A couple of weeks ago, whilst answering a question posed by BBC Radio London presenter Dotun Adebayo about how I identify, I remarked: "I am Black-British, but I am Black-British amongst a lot of other things that I am. So, I am also a female, I am also young." Not long had the words left my lips when my mother, who was keenly listening to my radio debut, began frantically flooding my phone with texts, WhatsApp's and voicemails. "BLACK BRITISH?! BLACK BRITISH?!" was all they said.
Slightly confused, I called her as soon as I left the studio. I had made the remark in passing, hardly even conscious of the statement. I was eager to understand my sin.
Rather than the usual "Hi darling," I was greeted with "Black British?! Black British?! The shame of it!" Sensing my slight shock, she continued "Well-done, but 'Black British' you are not. You are an African! A British citizen, but an African!"
My shock quickly turned to defensiveness. I couldn't understand her outrage. After all, as a black person born in Britain, was I wrong to call myself Black-British? This is the question I posed to her.
"Fisayo" she answered. At that moment I became more conscious of the definite Nigerian origin of my name.
"Tell me this. Why is it that as a person of African heritage you must be reduced to a colour? You're right, you were born in the UK, but you are African. Africa is where your cultural heritage lies and that is an important part of who you are."
After my futile attempts to object, she changed her approach and said something that really made me think:
"A Chinese man remains a Chinese man even 6 generations down the line. Would you call him Chinese-British? I know you definitely wouldn't call him Yellow-British!"With this statement I could not disagree. At that point I began to realise that this debate was far more complex than I had anticipated and that there was a lot of weight behind my mother's light-hearted jibes.
Deciding how to identify is something I have long struggled with. Although it is not something that I am constantly confronted with, it is something that dominates my subconscious.
Before I go any further it might help if I give some details of my heritage. I am a second/third generation immigrant from West Africa. Although born in the UK, my heritage is in Nigeria and Ghana, my father being born in the former and my maternal grandparents the latter (my mother was also born in the UK.)
I agree with my mum that acknowledging my African heritage is important, both for the way I understand the world and the way that the world understands me. However, I would argue that how I identify is not entirely my choice.
To explain what I mean by this, I am going to introduce a concept that was introduced to me by my aunt (whom I confronted with the same questions as my mum) - ethnosymbolisms. Ethnosymbolisms are defined as the symbols, myths, values and traditions that form and sustain an identity. My identity conflict arises because as a British-born black person my ethnosymbolisms are weak.
When I am in Africa, I experience an absence in ethnosymbolisms in the sense that I do not share the local values and customs. This is especially significant, as I do not know either of my mother tongues. Thus, I feel more of a connection with my British peers with whom I was raised, than anyone in Africa, because of our shared experiences, values and traditions. However, this feeling is not absolute. When in the UK, there is a different type of absence. In this case, it is because I share only an immediate history with those around me. Although I am born in Britain, my ancestors were not. The history I learn in school is not that of my heritage.
Ultimately, there is an absence of complete shared ethnosymbolisms in both of the communities in which I am a part. This dichotomy is one I believe is unique to a second (or subsequent) generation immigrant, as they are in the unique position of being born into a culture outside of their own. My experience is different, for instance, from my fathers who came to the UK after already establishing his identity as a Nigerian young man. Although he is now also classified as a black-Briton, he holds those shared values and traditions, such as a native tongue, that I do not.
Discussions with my peers suggest that this is a sentiment that is shared. That there is an entire generation that are rapidly dismissing the culture of their parents in a bid to develop their own.
A couple of days ago, I had the privilege of interviewing scholar George Shire, as part of a feature that I am making on the African diaspora in London, for TV show London360. Unintentionally, the ideas he shared with me acted as a form of closure, an end to the internal debate that I have been having for the past couple of weeks. "The idea of Africa is an on-going story," he said,
"The idea of Africa is not universal; there are many ways of being African. Personally, I carry Africa with me in my head and body. I say to people that I go to Africa every night when I go to sleep."This idea of 'carrying' Africa both internally and externally is one that really resonates with me. I am African in my physical appearance, but also in my heart and mind. More than this, what George's words have shown me is that identifying as African does not have to be mutually exclusive from identifying as Black-British. It also does not have to be definitive, I can choose to identify differently dependant on the conditions of any given situation. Most importantly, my choosing to identify as Black-British is a personal decision, and no more wrong or right than my mother who choses not to.
I presented this final argument to my mother today. Let's just say we have agreed to disagree.