Sofiyat's Shades of Black: America Unveils Complexities of Race

Updated: Jul 20, 2018

"My America is the world's big brother who is going through a seemingly never-ending middle-life crisis. He needs a wake-up call, a big one."

In a hot Nigerian night 10-year-old Sofiyat Ibrahim tossed and turned sleeplessly in bed. A candlelight caught the lines of a big wooden dresser out of the darkness of the room and defused through the mosquito-net covering the bed where Sofiyat and her mom laid.

It was November 2008, and Obama had just won the election. Sofiyat had spent days glued to the TV screen, clinging to every word people said about the man who was about to become president of the United States.

“Why everybody, the whole entire world, is so invested in America getting their first black president?” thought little Sofiyat. “Something is working out for them; why can’t it work for us?”

That night, she made a decision and whispered to the mosquito buzzing night, “Mom, I think I want to go to America.”

“Okay,” said her mother after a pause. She knew that her saying “no” would have only made Sofiyat fight 20 times harder. “Okay, when you finish your three years of high school, then you go.”

Sofiyat grew aware of the political environment in Nigeria – she sensed the mood on the streets and overheard her mother, the first female mayor of their town, occasionally complaining about how hard it was to change anything.

Even though the Nigerian president elected in 2007 tried to broadcast the message “I am the change” and at one point gave a speech sounding too similar to Obama’s rhetoric, nothing was really changing. Traditions and bureaucracy always stood in the way. America, on the other hand, was an embodiment of a change. After the U.S. elected their first black president, Sofiyat was convinced that everything was possible in that far-away land.

At 16, a year younger than the majority of the freshmen, Sofiyat enrolled in a law school in Nigeria. She still dreamed of America, but her mother talked her into giving the school a try. However, Sofiyat didn’t make it through the first semester - a common form of corruption at the educational institutions in the shape of sexual harassment came her way. It wasn’t rare for students to be asked by professors for money or sex in exchange for grades. If the younger, less experienced students dared to refuse, the corrupt professors made sure they would fail the classes. One of those professors, a man in his early 50s, eyed Sofiyat for himself and invited her to stop by his office after the class.

“I thought maybe I didn’t do my test right,” said Sofiyat. Back then, she was dressing in an appropriate manner for a regular Muslim girl and wore a hijab and a long skirt. Nothing about the way she looked or behaved suggested she was the kind of girl to ask for sex.

“I am going to start sending my driver to pick you up to take you to my law chambers on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” said the professor. “You are going to be my girlfriend. You are going to take care of me, and I would take care of you.”

When she refused, he said she wouldn’t pass the class otherwise.

“Sir, I am a 16-year-old. I am a Muslim. I have my hijab on. What made you think I’ll do any of these?”

“Even people who wear burkas are doing worse than I am asking you to do right now,” he replied.

Sofiyat immediately felt violated and angry. When she left his office, she called her elder brother and cried. He promised to take measures and investigate, but what could be done? The university investigative panel had 10 men on it, and seven of there were in the same practice.

Sofiyat stopped going to classes, moved back home, and started researching how to get to an American school. She believed what happened to her in Nigeria wouldn’t have happened to her in America. Her uncle who lived in America helped to persuade her mother to let her go.

She took the SAT and enrolled at Concord University, a school in a small southern West Virginia town that offered her the best scholarship. Sofiyat didn’t like it there, because it looked nothing like America she saw on TV. In a year, she transferred to the University of Louisiana.

Sofiyat for her lifestyle blog "The Odditty'

But it was at Concord when Sofiyat came across the controversial subject of being black in America for the first time. In all the forms she filled out, she always marked “Other” and wrote “African” under the race question. She wasn’t black, she thought, “black” was for African Americans, “thugs,” as they were portrayed in movies.

“Even our parents taught us that. Many Africans grew up with the idea that African Americans are not to be trusted. They are thugs, they create problems for themselves. The narrative is very, very negative, I promise you,” explained Sofiyat with a sigh.

Now, Sofiyat fights against racism and negative stereotypes of black people, but back then, she just didn’t think the issue concerned her. She came from the country where “race” and “racism” weren’t an issue because everybody looked the same.

“It’s a casual arrogance of being an African person,” Sofiyat said. “We come from the continent where we are all black. Our leaders are black; our bosses are black. We come from this context. So, we come thinking ‘I know who I am.’ And then you come here, [the U.S.] and you are immediately relegated to a subcategory that you didn’t know existed. You are not on top anymore, you are not in the middle, you are at the bottom. As a woman, it’s even worse. And being a Muslim – you are right there, at the very bottom.”

At the University of Louisiana, where she studied pre-law and politics, Sofiyat fully opened up to the new world that was America and the issues of race. She made many very intelligent African American friends who helped her to see that she and they were the same in many ways. With that, Sofiyat was exposed to the different edge of the American blackness issue – while Africans and African Americans looked the same, they were treated differently. White Americans often perceived Africans as “intelligent,” they saw African Americans as “lazy” and “stupid.” African Americans looked at Africans as people who didn’t get what it meant to be black in America. These differences in the perception, “the gap,” between African Americans and Africans in their own eyes were what got to Sofiyat the most.

“It’s not really explainable, but this gap, it’s there. It’s not amity, not anger, it’s just a gap. And America doesn’t know what it is. That’s why America is confused. America doesn’t even care enough to find out what this something is. Because, of course, it’s a black issue.”

As the president of the university’s African Student Association, Sofiyat decided to explore the divide. She and the other students organized a round-table discussion where African American and African students talked about the stereotypes they faced. As the result, they found many similarities in the way they were raised. Both Africans and African Americans grew up surrounded by many siblings and often slept on a floor with their cousins when they went to visit some of their aunts and uncles, had trouble with taming their hair, experienced disciplinary beatings from their parents, and had a strong sense of community.

“At some point, we were all on the same continent,” said Sofiyat.

American blacks consider her black until she speaks. Once they hear her accent, they think of all the news stories they heard about some African kid with a funny long name who got in all Ivy League schools. But they do look the same.

“We have this gap because you chose to be here, we didn’t,” said one of the African American students at the panel to Africans. “We were brought here in chains and shackles. That’s why we don’t relate to you. You had a choice, we did not.”

This argument got under Sofiyat’s skin.

“I did have a choice to come here or not. I wanted to come here since I was 10 years old, for the longest time, because America was this thing in my head. The world’s big brother. But people who look exactly like me didn’t have that choice.”

Exposed to all the flaws of America and difficulties of being black associated with it, Sofiyat was on an unconscious quest to reclaim her personality. In Nigeria, she knew who she was. She could wear colorful African clothes and play African music as much as she wanted. In America, she was reduced to a set of stereotypes she wasn’t sure how to navigate. So, she started a blog to help herself to figure things out.

Sofiyat in front of The University of Louisiana, excited to start her last year as pre-law and political science student. Summer 2017. Photo credit: The

Her lifestyle blog “The Odditty” now has about 3,000 visitors in an active month. It was born for many reasons – she wanted to spread self-love and find some of her own. She wanted to remind herself and others that everybody is special in their own way and that there is no need to want to be like someone else. Finally, she wanted to find out who she was in America.

“Now it’s cool to be African. Wakanda* just came out. ‘Wakanda Forever.’ Everybody wants to be African now,” Sofiyat laughed. “But it wasn’t like that before.”

Sofiyat writes her blog posts for a fictional version of herself, a Nigerian girl named Ronke. She usually writes about American college experience, her feelings, and issues she is dealing with at the moment.

She used her blog to call attention to the issues of racism and sexism she experienced while in the U.S. “Because I am a black female, I am somehow less intelligent and incapable of contributing anything useful to discussions, and if I am included it is usually because of a need for ‘diversity,’” she wrote last summer. “It wasn’t until the end of my first semester of freshman year that I finally learned to push past the barriers and regardless of how I was seen, be myself.”

Occasionally, her refusal to hide her opinion and African identity backfire. Once, one of her friends from a small circle of students working on the same cause at school told her in the group chat, “Go back to Africa. We don’t want you here.”

That combative comment was hurled angrily toward Sofiyat the night President Trump won the 2016 election, from a person she considered her school family, leaving Sofiyat in shock. Just one person in the group chat spoke up against the racist comment, and it was the shiest black guy who very rarely participated in the conversation. “You can’t talk to her like that,” he wrote.

She sighs in sadness every time a new negative story comes on the news – police shootings, aggressive policies against immigrants, sexual harassment… Now, after living in the U.S. for several years she feels that she was deceived into coming to America.

“You sent us a message… you call yourself the melting pot, the big brother, the American dream. And then you turn your back against us when it’s not working for you anymore or when it becomes inconvenient.”

“Oh wait, I thought this dream was for everybody,” Sofiyat illustrated her imaginary dialogue with America. “It is!” answered America. “Unless you are this, this, this….”

And still, Sofiyat loves the United States. “It very quickly became home,” she explained. She has spent most of her mature life here, her identity has been shaped here. Now, she sees that many issues Nigeria and the U.S. are dealing with are the same; the difference is that in America people speak out loudly about things they disagree with. It makes change possible.

For Sofiyat, it’s tempting to believe that America, the world’s big brother is just going through a midlife crisis and will get back on track soon. In the end, her America is still made of hope.

*Wakanda is a fictional African country from Marvel Universe comics and "Black Panther" and "Avengers: Infinity War" movies.