When I first arrived on campus at Cornell, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Less so because of my above-average frame, or the fact that I was black at a Predominantly White Institution (PWI). These attributes certainly played a role, but it was more so because I “talked funny.” Within seconds of conversing with me, people instantly noticed that I pronounced my A’s and R’s differently, and that I used jargon and terms that didn’t quite mesh with the general lingo of the campus, or even the country. They would often play the guessing game and ask if I am from England, or Australia, and would gasp in wonderment when I finally revealed my mysterious accent as being South African. This misinterpretation of my country of origin was amusing at first, because it was a great way to start conversations and keep people engaged in what I had to say, allowing me to settle into a foreign environment with relative ease. But as time went by, it soon became a source of frustration and insecurity.
What started as people pointing out a difference in my phonetics soon evolved into an array of interactions and experiences that made me feel a sense of isolation in a land that was not my home. The source of my frustration and insecurity was not only my accent which was unique to my environment, but rather it seemed to be something bigger: my identity as an African. More specifically as a Nigerian who grew up in South Africa. Every interaction I had socially became centered and geared around the fact that I was African. I was never made to forget it. While I have no problem with my African roots and African identity (in fact, I pride myself in them), life can become extremely lonely when you have to brace yourself daily for an onslaught of comments and statements that make you feel like you do not belong.
There is a unique social dynamic that comes with being African on campus. There is the standard black/white dynamic at hand, as well as the dynamic between the black race and other races, in which there is a shared a social consciousness that accompanies being a minority in modern American society. In addition, is the unique dynamic that exists within the black community between Africans and people who identify as African American. Here on Cornell’s campus, I am subjected to a compounded feeling of isolation, because I am in a minority determined by the color of my skin, and I am in an even smaller minority due to my African heritage. It would be accurate to say that in America, I am a minority within a minority group.
Therefore, the “harmless” jabs at my accent or the way I pronounce different words, the daily shots at my African roots and the ignorant comments/questions inferring a “backwards way of life” in Africa, all contribute to a consciousness that says “I am different.” A consciousness that I had to engage with very early in my time spent at Cornell. In addition, my lack of a grasp on modern Ebonics, coupled with the fact that my South African accent is not an “African-sounding” one in the eyes of the West, genuinely confuses people and makes it difficult to communicate. Though there is some sense of community to be shared amongst my African-American peers due to the shared color of our skin, a sense of isolation still seems to endure. It is difficult enough to have African-American stereotypes projected onto me even though I do not share a lot of the same cultural history. If the fact that people lock the door when I walk past their cars or seem to avoid me as I pass them on the sidewalk wasn’t enough, I now had to deal with a sense of isolation from people who looked just like me. This contributed to a lack of a true feeling of ‘belonging’ within the African-American community.
The sense of isolation I’ve felt at Cornell is nothing new to me. Though I grew up in South Africa, my mother raised me in the ways of the Yoruba people in Nigeria, and therefore I identify most closely with this culture. In that respect, living in South Africa and identifying as a Nigerian brought about a similar feeling of seclusion, as there are stark differences across the two African cultures. Similarly, attending a private school on scholarship in South Africa and being surrounded by affluent white people, but then going home, where “common” things like putting food on the table was difficult for my single mother who was working two jobs, also brought about a sense of solitude. However, there is something that stings more about feeling a sense of rejection from people who look just like you.
As time went on, I learned that retreating behind my feeling of detachment would do me no good. Instead of feeling defeat because of the relentless nature of the social ostracism my roots seemed to bring, I learned to, as you Americans say, “flip the script.” I began to take pride in being different and recognize my heritage as a source of strength rather than of weakness. The difference a change in mentality can make on an individual is amazing. The concept of perception is hugely remarkable. In changing mine, every social interaction where my African roots were highlighted (and there were/are many) became a source of pride and strength. I became emboldened, and, coupled with the success-oriented mentality that I learned from my Yoruba culture, I began to wear my African skin with confidence, and I took a similar confidence into everything I did.
To this day, it has been this shift in mentality and the creation of this confidence that I use to fuel everything that I set my hands to do: academics, sports, extra-curricular activities, etc. In college, it is so easy to bend and become malleable in order to fit in. However, the gravity of “staying true to who you are” outweighs this tendency to change for me. Throughout all the collateral noise that college throws at me socially, I always look straight and meditate on the primary reason I am here: To do well at school, and give my best effort in everything I set my hands to do. This conviction, coupled with the internal belief that I can do well at anything I set my heart on, has caused me to be fearless and welcome new challenges. It is the reason I dared to walk onto the varsity football team having never played a down of American football in my life. It is the reason I dare to be pre-med, challenging myself with the rigorous course curriculum that accompanies this decision. It is the reason I take on extracurricular activities like research and volunteer work, and it is the reason I founded Cornell University’s first athletic pre-health society. It is the reason why I am me.
As I sit here writing this today, I have a lot to be thankful for. The people, the knowledge, the classes, the relationships, the opportunities, all amount to a quality experience that I do not take lightly. First, I am grateful to God for opportunities and to my mother for the sacrifices she has made. I am grateful to be able to achieve the goals that I set for myself every year. Most important, I am grateful for who I am, summarized sweetly by the words of the late, great Nelson Mandela: “I am the product of Africa and her long-cherished view that can now be realized so that all of her children may play in the sun.”
Co-founder and Co-President of the Athletic Pre-Health Society at Cornell
Cornell University, Class of 2018