Wednesday, June 10, 2009

I know you're American, but where are you really from?

by Jessyca Dudley

I am a Black American, my parents are Black Americans, and you would have to go back at least 5 generations to find someone in my family who was not born and raised in the United States. Still, the idea that I am Black and American is puzzling to most people that I meet, Black, White, Indian, Colored or otherwise in South Africa. More often than not, people assume that I am South African and increasingly I can get through whole transactions in stores without anyone catching on that I am not from South Africa. Most often it’s the fast pace that I walk, or when I’ve run out of words in Siswati and switch to English that people begin to wonder where I am from. Once it’s confirmed that I’m not South African, the second logical choice for most people is that I must be from Mozambique, do I speak Portuguese? No. Then maybe the UK? You must be from the UK on a visit. No. America? Really? OK, you’re an American but where are you really from?

Where are you really from? It seems to be an inevitable question because for most people I have met there is a belief that although there are Black people in the U.S., and they may in fact have American citizenship, they are not actually from the U.S. Most people think that I must be from Jamaica, or maybe my parents are African. “Nope, not Jamaican, and my parents were born in the U.S. also.” This is usually met by a look of shock. Yet, sometimes it doesn’t even get that far, because there are also people who simply refuse to believe that I am not South African. They continue talking to me in a language that I do not understand despite my looks of confusion. They think that I am lying, that I am trying to distance myself from traditional life and culture, maybe visiting from J’burg or Cape Town. Sometimes it’s just easier to lie and sometimes it’s just easier to walk away.

Even when I am with other volunteers from the U.S. people have a hard time understanding that I am not South African. When I am with White volunteers, people assume that I must be their tour guide or a friendly local helping them on their travels. People address me in their local language assuming that I will translate to other volunteers. People often greet the White volunteers first and sometimes do not greet me at all. Sometimes volunteers that I haven’t met yet assume that I am a South African counterpart who has come along with the volunteers. On good days we laugh about it, on bad days it’s frustrating, annoying, and leaves me drained.

There have been days that I wanted to scream “I am not from here!”, “I am an American!”, “I have no idea what you are saying to me!”, but there are also days when I am relieved that small children don’t point at me and grab my hair, that people don’t stop to stare at me when I walk by. Sometimes people are fascinated by the fact that I am a Black American and sometimes they couldn’t care less. Sometimes it must mean that I must know Oprah, Obama and Chris Brown, but most of the time it means that I must be rich and have a car like every other American.

On few occasions in my life has the fact that I am Black and American been so troubling to people, so hard for them to believe. On few occasions have I had such difficultly explaining myself to other people, or struggled to differentiate myself from people that I otherwise appear to be just like. It has been an eye opening experience that I am sure I will continue to confront throughout my service.

Jessyca is a volunteer with the Community HIV/AIDS Outreach Project. She currently lives and works in Mpumalanga.

If you'd like to write something for the diversity blog, please contact Jade ( or LaTosha (parkld82 at gmail dot come). We're interested in hearing all of your stories and experiences.

1 comment:

A.J. said...

It's interesting, the whole "where are you really from?" question. I've gotten it my whole life in both the U.S. and South Africa.