his history and complex sense of identity.
    Cover courtesy Restless Books

  • Face Value
  • The Face

The Face: Cartography of the Void (Restless Books, 2016) by Chris Abani investigates the role of race, culture and language in fashioning our sense of self. This excerpt comes from the chapter "Face Value" which explores the way physical appearance impacts the way others treat and identify a person. 

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When I tell people that my mother was a white Englishwoman and my father Igbo, they look at me skeptically. It’s a pause that really means, “Are you sure? You’re so dark.” It’s a pause that I’ve heard only in the West. In Nigeria most people know upon meeting me that I’m not entirely African. Nigeria has a long history of foreigners coming through — the Portuguese in the fourteenth century, North Africans as far back as the twelfth century, Tuaregs and Fulani to name just a few. In fact, in the late ’80s and early ’90s the civil war in Chad caused the very light-skinned Chadians to pour into Nigeria as refugees. It was a disturbing sight to see hundreds, sometimes thousands, of homeless Arab-looking people begging for food in the streets and markets. The public outcry was so severe that the military government began a program of forced repatriation. Army trucks rolled into markets and soldiers would round up these refugees, separating families without a second thought — after all, they all looked alike — and drive them back to the border. I once found myself being pushed into one such truck, but my fluency in several Nigerian languages saved me. I was often confused for being Lebanese, Indian, Arab, or Fulani. But not in England or America. In these places I am firmly black, of unknown origin.

But people have learned to be polite here, so no one says anything that might offend. They nod and make murmuring noises instead; except the LAPD, whose officers took great offense at my still very English accent when I arrived in LA. They asked me why I was faking it. I never quite figured out why, but whatever the reason, they were always very offended when I was pulled over.

Antonio Cordeleone
9/8/2019 1:27:04 PM

Totally cool, Mr. Batman. I would hope our larger world could somehow evolve to your level of thinking. I was just reading about Herman Poole Blount, who I think took a similar journey-of-identity (he said he went to Saturn), and took up the name of Sun Ra. Like a Bat Man, Ra of ancient Egypt was a Falcon Man. Maybe indigenous cultures with long traditions have resided on a level of thinking somewhat like the level on which you are finding yourself. However, I think the need today is to rediscover indigenous wisdoms and their potent medicinal relevance to our globalist rationalist control frame; and to get there will require, I think, enlarging the indigenous understanding wide enough and powerful enough to embrace and shift the modern. Can we do it? Don't know. It might be more likely only that certain individuals--and never the larger world--will attain to such a transcendent notion of identity as you have. In my way of thinking, you have identified a deity, Batman, a mix of the human and the divine, common in ancient indigeneous cultures. My hope is that with this identity, you are attaining a perspective -- a view from the night sky, the domain of the flying mammal -- from which there can emerge a more systemic view of all the divisions in which the many-colored, hierarchically-structured world is currently embroiled. Perhaps from this Batview, the new wisdom can arise. Perhaps Batmen and Batwomen, and their human-animal brothers and sisters, can support each other to disperse the seeds from which the enlarged, wide-embracing, medicinal indigenous understanding can grow. I hope so. As the Bemba say, "imiti ikula empanga." "From these seedlings shall grow a forest!" As for my own identity, I'm perceived to be a white American guy. Like you, I don't identify with my face value to others. My Shona friends call me Shumba. I like that. Blessings to you.

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