“And now to your right, you will see a prime specimen of the female African undergrad, barely 2 years off the boat. You will notice that the thickly accented English and linguistic peculiarities are still intact. Notice the quaint primitive beads worn around the wrist and neck…” I sometimes like to imagine that if my life were an outdated National Geographic documentary, this would be the narration playing in the background. Barely a day goes by where I feel as though my existence is more ornamental than necessary. By this, I mean that I often feel myself serving as an object of interest or an ambassador for a strange, “exotic” land where lions supposedly roam city streets and people live in tree houses.
The irony lies in the fact that I never identified myself with the entire continent of Africa, nor have I ever been so aware of being “African” until I left the shores of Ghana. “Africa is not a country,” and “No, I didn’t have Simba as a pet growing up.”
For a lot of young African students in the US, these are the all-too-familiar jokes they like to amuse themselves with when recounting stories of the latest ignorant comments they have encountered from their peers. I don’t assume that all readers believe these stereotypes about the entire continent to be true. In any case, I am no longer angered by curious questions about my background and why my English is so good. This is not another one of “those” preachy essays. I have come to realize that as human beings we are prone to drawing conclusions about others, especially those who are unfamiliar to us, based on very narrow ideas and isolated incidents.
I, too, packed my fair share of misconceptions and stereotypes of Americans in my suitcase and brought them across the Atlantic; preconceived notions planted in my mind by friends, family, and college counselors.
“Americans are so obsessed with race.” “Americans aren’t open-minded.” “It’s going to be so hard for you to make friends with African-Americans; to them you’re African, not black.”
“They always think they’re victims of racism.” However, after living in DC for only a couple of weeks and becoming aware of the extremely unequal distribution of wealth and resources in the city─ even something as trivial as the table seating dynamics in Leo’s─ I realized that a lot of the time, it is because, you’re black, or Asian, or Latino, or Native American, or any other category which is a few shades too deviant from the norm.
I don’t intend to whine about white privilege, or privilege in general, because I recognize that attending Georgetown University has automatically elevated my future socioeconomic standing to a level that others can not even dream of. However, I don’t know how many of my peers wake up in the morning already bearing the weight of a whole race of people on their shoulders. How many people have to worry about looking too different? Or sounding intelligent enough in class discussions so that people can see proof that you are not inarticulate or illiterate like all your people are standing on the street corner all afternoon? Salmon is a cute color, but I wouldn’t trade my African prints and neon colors for the best that Vineyard Vines has to offer. If we are all Georgetown, then why are some more Georgetown than others? Being a part of a truly accepting and diverse community should not be contingent on how similar we are to each other. No one should have to be rubber stamped “normal” in order to feel like they are an essential part of the campus. It’s alright that you wear designer suits to class presentations and vacation in the Hamptons twice a year. It’s also totally fine that you aren’t entirely sure what happens at Martha’s Vineyard, and that you don’t enjoy the same pastimes as your peers. It’s a sad day when we begin to feel that we all have to conform to a singular norm in order to be deemed a part of this Georgetown family.
In the grand scheme of things, how different someone looks, talks, acts, or dresses shouldn’t be a dividing factor between us. Innocent civilians are facing unimaginable circumstances in Kenya, Pakistan, Syria, and Washington, DC. Let’s focus our energy on the immense talents and capabilities that we bring to the table and how we can leave our impact on this planet in any way that we can. I know it’s easy for me to say: why can’t we all just get along, unite and save the world? I believe it’s important for us to recognize that we often place so much importance on arbitrary factors that prevent us from living and working together as a cohesive unit. The history of race relations in the US goes way beyond Georgetown’s gates, a topic far too deep and painful to be explored by my inexperienced perspective. Nevertheless, I strongly believe that we need to actually engage in conversation about what divides us and what unites us, rather than carrying on the “us vs. them” paradigm, blaming the other side, and settling for the age-old slogan synonymous for giving up, “It is what it is.”
-Zoe Gadegbeku, Editor-in-Chief