Every person has an identity: the characteristics, feelings, and beliefs that make an individual distinctly themselves. Often, part of an individual’s identity comes from proximity to a particular social group, such as nationality, ethnicity, or political group. But ultimately, what an individual chooses to identify with is entirely their own decision. Or, at least, it should be.
Before arriving in the Netherlands, I identified as Zambian first and Bemba, a tribal and ethnic group, second. Suddenly, it seemed like ‘black’ became my defining feature, even though ‘black’ had never been part of my identity. I grew up in a household where the most significant differences between my white South African father and black Zambian mother were cultural, not racial.
Growing up in Lusaka, Zambia, the concept of race as a social identity was not often the most prominent topic of discussion. Lusaka is a multicultural city in more ways than one. It is home to many races, tribes, and ex-pats from all over the world. Because of this immense cultural diversity, most people identify with their nationality or ethnicity before ever considering the role that race plays in their identity. I wasn’t any different. Despite being labelled mixed-race in Zambia, it had little influence on my identity. There was no mixed-race culture, mixed-race community, or mixed-race identity.
While I can attest to the cultural similarities between predominantly ‘black’ cultures, there are key cultural differences even between tribes within the same country. I recently attended a social event hosted by the African Caribbean Student Association, which welcomes African and Caribbean diaspora from all over the world living and studying in Groningen.
Members of ACSA were from Africa and the Caribbean, but also North America and Europe. Among this collective group of black people, who others may see as homogenous, were genuine cultural differences. Just as the Dutch are culturally different from Germans, Zambians are different from Zimbabweans. Africans are different from Caribbeans. While there were clear cultural divides, there was also a great sense of belonging and togetherness present.
A Nigerian Italian student described her experience as a member of the ACSA as life-changing. Having grown up in a small Italian village, her family was the only black family, so she had never been in a room surrounded by people who looked like her outside her family. This is often the experience of black people who live in homogeneously white spaces. I had quite a different experience. I was lucky enough to grow up around people that looked like me, so I had never considered the importance of the black community until that night.
In a city like Groningen, where there aren’t many people of colour, there is a need for community. This need surpasses cultural differences, mainly because skin colour determines how you will be treated in society. This commonality between black people forms a social group, which to some, forms their identity. I feel more culturally similar to a black Italian than a white Italian. However, I recognise that I relate better to white Zambians than I do to other any other nationalities because my nationality ultimately forms the biggest part of my identity.
We are each in control of our individual identities, and as global citizens, we are responsible for respecting each other’s identities and recognising that this is a nuanced discussion. Not everything is black and white.