Steve Thairu Mbaki

What does it mean to be Black in the context of the 21st century and living outside Africa?

It is important to acknowledge that the experience of being Black is not monolithic, but rather, multifaceted and varied. Black people come from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and experiences, and it is crucial to recognise and respect these differences. The system is broken and the idea that where you are born and the colour of your skin is somewhat equated to a lottery win or loss exempts us from our collective responsibility to change that system. We have a few known stories because modern society has shaped socially accepted lifestyles and stories to tell. We are not a people of hate though it is painted that way. Being black refers to dark-skinned people of African descent, no matter their nationality, with native ties to Africa as its descendants, or individuals who trace their ancestry to indigenous inhabitants of Africa. With anywhere between 1000 and 2000 languages, Africa is home to approximately one-third of the world’s languages with many being endangered.

We’ve all heard this quote before, “You are the least black person I know.” This line is said by people who think it’s a compliment to tell someone you’re not like the rest of your race, you are different. This is a form of microaggression. Microaggressions can be intentional or unintentional and sometimes even seem to be well-meaning but they communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial messages or assumptions to the receiver. These actions, statements or behaviours can be verbal, nonverbal, or environmental, and they can be experienced by individuals or groups. Microaggressions can be damaging and harmful to individuals, contributing to psychological distress and emotional pain. They can also contribute to a larger systemic issue of discrimination. When a person says it, it usually implies they didn’t expect to hear intelligence or vastness of knowledge or being from a black person. The black person didn’t fit the person’s offensive stereotype, so the person complimented them for surprising them. In addition to the issues mentioned previously, being Black in the 21st century also involves navigating systemic racism and discrimination in various forms, such as in the criminal justice system, education, housing, and healthcare. Additionally, Black people may experience microaggressions in the workplace, such as being asked to speak for their entire race or being overlooked for promotions or opportunities. These experiences can create a hostile work environment and lead to a lack of opportunities for professional advancement. Black people are also disproportionately affected by poverty, unemployment, and limited access to resources, perpetuating a cycle of disadvantage that is difficult to break.

Another form comes with the unwanted touching of my hair or comments like, “In summer, I’ll be as dark as you.” Somebody make it stop! I do understand that it is normal to be curious, but crossing personal boundaries is not. Then there’s the unwanted feedback that comes with the realisation of the hair texture — like  I did not know of my hair texture before you came along to touch it. The questions that come after may seem innocuous, but it can make a black person feel as if they’re an animal on display — since the perpetrator likely wouldn’t ask that of a person of any other race.  It also taps into a history of black people being treated as curiosities and animals, without full rights to their own bodies. 

A black person is someone still facing colonialism, being hated by others and themself. The diversity in culture is still referred to as primitive and an active slow erasure of culture by destroying their “library”. In the past, black people were made to believe, not to understand, that the western religion was a good thing. Through this religion, Europeans were able to destroy African civilisations, cultures, histories and ways of life. Since then, Africa has been robbed of its identity through the introduction of European names under the exergies of religion. It begs the question that, if they really believed in the religion they were spreading, would they have brought it to black people, who they considered less than?

It has been expressed as the Short end of the stick. A black person is someone who has been robbed and divided through colonialism and slavery. African influence may be seen in many artists’ work. A people robbed culture, beliefs and art. During the period that was colonisation and slavery, Western nations participated in the theft of thousands of pieces of African art. Once someone tried to justify the actions saying that it was taken as part of preservation and  that this was a form of trade. Some of these art pieces were gods to these cultures, could you sell your beliefs at any price? Leading to a question I think about each time I visit museums, “Should black people have to pay to go into a museum to see what was stolen from them and have a close sense of what their history was?” The Maneaters of Tsavo (Kenya),  Rosetta Stone(Egypt) and Benin Bronzes(Benin) are some basics to show how extensive the looting was from all parts and cultures. By some accounts, more than ninety percent of all cultural artefacts known to originate in Africa are being “preserved” in Europe. ​​ Black culture worldwide is considered less than is every day being appropriated for artistic gain, with little to no regard for the cultures the inspiration is drawn from. 

However, being Black is not solely defined by struggle and adversity. Black culture is rich, vibrant, and full of resilience and creativity. It encompasses music, art, literature, fashion, and more, and has influenced and been influenced by cultures from around the world. Furthermore, Black people have made significant contributions to society in numerous fields, including science, technology, medicine, sports, and politics. Their accomplishments and achievements often go unrecognised and undervalued, perpetuating a narrative of Black inferiority that needs to be challenged and corrected. The black culture around the world is varied and manifold, consisting of a mixture of countries with various tribes that each have their unique characteristics. It is a product of the diverse populations that inhabit the continent of Africa and the African Diaspora. Culture can be defined as a collective mass of distinctive qualities belonging to a certain group of people. Therefore, next time you take a DNA test and it tells you you are 5% African ask yourself what that really means looking at the diversity that is black people. Africa has numerous ethnic nationalities all with varying qualities such as language, dishes, greetings, and dances. However, all black people share a series of dominant cultural traits which distinguish between them.

Overall, being Black in the 21st century involves confronting and challenging the injustices and inequalities that persist, while also celebrating and honouring the diversity and richness of Black culture and contributions. It requires empathy, understanding, and a commitment to creating a more equitable and just society for all. Change your blindness as your past is something that is inherited because anything that happens to a black person happens to all black people. Black people are each other’s ambassadors!