Knowing your true colour
In this eye-opening article, Anouchka Blessed asserts her conviction that she is much more than the colour of her skin or a citizen of her country
I am Black, and I have suffered enough. My skin colour and sense of belonging to a minority will determine my destiny. I know it; this is what I have been told. My skin colour is the perfect guarantee that I will have to struggle in life and fight against racism and xenophobia. The glass ceiling awaits me, no matter what studies I undertake or how much energy I put into advancing to leadership positions.
“You are Black. You are petite. You are a woman. You will have to fight.”
These were my mother’s words when I was about to fly the nest from Togo to France at the age of eighteen, after graduating from the French baccalaureate. By expressing herself in that way, my mother unknowingly sealed my fate for a gloomy destiny of battles and the constant need to prove myself in a world of brutes. And that’s what I tried very hard to do for a large part of my life: prove that I was as capable as the others, prove that I had “balls,” prove that I could make it despite the unappreciated combination of my skin colour and gender.
Imprisoned by identity
This iron seal affixed to me had coloured my destiny, until I discovered that I was much more than my skin colour. A statement heard in a Buddhist monastery in Nepal called me out: “Beware of anything you put after the words ‘I am.’ Because saying ‘I am’ can lock you into an identity. And this identity can cause a lot of suffering.” This teaching changed my whole existence. It shattered everything I had been taught, everything I believed in. I understood that using these words ‘I am’ had confined me to a very limited view of my being. This profound and wise suggestion enlightened and set me free because those who walk and are aware of their chains are definitely freer than those who are not aware of them.
We all constantly identify ourselves: “I am a lawyer,” “I am a Black woman,” “I am a Christian,” or “I am the partner/wife/husband of so-and-so.” We think this ‘I’ we describe is what we really are. Then, when we fail to keep up with that identification, it’s a tragedy. I experienced it first-hand. I had already lost a lot of things in my life, including my lawyer’s title and prestige, my belongings, my social status as a spouse, and my virginity too.
But that’s not the point here. We believe that in order to survive, we must identify with what we do and everything we have, whether it is the objects we own or people. We are attached to our homes, cars, friends, ideas, opinions, the way we look at the world, and how the world looks at us. We are attached to what we identify with. However, this attachment imprisons us. Take the example of nationality. When asked where we come from, it is with pride that we answer: “I am Senegalese,” “I’m Nigerian,” or “I am South African.” Saying this is ignoring the fact that the partition of Africa and the definition of borders were arbitrary acts imposed by the Europeans. Exclusively identifying with a territory means creating mental and physical borders with other populations. It means placing ourselves in a small, cramped box with the label of a geographical origin. Similarly, when I say “I’m Black,” I’m putting a racial etiquette on myself. Then, I’m carrying the distress of my ancestors on my shoulders, the weight of a heavy historical narrative, and the shame of an inferiority complex. Plus, I’m creating a separation from other people based on the colour of my skin. Lastly, and above all, I’m denying myself the right to grasp the full measure of who I truly am. The reality is, it’s time to get out of this mental process that prevents us from keeping open minds and obstructs our right to be free. Slavery no longer exists, but oppression is still here in our heads. We create our own chains and strings, and we perpetuate our victimhood from generation to generation.
Breaking mental fetters
A bright prophet and philosopher once said, “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds.” You guessed it right. It was Bob Marley. These transcendent lines were the instruction manual for sustainable redemption. Nowadays, mental slavery is a plague, an infectious disease. Like all mental defects or diseases, mental slavery is hard to define. It is where one becomes trapped by misinformation about the self and the world. It is far more sinister than physical slavery because the chains are invisible and transmitted across generations. It is where one is content to be history’s permanent victim, forever looking to the outside world for justice. Everything is about how someone did something to us, how someone hates us, how someone belittled us, how someone stole from us, etc. It is where our worldviews, horizons of action, sense of what is possible, and largely, our self-perception, serve as our bindings. The nature of mental slavery is to promote ways of thinking that impede growth and development. That can take the form of cultivating dependence and reactive behaviour. So the root of mental slavery is ignorance, resulting in the entire Black community being kept in a vicious cycle.
‘Wakanda forever,’ my ass! It’s time to break the cycle. For the people yet to come. We have the right to feel pain. We have the right to feel sadness. We have the right to be angry. But we cannot feel upset enough to make anyone’s life better, especially our own. We don’t owe it to anyone to carry the baggage of our ancestors, the pain they have suffered, because the present moment is all there is. I cannot deny hurtful and saddening acts of racism that some people may have personally endured: “When white people see me they cross the road,” when you are told “Go back to your country, Negro,” or other colourful words. I also cannot do anything against the fact that almost every Black face in the news these days seems to be only relevant as victims of racism. Do we exist outside of this narrow-minded narrative? Who are we beyond the colour of our skin?
We are masters of our destiny
I just remember this story I have been told by a monk in Thailand. The story of a person who thought he was a cat. This person went to see a psychiatrist to describe his problem. “I’m a cat, and I’m in pain,” he complained. After multiple sessions, the psychiatrist finally managed to convince him that he was indeed a man. He left the last consultation convinced he was a man but returned a few hours later, totally distraught. The psychiatrist asked him the reason for his agitation. He replied: “I know very well that I am a man but the dogs that are outside barking don’t know that I am no longer a cat.” I consider this a funny story on how we falsely identify ourselves and how it’s actually not important what other people think of us once we recover from our illusions. None but we ourselves can free our minds. None but we ourselves can stop the identification. While we label ourselves, we lose sight of who we really are. We are human beings. Our hearts have no colour. Our minds have no colour. We are human beings and have always been so. Our humanity is not defined by the colour of our skin.
One with all
I have set myself free, thanks to all the teachings I have received in the East. And today, I know I am engaging in a perilous exercise when I use the words ‘I am.’ I am proud of my culture, which is of an incomparable richness. I am ‘Chaka Zulu’, with the strength and determination to lead my life where I want to. I am the ‘baobab tree’, resistant to all bad weather. I am ‘la joie de vivre’ that is typical of those who know how to rejoice from being alive. I am the reassuring warmth of the community who cares about the other. But I am still much more. I am a citizen of the world, whose heart remains open to my brothers, whether they are yellow, green, or grey. But I am still much more. I. Am.
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