Black history month

The Black Experience─ More Than Skin Color.


As a humanity, sometimes we try to dissociate from one another’s experiences, because we are afraid of our own biases and stereotypes. We are afraid of what we don’t know, or acting on what we do know is right.

All human beings long to belong and to know that they matter, and that their lives have a purpose that matters. Often-times, when people feel lonely, they tend to lose confidence in themselves and others.

I was once asked to speak on Race in America at a higher education institution in a classroom with a diverse student group of thirty students, ranging from 19 to 21 years old from various race and identity backgrounds. It was in the department of Africana Studies, and my lecture was on the Black Experience. I wasn’t sure how I would handle such a lecture because as an African─ born and raised in Africa, I knew my black notion is slightly different from those expressed by other Black Americans.

Nonetheless, I put myself up to the challenge, and the way I did it was as follow: instead of assuming that I knew what the Black experience meant to those students, and start lecturing them, I set out to learn what it meant to each one of them. I opened a conversation.

The students were at first a little puzzled, and a bit shocked to see that instead of lecturing them, I was asking them to be a part of a conversation on race matters? I could see that it was an uncomfortable topic for many of them. I started by sharing with them my origins, and my experiences of being a black woman in my native country of Burundi in East-Central Africa, alongside with other many black people there! I started like this:

“You know, in my native village, people say I’m a white woman.”

When I said this, I could see the students’ facial expression literally changing! They looked at me with their intense eyes, not really knowing what the heck I was talking about! To them, I wasn’t a white woman, hello! Why would people in my village think I was white? But, when I looked at the two African students in the classroom, I winked at them, and they smiled because they understood exactly what I was talking about!

“In my village”, I explained to my students, “people say I’m a muzungu or white person because I now wear nice shoes, and nice clothes!” They uproariously laughed!

As I continued to explain my whiteness, I told them that this has been ingrained in many Africans’ minds since colonial times. Only white people were well off and wore nice shoes and nice clothes! And now, as an educated woman, I’m well off compared to most people in my village, and therefore, I’m also a white person! They see no distinction between me and a white woman; and therefore, my black experience and theirs are now completely different, and based on opportunity, rather than skin color!

In that lecture, I wanted to open the students’ minds, and share that our black experience is based not only on how each person perceives black people, but also on lived experiences, whether you’re black or not.

In the classroom that day with the students, I learned a lot about how people perceive the black experience; especially young people. One white female student was so emotional when she shared how she was never allowed to play with black kids in her neighborhood, or attend a school where there were black students. She shared that when she was younger, her parents never let her near black people, and her mother had even warned her about black people being bad people. So, she grew up with this psychological message that said, ‘if you’re black, you’re dangerous’.

I asked her, “Then why are you taking this African Studies class?” She said, “I always wondered why my mother never let me close to black kids, but ironically, when I applied for college, I wanted to go to a college where I was sure to meet black students. Then, I felt very awkward around them because I wasn’t sure how to interact with them. So, I took this class to further learn about the black history, and about African American studies. And so far, my best friends are black, and my good grades are in black studies!”

Another white student, a male this time, shared his black experience, and the impact of media on black experiences in America.

So, during that lecture, many students: Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, Arabs, Asians, Biracial, African students whose parents were immigrants, and those who came as refugees, all shared something about their black experience.

I ended that lecture on such a high score in student participation, and I realized how much we need more conversations on  Race in America. Most discussions in the media are debates and not real conversations. The thing I don’t like about debates is that there has to be a winner or a looser of the debate. We need to give at least our young people the space needed to talk about their black experience without guilt for the unfortunate events that sometimes tend to cover up the real work that needs to be done when it comes to race and equity.

In the end, we all have our own black experience no matter what race you are. The Black Experience is more than a race or skin color. It’s a complexity of people, systems, cultures, and subcultures.

The following are 7 key insights to help you live a more connected life in the multicultural world we live in.

  1. Connect and build relationships with ‘different’ people
  2. Check your own biases and stereotypes
  3. Heal your wounds first: Hurting people tend to hurt others. Love yourself for who you are, so you have enough love to give to others.
  4. Create safe space where people can explore their identities and express themselves
  5. Educate yourself about diversity and people you perceive as different
  6. Commit to leading change with kindness and understanding
  7. Travel to find multicultural diversity and enjoy it

Watch Seconde’s TED Talk─ We Are Not All that Different, in which she shares insights on Race and Identity in our global society.