Just arrived in the beautiful city of Cartagena, Colombia. I can hear the music, smell the ocean, see the vibrant colors and plethora of paintings lining the shops inside of the city walls. The most beautiful thing about the city so far has been its diversity. Every Colombian I have met has been proud to say that Cartagena is a blended family where everyone is Colombian while they also stay as connected as possible to their roots in Africa or India because of their heritage. In this city, they do not seem to feel that these things are mutually exclusive and that is of greater comfort to me than I can explain, but I will try.
I was born in the United States but raised in Kenya for the formative years of my childhood and I am Ethiopian by blood. I grew up feeling proud to say I was an American and yet it caused many Ethiopians and Kenyans to say that it made me less black or less African, and that only made me angrily want to say it more. Then I moved back to the United States at the age of fifteen and things shifted rather quickly. I was constantly explaining myself and felt a detachment from the culture that was disappointing and isolating. The worst part was that I started getting the same comments from the other side of the equation, “You’re not black you’re African” or “Yeah, you’re American but just on paper” or the “Sure, you’re technically an American but…”. Eventually, I felt a sense of defiance there as well and decided that if people wanted to treat me like an “other” then I would behave as though my American birthright was a technicality and I isolated myself even more.
At a certain point as you grow older and wiser, you realize that the reality of the multicultural life is that you are everything and nothing simultaneously. No group ever accepts you fully but they don’t reject you fully either and you identify with some aspects of one part of your history while identifying stronger with parts of something else. I am an American but my blood will always run Habesha and our history makes us uniquely strong and resilient. I am an Ethiopian, but America has taught me to be an outspoken woman in ways that Ethiopia probably would not have allowed me to be. Kenya has had just as much of an influence on who I am and taught me the value of slowing down every now and then to spend quality time with those you love, it’s a country that showed us endless kindness and had a large hand in making me who I am today. When people ask me where I am from now, I cannot pick one because I am all. I am an Ethiopian-American who was raised in Kenya and I should not have to choose one.
I think that the world could take a page out of Cartagena’s book and stop trying to pretend that being “color-blind” is something to strive for. We should see and love all colors and ethnic backgrounds equally and pretending that we shouldn’t see them at all implies that there is something inherently bad about diversity. The real goal should be to see diversity without prejudice, to see a black person and have no opinion about how they will speak or what music they’ll like, to see a white person and have no opinion about what type of family life or financial hardships they have had, to see an Asian and make no assumptions about their education level or a Latin American and make no assumptions about the type of job they’re in. Diversity is not just about colour, it’s about culture and recognizing that race is not only a manufactured construct but it’s a barrier between each of us and our ability to know the truth about each other.