By Yvette Tetteh
I returned to Ghana recently, after almost twenty years living abroad.
And, since being back, I have been unequivocally informed that I am not Ghanaian. I am, instead, Senegalese, Ivorian, East African (mostly Kenyan), Jamaican (!), and sometimes even American.
A security guard at my office explained, almost breathless in his conviction, that with my hairstyle (a vaguely daring part shave), and my accent (British), there was simply no way I could be Ghanaian.
After sifting through a series of possible responses to this I decided on, “I’m not going to argue with you” and walked away – vaguely wishing I’d come up with a sharper, wittier response. Alas.
The moment stayed with me, though, and got me thinking again about categories. As someone who has straddled categories since birth (‘British-born Ghanaian’,) it’s an inevitable line of thought I suppose.
Straddling categories, I was reminded, is disconcerting.
Partly because it means people I meet (often barely removed from being total strangers) want to insist on a single category for me. Or, at least, on the category I don’t get to be in. At other times I think it’s because it’s hard to tell whether I’m neatly bridging two categories – or whether I’m actually just dangling off the edge of one category, perilously close to free-fall into another. Still, it can be curious. Sometimes even amusing. It is always unsettling.
And because of that, when I was younger and didn’t know what else to do, I tried at first to un-straddle.
At age 12, having already spent eight years living in mostly white middle class neighbourhoods in South Africa, I embarked on what was to be a six-year long journey through the heart of white, upper-middle class elitism – the British boarding school. So instead of un-straddling and becoming Ghanaian (or maybe ‘Black’), I became ‘British.’
Needless to say becoming British, which in my privileged world really meant becoming white, did not work. I just didn’t have the money, or the hair, or the lack of melanin. Especially the melanin! Sunscreen became my eternal foe. And, by extension, sunny summer days and track meets.
“Do you want some, Yvette?” one of my milky-skinned friends would ask me, as we stood waiting to be called to race.
I’d look over to the half outstretched arm, follow it to the inquiring face, and note (always) the squiggle of a pitch in their voice. It betrayed their attempts at casually posing this inevitable and inevitably awkward question.
Did I want some sunscreen? Yeah! Did I want to partake in the communal defiance of the sun and its wicked skin-burning rays? Oh, absolutely! Did I, at age 15, just want to fit in by blithely smearing thick white cream on my body? Yes, I tell you! Yes. But did I, all darkly rich UV-absorbing skin, need sunscreen in temperate England? No.
But occasionally (I admit it!) I would accept the sunscreen. “Hahah! Yvette you look so funny! You have purple skin!” No fewer than fifteen minutes of statements to the obvious, and painfully unfunny comments.
Age 18, and I packed up my failed attempts at British whiteness, and all my awkward memories, and shipped off to Stanford University. If I couldn’t un-straddle into British-ness, well, I could still find something else. In the land of Dreams and Opportunity, I could surely find new experiences — and a new me!
And if I was looking for a New Me of the single category sort, America was precisely where I needed to be. For America continues to be the land that simplifies your African origins and makes you Black.
But becoming Black, as determined as it may have been, was still sort of awkward.
Like the time I had to dance front-and-centre of the university marching band with a handful of other black people…because we were black.
I wouldn’t precisely say I was given a choice; maneuvered as I was from my comfortable position in line by an African American band member. She bobbed her head and pursed her lips to the tune as she tugged on my arm. Bobbing my own head, and shaking my hips, I gathered – quickly – that this was the norm whenever band (mostly white) played this jive-style song. I felt weird.
Probably about as weird as when an African American boy, another Stanford student, told me that I wasn’t black enough. I’m definitely still confused about what he meant.
I think maybe he was talking about my behaviour? The way I didn’t hang out at the Black house, or have many friends in the Black community? But, man, so direct! And, why did he have to tell me post-hook up, and while we were watching 90s stand up on YouTube? So many questions! But mostly I remember wondering how he expected black people to be black?
These sorts of fumbling (questionable!) experiences of the New [Black] Me at Stanford were enough to deter me from most other forays into Stanford situated blackness. Hiding in my British-Black-Ghanaian niche, I could just about get away with this. Instead I cycled through as many different personalities, and interests, as I did classes, in my other attempts to reach the New Me.
I think I threw a few too many ingredients into the mix, though, even for the all-powerful American processor. Because freshman year, despite yielding fun things like a fresh new haircut, did not also yield the anticipated – single category – New Me.
Which is why sophomore year I began looking for myself on the other side of the straddle; actively, for the first time, entertaining the idea of being Ghanaian. I got a return on some of that exorbitant tuition money we have to pay (I got a grant) and spent the summer in Ghana making a documentary about religion and identity-making.
I mean, I was already Ghanaian right? On both sides of my family we’re full-blooded Ghanaian (whatever that means) all the way back. All-The-Way. And my mother never let me forget it; even during all those years I spent trying to un-straddle into Whiteness, “You’re African!” she’d yell at me.
Which never failed to infuriate me into a confused, tight-lipped silence. What did that even mean? I never responded. Who was this African girl she insisted on? How was she (the African girl) supposed to behave?
If other people had an idea of how she was meant to act or whom she was meant to be, I never did. And I wasn’t particularly interested in finding out. I got tired of trying to be – and to prove – that I was one thing or another. So after years of futile engagement in battles for my identity, it was easier to put away my strategies and walk away from the war.
Until that sophomore summer. I can’t say precisely what I found of myself in that time in Ghana. But I suppose I found something; maybe the glorious internal calm I felt having tea with my grandmother, or the warmth of talking story with my favourite aunt and uncle.
Chances are it was also recognizing myself in Ghanaians: the same skin tones; the same range of features; the same way I sassily ask “who told you?” when I want to tell someone that they are wrong, or that I don’t believe them. This recognition has the curious effect of making me feel more conspicuously foreign everywhere else.
Whatever it was – and is – I might live here in Ghana now.
But this is not a heart-warming story about discovering my Ghanaian identity after years scrambling in the wilderness looking for myself. Let’s recall that I am, by popular Ghanaian opinion, not Ghanaian. I am reminded of this constantly, and not just by the security guard at my office.
Towards the end of a business meeting last week, one of the regional government officers my team had just presented to gave me a knowing look as he smiled and asked how long I’d lived in the Ivory Coast before coming to Ghana.
While I had been waiting for the meeting to be over so I could stop fighting the sleep-deprived ache in my eyes, the six executives in the office had been waiting to find out what kind of foreign I was. Within seconds (seconds!) of his question had sprung a highly engaged debate about my nationality, and my voice, and my hair.
I schooled my face and thought (rather than said), “You’re joking.” Except, expletive.
I was so stunned – and annoyed – at this debate, and at how disbelieving they were when I coolly explained I was (surprise!) Ghanaian, that I can’t quite remember what I said in the moment. But I must have asked why they thought I could be Ivorian because the original questioner answered, “You’re figure is not Ghanaian.”
Which would be hilarious, if it weren’t so infuriating.
Each time someone takes away an option for who I can be it gets more difficult to define myself. Which is hard when I’m still struggling to decide who I am even to myself.
I think we would all like a simple answer to the “who I am” question.
Little candy responses that we could pull out of our pocket; red boiled sweets that are nothing but sugar, and simple wrapping, and just waiting to be distributed. “Oh you want to know who I am? Sure! Here you go!” How nice that would be!
But self-making is a treacherous activity. The world betrays our attempts to simplify ourselves, and we demand of the world our complexity.
So for all us British-Ghanaians, African-Americans, Introverted-Extroverts, Cynical-Optimists, Romantic-Cynicists, Trans and Gender-nonconforming people, and other category defying personalities out there, I think it’s going to be one step at a time on this identity thing. My hunch is that we’ll be learning and experiencing all that we are as we go along.
Which will be easier for some than for others.
For all we might demand the world respect who we are finding ourselves to be, the world may choose, mostly simply, to reject us. Sometimes we’re shouting in a cavernous room.
Or maybe it’s that we’re the ones who are not ready to accept ourselves. For some people the immensity of trying to make our selves cohere is going to be too much, for a long time.
I think it’s going to be complicated for all of us. And I’m working to accept that.
If there’s anything I’ve learnt it’s that you can’t un-straddle.
Yvette Tetteh is (b.1992) is a British-born Ghanain artist and aspiring farmer. She holds a B.A in Cultural Anthropology and French from Stanford University (CA, USA). Her work is centered on the black body and the intersections of intimacy, reserve and performativity. Her astrological signs are: Cancer Sun, Aries Moon and Gemini in Ascendant. This sums her up perfectly.