2017 is being an intense year for the Western world, marked by the rise of nationalist movements. Anyone with a basic understanding of fascism, xenophobia and white supremacy would have probably seen this coming in the last few years.
When politicians across the spectrum use migrants as a basketball ball to score points, when challenging racism becomes a bore-some activity for so called progressive/liberals, when dealing with inequality and xenophobia is seen as a matter of “overrated identity politics, when people pretend only white people are working class and suffering since the financial crisis of 2008, when the media is still unable to check their biased language, and when all of the sudden everyone wants to pretend we are all equal as if a few decades of brown and black people seen as human (debatable) erases the effects of centuries of genocide, slavery and colonisation, well…. You get this. A region in which racial supremacy and discrimination are okayed again (to be honest, were they ever not okayed?) in the name of freedom of speech.
At the same time, everyone willing to challenge this bigotry is called a “regressive leftist” by people who genuinely believe they are progressive leftists, while being moderate centrists, if anything. Neo-Nazis and conservatives might refer to them as “easily triggered snowflakes”, which is ironic since they turn purple and angry whenever you call their statements ‘racist’. “Clueless social justice warriors” is another label used often by people who still don’t know their right to freedom of speech can only be violated by governments and their agencies/bodies, not by fellow citizens counterarguing what they say.
And lastly, my personal favourite one: “entitled millennials”, a tone-deaf term used by adults who believe young people under 30 years old are all middle-class babies who had everything handed to them (working/lower class young people don’t exist anymore), were rewarded for mediocrity (seriously, where are all these awards? I didn’t get mine) and can’t live outside safe spaces (apparently young people live in protective bubbles away from the cruel real world, I can’t believe I didn’t get one!).
I’m not going to go any deeper into the political situation in the West, I’m still on an indefinite break from writing about social issues at a non-personal level. I just wanted to give a brief look at the context in which this personal article is set. The ongoing discussions about nationalism, patriotism, culture and ethnicity have made me think deeply about my own identity. How I identify and how I am identified. I struggle to determine to where I belong and to which countries/regions I should be loyal too. My national, ethnic and cultural identities are complicated to the point in which I’m uncertain I have any of these.
I was born in the Basque Country, an autonomous region in Spain. I lived there till 2012, the year I moved to England, where I currently reside. My nationality is Spanish and despite living in Britain for over four years, I still have a strong (Northern) Spanish accent. At the same time, I have adopted various British customs, such as saying “sorry” non-stop without an actual reason, eating roast on Sundays, being passive aggressive and drinking a lot of tea throughout the day (just joking!). Despite all this, I was born (and I live) in a different place to where my parents and grandparents were born. Hence, my nationality and place of residence say little to nothing about my ethnicity and heritage.
My mother was born in Equatorial Guinea, located in Central/Middle Africa. Her mother (my grandmother) is from there too, while her father (my grandfather) was originally from a West African country, either Cape Verde or São Tomé and Príncipe (I can’t confirm which one it is since I have been told different things). As you can see, simply in my mother’s side there is already a mixture of ethnicities, which would be even bigger if specific ethnic groups/tribes would be considered (which I won’t do because I don’t want to overcomplicate this article).
Although it might seem confusing, describing my maternal heritage is easy compared to my paternal heritage: my biological father (from whom I inherited my genetic traits) differs from my legal father (who legally recognises me as his daughter). I have never met my biological father and I know little about him. Meanwhile, I was raised by my legal father and he is the only person I consider a “father” in my life. I was told that my biological father is Senegalese and Bissau-Guinean (both West African countries). My legal father is from DR Congo and his parents (my grandparents) migrated there from Angola. Both countries are in Central/Middle Africa.
I learnt most of this information about my family during the last couple of years. Growing up, I was never curious about my ethnicity and heritage. I never even tried to define them. The only things I was sure about were my race (black) and my nationality (Spanish). While I grew up immersed in Spanish culture, I never felt part of it: it wasn’t something I could claim as my heritage. While Spain is a “colourblind” country in many aspects (when I lived there, race and ethnicity were not officially recorded as in UK), racism and xenophobia are common. People always give you subtle and not-so-subtle reminders about you not being “originally” from Spain.
It was also hard for me to feel attached to my African background because I didn’t grow up with my family (except my siblings). Now and then, I did have access to my parents’ cultures, mainly during family celebrations and spiritual rituals, but these were limited. I can name some basic Congolese food dishes, some basic Equatorial Guinean food dishes. I can understand some words of Lingala (Congolese language) and Pichinglish (Creole language in Equatorial Guinea). I’m aware of some rituals and customs. But my position regarding these cultures is the one of an outsider, rather than someone actively involved in them. In addition, till no long ago, I silently rejected my African background because of the gender roles that were being forced on me in the name of it.
Moving to England and becoming a young adult triggered in me an interest to know more about my roots to define my ethnicity better. In England I saw how most black people, even if British, embraced their ethnicity a lot, not just as “African”, but as Nigerian, Ghanaian, Jamaican… Or even specific subgroups, such as Yoruba. I felt a lot of envy about this, I wished that was me. Meanwhile I realised that I would never be considered Spanish and I wondered if I wanted to live in this continent forever. In addition, when deciding what to study at university, I remember how my dad pushed me to go for something that could help people “back at home”, meaning DR Congo for him.
All this inspired me to learn more about my roots. I asked questions to my family, and I did an Ancestry DNA test to proof-check their answers. While Ancestry DNA isn’t 100% accurate, it is an indicator, and I’m hoping to do a 23andMe check soon, since it is considered more reliable. Here are my Ancestry DNA results:
(*Trace regions are regions/countries which are only possibilities and might appear in the results by chance.)
My reaction to this data was a mixture of confirmation and surprise. I suspected most of my ethnicity would be African. I knew I had some European ancestry because my maternal grandfather was creole/mulatto. I thought I would get a small percentage for Native American (defined by Ancestry as indigenous groups from North to South America) because I was told my maternal great-grandmother has an Indigenous Cuban ancestor (the ancestor might be too distant to appear). I definitely have Afro-Cuban ancestry, something common in my mother’s home country, yet it isn’t reflected on the test since Afro-Cubans, as other Afro-Latinos, are direct descendants of black African slaves sent to the Americas.
I was surprised by the percentage for the Middle East, and although it is just a chance, it might be true due to extensive presence of Middle-Easterns in Africa, particularly in countries that make up my ethnicity. Regardless of this, I’m happy with being just black African, that’s how I have always identified. (Black) Afro-Hispanic is a label that wouldn’t bother me either, since linguistically speaking, I’m indeed Hispanic, which is not the same as Latino by the way (though I do have Latino [and Caribbean] heritage since I have Cuban ancestry and I grew up quite influenced by it).
When comes to individual countries, I already knew I had Senegalese roots, though I didn’t think it would be my biggest percentage. Conversely, I knew I had Bantu background, since my maternal grandmother’s ethnic group is Bubi, a Bantu subgroup, but I didn’t think the percentage would be so small. I was dazed by the rest of African countries and for the lack of mention of Equatorial Guinea, Cape Verde or/and São Tomé and Príncipe, in the list. However, a small look at African history helped me to make sense of this.
Cape Verde and São Tomé and Príncipe were supposedly uninhabited islands when the Portuguese arrived to colonise them. They were populated mainly through European settlers and slaves from continental Africa. That’s probably why countries like Congo and Benin appear in my Ancestry DNA: many slaves were taken from there. A similar logic can apply to Equatorial Guinea: that country was inhabited prior to Portuguese and Spanish colonisation (by ethnic groups like the Bubis), but there was a lot of migration from neighbouring areas afterwards.
Except for two, all the African countries/regions in my results are in West & Central Africa. Considering how European-made national borders in Africa don’t respect ethnic groups and tribes, the variety in my ethnicity makes more sense: the ethnic groups I belong to could be found in various countries in the area. Nationality might not be the greatest indicator for ethnicity in Africa. It is also important to keep in mind I don’t have full access to knowledge about my biological father’s family background. And, as I mentioned earlier, Ancestry DNA isn’t 100% accurate, although my results look more right than wrong.
As you can see, my ethnicity and heritage are heterogeneous. My mother, my legal father and my biological father are all from separate places, even different to their own parents. It is important to mention that while I didn’t inherit genetic traits from my legal father, his heritage and ethnicity still influence my cultural identity. Now, add my nationality (Spanish) and my place of residence (England). To which country in the world am I supposed to be loyal? To which country in the world am I supposed to show patriotism? I identify as black African normally, but I’m aware I’m legally Spanish and I’m a citizen of England.
Having a transnational, multicultural and mixed background is supposed to make me richer in knowledge and experiences, which is not untrue. Yet, it doesn’t make you richer in company. It can be very isolating. You belong to so many places that you end up belonging to nowhere. And more nowadays, when nationalism and ethno-supremacy are such a trend worldwide. It is easy to force nationalism upon people when you haven’t been rejected by your country of birth, when the country where you live doesn’t hate you and when you don’t have a transnational family.
My nationality is culturally and ethnically meaningless. Living in England matters to me, but the current war on immigrants and Brexit make things harder. While I’m trying to learn more about the countries that compose my African background, I still don’t feel attached to them. That’s the main reason why I can’t get behind any person or idea that doesn’t consider that who I am comes from more than one country or region, and tries to shame me for not being nationalistic. I simply have a borderless identity not confined to a single culture or place. And I wish people understood this, just as I respect their right to be patriotic. Hopefully one day, people like me will be considered during political discussions about culture, ethnicity and nationalism. Hopefully.