Culture & Society / Ithaca & Cornell / Politics & Current Events

Being Habesha in a Black and White World: A Racial Identity Crisis

By Abigail Mengesha

Racial identity was never a problem when I lived in Ethiopia. I recognized and understood my ethnicity, and that was enough. However, once I moved to the United States to receive higher education, questions regarding my racial background and the meaning of the term “Habesha” resurfaced. This spark in curiosity can be credited to my exposure to the American Black/white binary model of race, the stereotypical portrayal of Blackness, and my striving to find a place in the various communities of the United States.

Habesha is a collective term for the native inhabitants of Ethiopia or Eritrea. Habesha is neither a race, nor an ethnicity, nor a nation. It is a way of living, a state of mind, and a collective of various cultures. It doesn’t have a common language or religion. Most young or Ethiopian or Eritrean Americans use the term to refer to themselves and others in a way that eliminates the distinctions between different tribes and ethnic groups, while also prompting pride and a discourse of a grander and united Habesha identity. So, the contemporary definition of Habesha is equivalent to “Latino”—a broad term, but also one that still recognizes its various ethnical and cultural constituents.

In the homeland, Habesha has never been associated with anything other than Ethiopian and Eritrean. However, whenever my people move to the United States of America, its racial component becomes hard to decipher within the racial binary construct of the dominant culture. I have experienced this sense of confusion firsthand and have noticed it in other Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants as well. I have noticed the way they try to assimilate the American constructions of race at certain times and generate counter-narratives at others, in an effort to defer the racial stereotypes and oppression that arise from identification with an undifferentiated Black identity. Some of these counter-narratives posit exclusive ethnic identities or hybridity, while others maintain purely national—Ethiopian and Eritrean—identities.

The stereotypical image of Blackness in the United States is largely responsible for the construction of an undifferentiated and structural identity. This ahistorical portrayal is maintained and fashioned by the popular Western media, which solely associates Blackness with African Americanness. Since Blackness is believed to be a direct opposition to Whiteness, rather than a diverse race that embodies numerous, distinct cultures and ethnicities, Habeshas tend to fear being branded with this label. I experienced this same fear whenever I felt the stereotypical obligation to speak in Black slang, love Kendrick Lamar, and know how to twerk in order to feel Black. This resulting uneasiness forces other Ethiopians/Eritreans and me to identify ourselves as just Habesha, instead of Black. Consequently, our actions could be perceived as a way to distance ourselves from our Black roots, even though that isn’t the case. Our alienation from the African American community is a result of how we are viewed by its members. Being considered “foreign” tends to annihilate our sense of belonging in this fraction of American society. I experienced this firsthand when, during my first two weeks on Cornell’s campus, I was called “exotic” by a male African American after telling him that I was from Ethiopia. His comment shocked me to the core.

It wasn’t like my other experiences of being mistaken for a Cuban girl when I wore my hair wavy or an Indian girl when I straightened it. This one somehow felt like a betrayal. How could a fellow Black person believe that my identity was something other than Black? I was indignant: “Why would you think that I’m exotic?” And he gave me my answer: “Because you are from Ethiopia.” This last comment exposed how my Habesha identity alienates me from the African American community. And this revelation was proven and then made concrete as my stay on campus lengthened. In a matter of days, I got mistaken for a biracial and a Non-black by other Black people because of the texture of my hair and the shade of my skin. In their eyes, I was completely foreign, and that was completely dumfounding. Nevertheless, as much as I was foreign to Blacks, I was still Black to whites, and this left me in a very interesting place.

As the days turned into weeks, I searched for a group into which I could fit; I was convinced that Cornell’s community contained a space outside of America’s binary categorization. I found that I resonated with fellow international students and well-travelled people, since like me, they had been exposed to various cultures, ethnicities, religions, languages, and philosophies that weren’t bound by racial boundaries. As a result, they weren’t used to the dualistic Black/white distinction portrayed in the States. They acknowledged the different aspects of what it means to be Black—that it was something more than identifying as an African American. These people accepted me for being a Black Habesha.

The prejudice associated with being Black has estranged Habeshas from their Black history. The term “Black” is viewed as a rigid representation of a specific culture—in this case, the African American culture—when in reality, it is a broad spectrum of diverse ethnicities, cultures, religions, and languages. The restrictions associated with being Black in American society are societal constructs built from stereotypes that view me as a girl who is neither “Black enough” nor “white.” Consequently, I identify as a Black Habesha because I refuse to let the overgeneralized definition of “Blackness” scare me away from accepting my true identity. I couldn’t imagine being Habesha without being Black, since my racial and cultural identities are interwoven components that serve as the building blocks of my individuality.

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