My Ethiopian identity crisis

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.

20 thoughts on “My Ethiopian identity crisis

  1. There is also the other side to it. Where of you try to specify that you are Ethiopian…they follow up with “why don’t you guys think you are black?”. It’s like we can’t win!

    Can’t wait for the next post!

  2. Beautifully written. I don’t think you could have said it any better. (unless you described the exact struggle beside just identity our households are completely different) but that’s beside the point I really enjoyed reading!

  3. HOLY SHIT! You are an amazing writer and your words are really powerful. You know what your talking about and your honest about it. I love that. So many Ethiopians are so many Ignorants these days they give other Ethiopians a bad name. But, you change the view of that. Thank you so much! It’s good to know there are other people who are not living in their own little world (ethiopians) Don’t get me wrong I love my country, people etc but, being around Ethiopians and learning about my culture as an adopted ethiopian girl has been very hard because Ethiopians have a very different out look on life and people. So, thank you for sharing your view with me and everyone else. Keep thinking like that and you will get pretty far in life. You have a very bright look on life.

  4. Do you know what people like you and other ethiopians who assimilate with ”black” identity has caused me and other habeshas who dont identify as black because there is no visible connection?

    Because of you and the majority of other ethiopians Im stuck in an identity crisis too.. The country is both multicultural and racial, if they say you arent black then you arent, stop fighting it because it screws people like me up (its based on looks not by geography, most egyptians, most libyans, and some sudanese people are all not black.. .) By identifying as black in america you are inadvertantly taking up the burden and racial history of black west african descendants which have absolutely nothing to do with ethiopian history culture or race.

    Racially the dominant ethiopian ethnic group (amharas and tigrignyas) are mixed and some people vary in terms of race and looks (there are blacks and there are browns, as in middle eastern brown descendants of migrations from modern day egypt and yemen which happened hundreds of years ago).. to say we are all black is simply ignorance of our history and contacts with other cultures (Im not going to delve into it but take my word for it)..

    my point is that insisting a black racial identity really messes it up for habeshas that dont identify as black.. also ethiopians themselves have really messed up the external view of our country.. to an american ethiopia is just a country in the middle of africa with a bunch of starving kids.. culture is pushed to the side which is really sad; the diasporic community doesnt have total blame though the point is that our constant kissing of US feet and our begging for aid just doesnt help our cause…

    anyways sorry for this long and unorganized response.. just it sucks to deal with thhsi over and over, as it has been a big deal for me growing up in the US and not being able to identify with your culture because everyone else messed it up for you in terms of how they identify.

    This is the way I identify:

    Race: brown
    country of origin: Ethiopian
    Nationality american

    That is how I am accepted by society as well… so i hope you can now see how ive had the privaledge of identifying with my country nearly stripped from me.

    1. Your comment is interesting. I was a little confused as to what it is you are trying to get at…but here’s my understanding. You essentially don’t identify with blacks in America. If that is the case, that is your choice. As I said in my original post, I was only speaking based upon MY personal experiences. Race is a socially constructed thing by society anyway, therefore when I speak of my race I am speaking of things like what box I check when I took the SAT or LSAT. I am referring to which section of society I personally identify with. I was also discussing my personal frustrations of the misunderstanding people have as to the fact that Ethiopia is even in African, the origination of mankind, where the first man was back. I was in no way inferring that I would ever strip my culture away nor was I ever trying to deny my cultural identity as an Ethiopian. (hence the title of this blog being EthiopianAmericanGirl). I am in fact very proud of my culture, very proud of the history and culture of Ethiopia. I actually spend half my time listening to Ethiopian Music, watching Ethiopian comedy shows, and speaking in Amharic with my family and friends. So my point here is simply this, by identifying myself as “black” in America I have not neglected my Ethiopian culture, heritage, background, or identity. I have simply assimilated THIS Society. MY decision to make such decisions should not affect your identity nor your personal identity crisis. The experience that I, and Many others that I know simply happens to be what I wrote about in the original post. I personally do identify as black, I relate to black culture, and that is something that is based on my personal experiences and the community i grew up in. Of course there are differing opinions and experiences that may more closely relate to yours. Either way, I appreciate your comment and I myself have also learned something here. These types of discussions are healthy and useful as we all find our way in this path of culture, race , ethnicity, and heritage.

      1. Well thank you for giving an understanding response, most people simply write off other ethiopians who dont assimilate in black culture which is the experience that I have.. Its unfortunate as it creates inconsistency with the way others view the people of the country and while that may sound like a moot point, it can be the root cause for identity crisis in others who view the people differently then say the majority.. Hopefully others arent affraid to voice such opinions and again I thank you for your response

    2. I personally agree. I am Ethiopian/Italian and I know that Ethiopians have a much different background then all the other sub Saharan Africans. We ARE semetic and studies shown we are 40% Caucasoid. This article is wrong in that she said that race is about the color of your skin hahaha. that is COMPLETELY false. If that was the case then people from the Indian sub continent would be considered black because of their dark skin. Race is purely by your features and the structure of a person’s scull. Middle Easterns/ Arabs are considered CAUCASIAN and so are Europeans even though they both look VERY different. Middle easterns have darker skin and thicker hair while Europeans are…well..white. So ethiopianamericangirl is wrong in saying it is the color of your skin. Ethiopians technically are not black/negroid because our features(hair, nose, lips, fairer skin..) and heritage (mixed background) are different from that of other sub Saharan Africans like the Nigerians or Kenyans etc. Society considers us black simply because we are located in Africa. that is the main reason. not really because we have darker skin because -for example- many Indians have very dark brown skin like blacks but aren’t considered black because of their location. I really hope everyone understands what I am trying to say

  5. I came across your article,and even though I am not an ethiopian, I found it very interesting and can somewhat relate! Having a father who is African American and a mother who is Puerto Rican, I sometimes get confused for being an Ethiopian, or Dominican and similarly i identify myself:

    Racially as: Black
    Ethnicity : African American and Puerto Rican ( Afro-Latina)
    Nationality: American

    Having to explain to people my ethnic background, especially in america (and them having an either this or that/ or simply black or white notion ), and them either not understanding or believing my ethnicity can be truly frustrating!But i’m glad to see it’s not only me who go through this!

  6. Hey I can see, you are still confused. I don’t care about how Americans describe race, one thing I know is I can’t denied myself. American way of categorizing is only to put black people aside, period. Here is the choose that they need you to pick…White – Black /Arican American/ -Latino – Asian -Alaskan native. That’s all. Let me ask you .. You know North Africans people are Arabs but, technically just because they came from Africa…do they have to categorize them selves under Black ? Oh well, according to your understanding and expression “yes”. You see how wrong you are. Your color and your place doesn’t have anything with your race. You know there is different race in Asia, like 1)Indian, 2)Russian, and 3)Chinese, Japanise, Koreans. Those three people’s are completely different people. But do you think just because they are from Asia..all of them will expressed themselves as Asian. No, the Russian are considers as a white and the others may have no choice.. But we now that is wrong. American way of categorizing of race is mess or wrong. For your knowledge, you said you are from Ethiopia so if you are from one of those for tribes /Amhara, Tigray, Argoba, Adere, or Gurage/ you are semetic

  7. As an Ethiopian-American, I would have to agree with Snow.I do not consider myself “Black”, I am just Ethiopian that is my ethinicity and race. I feel like Ethiopian people have an interesting and different genetic makeup that does in fact make us different from other black people, instead of trying to blend in with Blacks I love the diversity and interesting genetic make up of my people and I want to share that with others not blend in and say” Blacks have different features”. Black people do INDEED have different features and exotic looks but Ethiopia is not one of them. We are mixed people who come from Semites, that needs to be embraced not hidden.

    Just my opinion 🙂

  8. I want to say thank you so much for sharing your expetience. As an Ethiopian adoptee your experience as an Ethiopian American resembles mine. Can I please share your post?

  9. I have some knowledge of American Life, although I never lived there. I often used to chat with African American and based on the politics of black unity, I thought I can have some unity with them. I still do not believe, but it is almost impossible to get along with people who believe the most black is the original African. Accordingly, they believe west or southern Africans are the original and Ethiopians as some thing to have come from Arabia. Don’t try it, we are not even socially constructed as such. We need to see back historically, where we will find our selves among the people of southern Arabia, Israel and North Africans. Well, American way of classification is not suitable and hence we are just victims. We need to keep our lonely planet Ethiopia, along with our tiny neighbors. I advice you all keep your identity pure, as I know we have almost no sub-saharan Y-DNA, and our mtDNA is just one quarter.

  10. Ok i have an interesting question . iam three months pregnant and the father of my baby is Ethiopian / Egyptian . Iam African American , born in america . What does that make my baby? What category should i put my child under when she/he is born?? I’m really curious about this

    1. Well first , Congratulations!! I wish you all the best!
      To answer your question, I don’t really know what “category” you should put your child under. Your child has an African background clearly, I think African American / Black is a fair categorization. If you raise your child with Ethiopian and Egyptian cultural background then he/ she may identify as such. Its really about how you raise your child and the culture and history you expose your child to.
      I grew up in a house hold where both my parents are ethiopian however I am born and raised in America. I identify both as a Black American and as an Ethiopian American. Its all about what aspect of culture you grow up with.

  11. I don’t understand why we allow others to define who we are. I am sick of hearing African Americans tell me who I am they say thing like “Ethiopians aren’t true Africans”, “Ethiopians are invaders who slaved black Ethiopians”, “Ethiopians are not black”, “Ethiopians are self hating blacks”. I am American born Ethiopian, not Ethiopian-American (there is no such thing to me)! I had two of my collage professors argue with me that we Ethiopians are Arabs which is absurd. We have over 3000 years of written history, why on earth would we allow for an outsider to define who we are. Our untapped history, culture and heritage is what makes us UNIQUE, not better just unique!

    As my parents preserved their Ethiopian heritage, I shall as well and so will my children and children’s children.

    Word of advise for ethiopianamericangirl – learn Ethiopian/Abyssinian history so that you will never suffer identity crisis. 100 years ago Ethiopiansim was the symbol of Africa and diaspora freedom, today our own fellow Ethiopians are going through identity crisis is saddening.

  12. I found your post very interesting. I am black–both sides of my family are from Louisiana as far back as blacks have been enumerated in the US census. We are dark skinned, but my father has been asked if he is Arab. My mother’s brother is always mistaken as Ethiopian by other Ethiopians! Filipino people mistook my grandmother as Filipina. I have been asked if I am Dominican, Ethiopian or a ‘foreigner’.True story, an older black gentleman thought I was a foreigner because of my wild hair (I have curly hair, and was natural before natural was in.) I have no idea what all my genetics are beside black, and who knows exactly where my lineage began? I know I am African, French, with some Native American and Jewish thrown in for good measure. I don’t care because I am me, and it doesn’t bother me how others self-identify. What does bother me is if someone gets offended by being mistaken for something else. A few months ago, I was parking my car and the attendant spoke to me in what I’m going to guess is Amharic. When I looked quizzically, she said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were one of my people–Ethiopian. You look exactly like my aunt!’ I didn’t get upset; I was rather flattered. To me, it doesn’t matter what people mistake my outer for, because I know who I am inside, and that is most important.

  13. This is a very interesting post and I like completely understand your characterizations of race, ethnicity, and nationality. I’m African American, and I’ve been confused for Ethiopian, Dominican, and Trinidadian on several occasions. And the most hilarious part about this…. I would look at those same people and think “I would confuse you for African American if I saw you at the mall or somewhere just chillin” .I will never be confused for Russian, Chinese, etc…because I am black. Personally, I don’t think that I have a mixed look (i.e Mariah Carey, The Rock, Paula Abdul. etc). In addition, I’ve seen many Ethiopians and Dominican people who I think look “African Amercian” or like someone in my family. I have dark, light, and brown skin people in my immediate family. Therefore, I don’t tend to think that black people LOOK (not to say that ppl can’t have distinctive looks, there’s just a lot of overlap) like they are from somewhere else. solely based on looks African Americans have vastly different looks/shades. I think black people from Africa and the Caribbean have a lot of overlap in appearance (physically). A commenter said that Ethiopians should not consider themselves as black (I don’t think that person understood this post at all). In America, Ethiopians will be classified as black (from a race standpoint). No one will ever look at an Ethiopian person and confuse them for White or Asian. In America, even if you are half white (read: Plessy v. Ferguson), you will be classified as black. And you’ll also find that African American’s will be most excepting of you. We tend not to have that kind of prejudice in our hearts towards other black people because we know the struggle is real. Not to mention, race is a social construct (but that’s another argument for another day). But in American, you can’t be Ethiopian, Dominican, Caribbean, Afro-Hispanic with brown skin… walking around thinking that “you’re not black”. You will be in for a “rude awakening” with that mindset. This isn’t to strip anyone away from their ethnicity (I think the author truly hit the nail on the head). There are a lot of cool and descent people of all races and nationalities in the US. However, there is some systematic racism here… and Ethiopian, Dominican, Caribbean, Afro-Hispanic, African American all looks “Black” in America. These groups of ppl can often be confused with and for each other (mainly because they’re all black). Otherwise, no one would be confused. No African American/Dominican/Ethiopian will ever be confused for Japanese/Chinese/Russian/Korean. This isn’t to say that certain people don’t have a distinctive look. All I’m saying is… we all black. If we wasn’t, I would not be getting stopped in the streets or having ppl greet me in Amheric/Spanish….. I’m not even mixed (like JCole or Mariah Carey)… who are also considered black. We all black, let’s stop trying to come at it with these wild distinctions.

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