The Racial Identity Struggle

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


| September 2016



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.

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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.