As a Ghanaian, as an African, I have to admit – I have watched the protests in the United States and Europe with a sense of disconnect. You see, until I came to China 7 years ago, I had never experienced racism.
I grew up being proud of my dark skin. I grew up thinking that if I worked hard, I could achieve my dreams of becoming an architect. I grew up proud of my people, who are inventors, innovators, and revolutionaries.
I grew up knowing that my people have made major contributions to this world. I knew it was people who looked like me, who originally created some of the most technologically advanced, sustainable architecture in the world. People like me discovered the CAT scan and were the first to practice medicine, including surgeries, vaccines, dentistry, and more. My people discovered philosophy and religion well before Christianity and Islam were introduced. The list of amazing accomplishments I have grown up being proud of goes on and on.
I didn’t grow up fearing police officers would target me because of the colour of my skin. That was also something I only became aware of after I moved to China. Police brutality is not strictly a western issue, and while I acknowledge that not everyone in our community can say the same, thankfully the police in China have yet to make me personally fear for my physical safety.
I didn’t grow up thinking people would be afraid of me because of the colour of my skin, but Covid-19 had people running away from me on the streets of Beijing. I didn’t grow up being treated unfairly or any less capable than my classmates at school because I was Black. I didn’t grow up feeling ashamed or less than. I didn’t grow up with society making me believe there were things I couldn’t do because of the colour of my skin.
And neither did my father or his father before him.
Maybe this could be considered African privilege.
With the protests around the world, the white people have heard that the Black people are angry, but now what?
Tokenisation is something most of us will be used to in China. I have lost track of the number of times strangers have tried to take my picture and the comments on Chinese “friends” social media when we have taken the odd photo together have made me shy away from taking pictures with Chinese people and posting my photos on Chinese social media all together. What has shocked me lately is seeing this happening in the West too – white people posting random pictures of any Black person they have ever taken a picture with to somehow show they aren’t racist. That doesn’t prove anything and it is textbook tokenisation. Just because a white person wears a kente or dashiki doesn’t mean they are ‘on our side’.
They can join protests on the streets, write to whoever they want to, and try to be as politically correct as they possibly can, but does that actually change anything in an institutional, far-reaching or ground-breaking way?
Think about why white Americans feel superior. Imagine every day if you were taught that you were on the winning team. Every book. Every movie. Every TV show. Every class in school. All the heroes are white. The winning team is always white. They are taught to feel good about who they are from birth.
Systemic racism exists because white people want to remain on the winning team. Can you blame them? Even if the rules of the game aren’t fair, if you’re winning, you feel good. You feel powerful. You feel like you are capable.
Then I take a look at the Black American experience. When I listen to not just the African Americans I have met, but also the non-Black Americans talk about life in the United States, the BLM movement, and where things need to go, the wins and successes of Black Americans are rarely at the forefront of the conversation. The Black American experience is filled with a lot of pain. You were a descendant of slaves, even if you weren’t. My friend, a second-generation Ghanaian-American, isn’t entitled to reparations, but still gets pulled into the conversation. You are taught that your people come from poor families, even if you don’t. I met a guy from Connecticut who completely dumbfounded me when he felt the need to apologise for the way he spoke by saying, “You can probably tell I didn’t grow up in a ‘typical’ neighbourhood.” You are taught that, statistically speaking, you are not going to college and that you are going to live slightly above the poverty line even if you have gotten your Ph.D. Read posts under the hashtag #BlackInTheIvory. If some of those things happened to a white woman instead of a Black woman, they probably would have made international headlines. You may never have done drugs, but that doesn’t mean you don’t get asked from time to time if you can ‘hook a brother up.’ This happens to Black men walking alone in Beijing’s Sanlitun too, so maybe this is not just a Western assumption.
Although many Black people in the United States refer to themselves as African American, every Black American and diasporan I have met in China is offended when someone assumes they are African. Even Mamahuhu has referenced this in their videos. As an African, when this happens, it hurts me because I know it is our own fault.
If you are constantly being brainwashed into thinking that you are on the losing team, it takes an immense amount of self-belief to envision yourself actually winning. Those who do succeed have at times been considered flukes, sellouts, or told that they are somehow doing something wrong – and that is just what our own people say about them. Then of course white America follows behind with comments about how it’s so great that you made it despite being Black.
No matter how many of these ‘allies’ post about their solidarity or support of BLM and no matter how many times Nancy Pelosi wears a kente the fate of Black people around the world is not going to change. People are worried about how they are going to clean up their cities, but how many are actually coming up with solutions to the problems facing the Black community? I’m sorry, writing Black Lives Matter on a road just gives people another opportunity to step on Black Lives.
Truly finding the pride in being Black, knowing that you come from a team that wins changes the narrative. To some that may sound naïve because most Black people will say they are proud to be Black, but this is about something far deeper than just our skin colour. There is no doubt there have been over 400 years when Blacks have been seen as somehow less than, but there are thousands of years of history to be proud of. This is where we need to gather our strength. We need to teach the stories of Mansa Musa, Shaka Zulu, The Kush Kingdom, Amenhotep III, Oba Ewuare, Oba Oduduwa, and if you are looking for some more recent examples Kwame Nkrumah, W. E. B. Du Bois, Thomas Mensah(fiber optics), Francis Allotey, Apostle Dr. Kwadwo Safo Kantanka, Kwabena Frimpong-Boateng, Prince Kofi Amoabeng, Joseph Agyepong Siaw, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Dr. Shirley Jackson, Lewis Latimer, Marie Van Brittan Brown, Otis Boykin, Sir William Arthur Lewis, Marian Croak, Lisa Gelobter, Philip Emeagwali, Maya Angelou and the list goes on and on. I would love to write about each of them, but that will have to wait for another day. If you are one of the few that already know about all of these people then you know how that has impacted your inner fire. Imagine what a game changer it would be if all Black people had that.
I will be the first to admit that Africa isn’t perfect. Most countries are still being abused by foreigners as a result of bad deals by short-sighted leaders. The colonial history of raping and looting has tainted various aspects of our cultures, including many of our textbooks. We haven’t stood up for ourselves enough, and this has led to a new round of economic colonisation. I can’t help but think that if Africa was stronger and more united as a continent, Black people around the world would be respected and feel confident enough to demand more respect no matter where they are.
We must admit that as Africans, we have failed the Black Americans and the diaspora around the world. The Ghanaians who protested in Accra to show their solidarity for Black Lives Matter should be using that energy to show Black people around the world that they come from greatness. We should be creating more movies, cartoons, and writing more books where we are the heroes. We should be telling the real version of our history, not the white version of who we are. From an architects’ perspective, we should be embracing our traditional, sustainable architecture instead of using materials and designs that don’t make sense in Africa. We should be creating more scholarships like Black Birthright (https://www.myblackbirthright.org/) for Black high school students who live outside of Africa so that they can do year-long exchange programs in African countries and understand the systemic racism they face every day isn’t how it is supposed to be.
Instead of waiting for the rules of the game to become fair, we need to stop playing and create our own game. It is only when we can be strong enough to make our own rules and refuse to be less than that we can change the narrative for all Black lives. Rather than having non-Black people tell us our lives matter; we need to make sure we are doing everything we can every day to make sure our lives matter.