I am an Ethiopian American. What does that even mean? Ethiopia is in Africa, why not call myself African American; or why not simply call myself an African; or why not just call myself Ethiopian. Well that’s because all those other titles only describe part of who I am. Ethiopian American describes a person whose parents were born and raised in Ethiopia, migrated to the United States, and then had children in the United States. These children were raised immersed in the Ethiopian culture, because the Ethiopian cultural experience was recreated here in the United States within the home. Outside the home, these children lived the life of your average American kid. Blending in with the crowd of black kids at school, yet struggling to keep up at times with the American culture, because at home the environment was completely different. All of that is embodied in those two words- Ethiopian American
At least that was my experience, i won’t claim to speak for everyone, nor am I a representative of all Ethiopian Americans. All I know is that for most of my life, all the way to about my sophomore year in college, I struggled with identity, keeping up with American culture while trying to maintain a grasp of my Ethiopian heritage. It has been difficult, but a challenge I think I balanced quite well.
It took me a long time to be able to confidently figure out “what I am” or “where I’m from” . Obviously my parents were born and raised in Ethiopia. I was born and raised in America. I am an American. But I’m also Ethiopian. There’s nothing American about my genetic make up. I have no lineage in the United States. My direct blood line comes from Ethiopia. I’m 100 percent Ethiopian, I’m black, and I’m American. And I Identify with both African American culture and Ethiopian culture. For most of my life I was confused.
I never knew which box to check. This seems like a stupid dilemma to have, but it is something I struggld with throughout my life until I reached about 20. I went to private school all my life. Majority white schools, with very few African American students. I didn’t fit in with the other black kids, because my features were different. There weren’t really any other ehtiopian kids, besides my own cousin and two other kids in the entire school. To top it all off, I was never educated about what the difference between race, ethnicity, and nationality was. Once I started college and took an African American Studies class, I soon began to define exactly who I am, where I’m from, and understood “what” I am. Today I can confidently say my race is black, my ethnicity is Ethiopian, my nationality is American.
At 17, when applying to college, I checked the other box on my applications, then filled in Ethiopian on the line. Today, I don’t do that. I know better. I check the box that says black/nonhispanic or African American. Why you may ask? Because, here in the United States, that’s the category I fall under. That is my race, that’s what the application wants to know, they didn’t ask about my nationality, my cultural background, or my ethnicity.
When I started college, I learned that race simply categorizes people by the color of their skin. I learned my ethnicity relates to my national origins. My nationality refers to my place of citizenship.
Therefore whenever I am asked, where I am from, it’s difficult to answer. I’m from America. I am born and raised here. I grew up in Maryland. My parents are Ethiopian. Which question is the person asking me? I recognize that many people ask me where I’m from becase they see my Ethiopian features, and wonder where is this “exotic” look from. Because I understand that , I feel the need to explain myself everytime I answer that question. Where am I from, well my parents were born and raised in Ethiopia, but I was born and raised in Maryland. Sometimes I feel like that’s providing someone with way more information than they really wanted. Other times, that same question will get a simple “I’m from Maryland”. Then this curious person will follow up with a question like “ ya but, are you black, Indian, Hispanic?” and then I say I’m black. And then this curious person will follow up with the question “ so what are you mixed with” I answer “with nothing I’m all black” then this person says “No you’re not ! you’ve got to be mixed with something!” I say “no I’m 100 percent black , atleast as far as I know” , and this person insists on questioning my race; so I finally break down and explain that I am Ethiopian; Ethiopian American to be exact. Sometimes this satisfies their line of questioning,other times I get the “but yal’ll aren’t black” . At this point I want to just scream! Are you kidding me? Ethiopia is in Africa and black people come from Africa.
People’s ignorance shocks me at times. I’ve learned to roll with the punches, and accept the fact that some people are just ignorant.