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How being black and Eritrean triggered an identity crisis during my childhood

Cover Image | Credit: Dawit Rezenè

There has never been any point in my life where I’ve felt insecure about my Eritrean identity. There is, however, another part of my identity that should have been as clear and stable as my Eritrean identity was. I’m black, which is a simple and obvious statement. But it wasn’t always that obvious to me. It was only when I began my school career that I realised being black and Eritrean wasn’t going to be as smooth a journey as it ought to have been.

Several schools in South London, where I grew up, have majority-black student populations. I went to a primary school in Brixton and this was where I first noticed something that has stuck with me my entire life. I was black and yet I still felt like an outsider. Being Eritrean created some distance between me and the Caribbeans and West Africans at my school. My culture, my complexion and facial features, my hair and traditional food all seemed to fall somewhere outside the category of ‘black’. These blindingly obvious differences were part of the reason why my classmates and I struggled with connecting who I am to the word ‘black’.

The reason for all of this is so clear to me now. People have an idea of what a black person is, and it is ridiculously restrictive. It forces certain behaviours, certain tastes and interests, certain hair styles and ways of speaking into the category of ‘black’. When you force a template of how to be on an entire racial identity, sometimes the people who are stuck on the outside are stranded. At the ripe age of 8, I believed all of these lies to be true.

It was when I left primary school and started secondary school that things started to make sense. Quite early on in my secondary school life, there were more and more blatant reminders of why I felt so lost in my racial identity. When around other black people, I felt like I wasn’t meant to be there. When around people of other races, I felt like I blended into the background. I can’t count how many times people would give me a look when I told them, “Actually, Eritrea is in Africa” or “No, I’m actually black”, or even how often I’d have to say “No, I’m not mixed with Arab or Asian or anything else”. I could see the cogs turning in their heads as they tried to establish what to see me as I can guess what they would have thought, that I was black but not ‘black black’ - another phrase I’m used to hearing.

Going home to a community that seemed to want to distance itself from the Black British identity also did not help. Like everyone else, Eritreans can have their own prejudices about black people. To some extent, there are simply too many differences between Eritrean culture and other African or Caribbean cultures for there not to be any animosity. Unsurprisingly, differences are always focused on, never similarities. Once again, this distancing from Black British culture left me stuck in limbo, floating between being black and being Eritrean, unable to locate myself somewhere where the two overlap. To my younger self, it was impossible that they ever could overlap.

I remember hearing an Eritrean relative speak harshly about those “criminal black people” who hang around the estate I live on. Hearing that from a white person is bad enough but hearing it from someone who looks like me shocked me. How could they not see themselves in those young black teenagers? But that was just it, they didn’t see themselves in the young black teenagers around them because that was never them at any point in their lives. Eritreans who weren’t born and raised in the UK cannot resonate with the Black British identity in the same way I can. They may not see how someone like me can relate so much to the Black British community. I lived in an environment that made it clear to me, often unintentionally, that I was Eritrean and only Eritrean... but when all is said and done, my Black British identity and my Eritrean identity are equally as important. I think some people struggle to accept this. I know I did for a long time.

Thinking back on things now, I can only be appreciative of my past. It has made me the most confident, the most proud and the most self-assured that I have ever been, as an Eritrean and as a black person. I can happily say that I don’t think things are as bad now. I can see people's mindsets changing as we all grow and learn more about each other. I do think there are still many more black people who are experiencing similar struggles and conflicts of identity to mine. If you are one of them, you should know something I wish I knew a long time ago; you’ve already done everything you need to do in order to be black, just by being you.

Abrehet is our Arts & Culture Editor and a third year student studying BA Theatre & Arabic at the University of Leeds. She is pursuing a career in theatre directing and screenwriting, and is interested in foreign languages and cultures and filmmaking. Her Instagram handle is @abi_semra.

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