Submission from Ola
5-year-old Ola wasn’t ready for what was in store for her on her first day of Kindergarten.
One minute holding hands and singing the golden rule song, “do onto others as you would have them do onto you…” and the next, hearing my classmate ask, “Miss Blair, why is Ola black?”
I had just moved from Nigeria to Australia, and had never been in a classroom with predominantly white people before. Nigeria was very different. I’d be in a class of maybe one or two mixed kids, including myself, and the rest would be black. Everyone played with one another. All the teachers knew how to pronounce my name, which was something that people who weren’t Nigerian didn’t know how to do.
Miss Blair explained that where I was from, people had a different skin tone. The next weeks were filled with me sitting alone on the tables, while everyone ignored me and no one played with me during lunch time. Being only 5, of course, my younger self led me to believe it was just because they had their own friends, but soon I began to have an unsettling feeling that it could be that something was actually wrong with me. After being isolated again and again at recess, I went in crying to Miss Blair. We sat around criss cross applesauce in a circle as she gently explained to the entire class that I shouldn’t be treated differently because of my skin. For 5-6 year olds, they began to understand that skin colour did not matter and apologised to me for their unkind behaviour earlier.
Fast forward to when I moved back to Nigeria. I was 6. I started a new school and this time, there was a variety of different ethnicities in my class. One of my best friends was mixed like me.
I was hoping I could be myself. There were people like me, who understood what being different was like. I didn’t feel like the odd one out anymore, like I did in Australia.
As time progressed and Year 4 rolled around, I started feeling like I wasn’t as immersed in the whole community like my other friends were. I felt like I wasn’t as “Nigerian” as they were. The other kids could speak their native language, and bring always bring typical Nigerian food like Jollof rice and plantain for lunch. Meanwhile, I didn’t know how to speak Igbo, my dad’s native language, and I brought little ham and cheese sandwiches for lunch.
I asked mum if I could take Jollof rice or plantain and yam with me for lunch. Even when she had eventually let me, I still felt like I was “too light-skinned” to sit with them. Some of the kids gave me strange looks when they saw me take Nigerian food to school, and I’d hear sly comments from people saying “look at this half-caste trying to act like she’s a real Nigerian.”
I started to feel like a guest in my own classroom.
It went on like this for a while.
When I turned 11, we moved back to Australia and I started high school. I was so young, most of the kids were 12 turning 13. My school had a lot of Asians, and of course, white people. However, the abundance was missing. I was still the only black African in the high school.
In Australia, it was different. For the first year, people were so astonished with my skin colour and hair and accent. I’d always get the question of “But, where are you from?” or “What are you?” and after explaining that I was a Nigerian and Lebanese mix, I’d get the “That’s so exotic!” remark. People always wanted to touch my curly hair, which would be followed by “Have you ever straightened your hair?”
Yes, yes I have. You asked me that last week. It’s still yes.
They would also ask me confronting questions.
“Which side of you do you like better? Your black or your white?”
I wasn’t even white.
“Do you wish you were fully black?”
I was in a divide. Was I black? Was I light? It felt like I had to pick a side, when I was neither. I was both. I wouldn’t be the same if I wasn’t mixed with both my Nigerian and Lebanese heritage.
I went to Newtown the other day to get my hair braided, and seeing the variety of self-expression… It was so beautiful. I felt so happy seeing such a massive range of styles, I especially loved seeing people of colour wearing their traditional attire, dressing the way they want, expressing themselves in this way that felt like magic. I felt so free, like I could be myself and didn’t feel judged, I felt at home.
I am very proud of my heritage and don’t have an answer to which “side of me I like better”. I love eating Garri with Egusi soup and loved dressing up in my Nigerian attire for Nigerian Independence Day celebrations when I was in primary school. But I also love eating Hummus with Lebanese Bread, and Tabbouleh while hearing my mum and her relatives speak Arabic to each other at the dinner table, even though I have no clue on what they were saying.
This was part of one of my many journeys in life: trying to accept my skin colour. Now I can finally see the importance of being proud of where you come from. I can’t change my heritage, where I grew up, or how my parents raised me.
Our diversity is what makes this world so fucking beautiful. The amount of diversity the world has. We are a colourful sea brightening up the world we live in. How boring would it be if we were all the same? All the same colour, sexuality, gender? We need to accept our differences and express ourselves the way we like to because they are what makes us so unique. I might choose to express my culture differently to how somebody else might want to express their culture.define us.
Our thoughts, actions and the way we carry ourselves are way more important than any physical attribute will ever be. I am proud to be who I am, ever facet and part of myself. I am not one or the other, I am just me.