For black Americans who travel to Africa, the sheer numbers of people of like colour always takes them a while to get used to. In the United States, black people are the second largest minority after the Latinos and those of Hispanic origin, while the Caucasians are in the majority.
For me, a black woman who grew up in Ghana, living in the suburbs of Philadelphia with a small population of black people felt so strange that I found myself unconsciously seeking out black faces since it gave me some sense of normalcy.
I had never had to ask myself whether I was xenophobic since I hadn’t had the opportunity to interact with those of a different race for an extended period. The occasional white person I encountered growing up was a tourist, the foreign spouse of a black man, a missionary, or some occasional visitor or worker.
I then found myself in an environment where I had to deal with personal prejudices I would never have attributed to myself. I had to constantly guard against making any statements that were racially prejudiced and to redefine who I was as a black person. Was colour just an environmental definition or did the hue of a person’s skin determine their character, habits and behaviour in general?
In Ghana as we all know, no one categorizes people based on skin colour. I can still recall my inability to comprehend the concept of Apartheid in South Africa and the struggle of black folk during the civil rights movement in the United States. To a child who had never known anything but freedom and security, it was unimaginable that Nelson Mandela had been jailed because he was fighting for his people’s right to live freely in the land of their birth.
During my stay in America, I constantly reminisced about those things I had always taken for granted here at home. In Ghana, our doctors, bus drivers, cleaners, president, bosses and friends are all black. People’s status in life is determined mostly by what they were able to achieve if they can make use of available opportunities and resources.
The lighter skinned or mixed race person stand out more but since the majority of people are dark, it is rarely of any consequence. I had never felt ashamed because I was African and I was proud of my heritage and it certainly never crossed my mind to wonder why I was not white.
Fast-forward this to 2001, when I found myself living in a society where the colour of a person was definitely one of the most important determinants of how people treated or perceived you. I experienced more than a culture shock since I found myself behaving in ways that were very alien to me. I had come to the United States oozing with optimism about this great land of opportunity and thinking racism had been exaggerated by the blacks who tended to blame the Whiteman for everything wrong in their communities instead of assuming some of the responsibility.
I had become a member of a society where you had to identify your race each time you filled a form. When statistics on health care, employment or crime were given, you always wanted to find out how your own race ranked. Each time a news report announced an arrest, I cringed in fear the person would be black while my heart soared when a black person was honoured in some way in the media.
Then I realised I easily gravitated towards people of colour and could relate with their issues and causes. I began to wonder whether I had made a personal choice to instinctively trust a black person’s word and align myself with them because I was prejudiced or were human beings just wired that way.
Why did I take such pride in the accomplishments of black people and feel such a sense of ownership about our successes? I continually chose black television shows over other mainstream white ones and felt such a sense of kinship when I watched them. The black shows reminded me of the melodrama, exuberance and strong family ties Africans are known for, and watching them helped me miss home less. The 'white' shows, while entertaining too made me feel as if I was eavesdropping.
Was I racist and had I wrongly judged the white man of alienating those of other races if we are programmed to naturally gravitate towards their own. If I could see a black person from Philadelphia or New Jersey and feel instantly at ease with him, who was I to judge a Caucasian if he did everything possible to keep the races separate?
I was able to assuage my conscience because I realized why we condemn racism. We do so not because people seek to identify with their own and maintain their culture but because racism oppresses its victims by promoting enforced and systematic segregation.
It is a deliberate and calculated attempt to subjugate others by marginalizing and denying them of their human rights because of their race. Racism actively excludes the oppressed from accessing and making use of the resources that are available to the privileged just because of the colour of their skin.
Ghanaians take our heritage for granted and even when we live in the remotest part of the world, we know this land will welcome us with open arms. For many Black Americans though, the slave trade thrust them into a country where they have to prove their right to live as free citizens on a daily basis because of their skin colour.
This is why for many, a visit to Africa is a rebirth since it brings them back to their roots. Let us welcome Black Americans warmly whenever they come here so that at least they will know that even though we cannot turn back the clock on our part in the slave trade, we are trying to make amends.