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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Sisonke Msimang

Help, I can’t tell if I’m being complimented or fetishized

Sisonke Msimang column main media
‘Stick the faces of your siblings or friends on the bathroom mirror if you can, so that you contextualise yourself’. Composite: ediebloom/Guardian Design


About a year ago I moved to a European country with a largely white population and since then I have been so aware of my blackness and difference. Classmates and friends have asked about my wigs and hair etc, but I can’t tell if it’s genuine curiosity or if I am submitting to being racialised.

Now I look in the mirror and see a black lady, and not just me! I am also trying to date but I am not sure if when a white gentleman says I am beautiful, it’s because they mean it or I am being fetishised. I am struggling to draw the line between embracing healthy differences and racialising myself as a result of others doing that to me!

Help! :(

My sister,

This is a good moment to remind yourself that you are the same person you were before you arrived in Europe. You have the same skin, the same smile, the same heart. You are who you have always been. What you don’t yet have, is a community, so you will have to work on building one.

I remember moving to America to study when I was 18. I went to a small liberal arts college in the Twin Cities, where the overwhelming majority of students were white and affluent.

For the first time in my life, I was surrounded only by people my age. It was strange; there were no children or babies, no old people, just a few thousand kids, aged between 18 and 22, living in dormitories, eating together and walking across manicured lawns in between classes. I had grown up in various African countries, so the homogeneity made me homesick. I had always taken multi-generational relationships for granted. I missed being a big sister and a little cousin-sister and a grandchild. Still, I was in the Twin Cities for a coveted American education, so I kept my observations to myself and adjusted.

On campus, I was either hyper-visible or invisible, depending on the day. Sometimes I would get comments and questions about my hair, that made me feel as if I was under a microscope. And then other times, people would look through me as if I didn’t exist. I wondered whether the white kids who said I was so smart were being patronising because they had such low expectations of Black people, and I struggled to figure out if I looked good in certain outfits. It was impossible to ignore the fact that the girls who were considered pretty were pale and thin, and those who weren’t generally looked like me.

Within a few months of arriving, I had attached myself to a professor of African American studies who taught at my college. Once a week, he taught a history class at a high school in a predominantly Black neighbourhood, and on weekends he was often invited to community events. Pretty soon I was operating as his assistant, helping to organise and advertise events, making photocopies, driving him when the weather was bad, and generally making myself useful.

Wherever we went in the Black community, I got lots of positive attention. The teenagers I worked with in the high school program called me Miss Sisonke, even though I was only a little bit older than them. At church, older women called me honey, asked what I was studying and when I told them, they said they were proud of me. There was one old man who called me Mandela, because he found out I was South African. Whenever I saw him, he’d say, “Hey Mandela, how’s it going?”

Surrounded by people who related to me as though I was their sister or child, I felt seen, knowable. I was beloved. In retrospect, I realise that I was clinging to my professor like a life-raft; he led me into places that felt like home. Surrounded by noisy kids, music, laughter and old people all crammed together, I could escape the sterility of campus. I remember once leaving campus feeling self-conscious about a skirt I was wearing. As soon as I arrived at the community hall where we were meeting in North Minneapolis, someone told me how good that skirt looked on me.

The experience of moving in and out of being “raced” was instructive. I realised the problem was not me it was the social context. How else could I explain that I could be wearing the same skirt and get such wildly different responses – often on the same day? I felt good in community, and I felt alienated out of community. There is no more human response than this.

I tell you all this my sister, to say that problem you are facing is not new. As far back as 1903, WEB Du Bois coined the phrase double consciousness to describe precisely what you are now experiencing. People have dealt with it in many ways, but the key is to remember your own humanity. You aren’t someone else’s idea of you – you are you.

While you are building a community and finding neighbourhoods where you feel comfortable, to spend time in, I want you to print out your favourite photos of the people who have always surrounded you back home. It’s not enough to just look at them on your phone when you are feeling low. I want you to stick the faces of your siblings or friends on the bathroom mirror if you can, so that you contextualise yourself; your face next to theirs as you prepare for each day. Arrange images of your aunties, uncles, cousins and friends in your room, on the fridge – everywhere. If you can’t do that, make a little photo album, and refer to it often to remind yourself that you come from somewhere and that you are indeed “just you”. Also, if you’re on the dating apps, swiftly block any creeps who make you feel weirded out. If it smells racially fetishy, it probably is.

I’m rooting for you!

Ask us a question

Whatever your background, people have many questions around race and racism that can sometimes be difficult to ask. It might be how to handle racialised treatment in the workplace, how to best stand up for a friend or even what to do if you think you have upset someone. Sisonke Msimang can help you figure it out. Questions can be anonymous.

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