White people made me black
I lived in Sierra Leone, West Africa when I was a child. My days were filled with ordinary things: I went to school, did my homework, and played Barbie and Ken with my siblings. We were 5 kids – my grandmother, mother, and aunts raised us.
My mum worked as a professor of Electrical Engineering at Fourah Bay college — the local university. As a special treat, we ate European food – like pasta and bolognese on Sundays. At Easter, we went to the beach to fly handmade kites that my Uncle Jide confectioned in his “mad scientist” workshop. Our grey Renault 5 was the coolest car ever. We’d go to church on Sundays, hide under the covers during violent tropical thunderstorms, and climb mango trees (behind my mother’s back of course).
It was a peaceful life, with some adversity, but nevertheless, I’d go to bed tired and content at the end of each day. My school books featured little African boys and girls, just like my brothers, sisters, and I, playing, enjoying life – in short, living.
I was totally oblivious to racism – I mean, how could I have ever imagined that such a ludicrous social manmade construct even existed? How could I even imagine that there was a world where the color of one’s skin could determine one’s future or could make a difference between life and death. How could such a place even exist?
In June 1980, my mother got a job in Geneva, Switzerland. I arrived in a country mainly populated by white people on a lovely Fall day in September 1980 and my life changed forever. On my first day of school, the children stared at me. They weren’t friendly or kind — I was intrigued. I used to be one of the most popular girls in school in Sierra Leone, and now I didn’t have any friends. In my 9-year-old mind, I wondered why these white children did not like me.
Soon after I arrived, the children at my new school started calling me “black”. That was the first time I had ever been called black in my life. I remember thinking to myself that I wasn’t black. Black was the color of the scary night, it was the color of the charcoal my grandmother used to rekindle the fire on our outdoor stove in Africa. Black was the absence of light, I certainly wasn’t black, and I didn’t understand why they said that I was. When I looked down at my lovely skin, I saw a deep chocolate brown, the color of those tasty coconuts we used to buy from the market women back home in Sierra Leone.
“But you’re black and you’re disgusting”, the children would say.
“You’re black and you’re ugly”.
“You’re black and you’re stupid”.
Those words rang in my ears, day in, day out. So much so that I began to refer to myself as being black, because that is how those nasty children and society defined me.
The racial slurs and insults went on and on for seven straight years. Those kids called me every derogatory word in the book, from blackie to negro to monkey to Medusa. They made racist jokes, told me I had large, thick negro lips, and a fat black ass. They made monkey sounds when I approached. It was painful and traumatic.
But, whenever we’d go back home to Sierra Leone for the summer holidays, I’d forget I was black for months because people did not reflect the color black back to me in the way they behaved or in the words they said. Back home, there was never any talk of color, I was simply me.
Coming back to Switzerland after my summers in Africa was always very difficult. From one day to the next, I re-entered into a white world where people defined me by my color and not by my character. I became anxious because, in that world, I was black before being anything else. It was as though I could not step out of my color for people to see the real me.
Today, at age 50, I think back to those early days and my first encounter with racism. As a young child, it profoundly affected me, and this is even reflected in the grades I had in school at the time. I moved from being a straight-A student in Sierra Leone to an average to failing student in Switzerland. The reality is I couldn’t focus in class. I was a sensitive child and the constant bullying and racism made me feel sad and insecure. This in turn lowered my self-confidence and self-esteem.
I survived the racism I faced at school, but one thing I haven’t forgotten to this day is how as a nine-year-old child, I found the whole concept of hating someone because of the color of their skin, utterly stupid. It leads me to think that maybe if children ruled the world, we’d be much better off.
Thank you for reading my perspective.