Gastkommentar: Navigating Blackness – A Cross-Cultural Exploration

Chiderah Sunny about Blackness
Chiderah Sunny ist Gründerin & CEO von Sunny PR. 2020 zog die Kanadierin mit nigerianischen Wurzeln nach Deutschland.

Anlässlich des Black History Month erzählt Chiderah Sunny aus ihrem eigenen Leben, das die komplexe Dynamik schwarzer Identität und ihre transformative Reise durch verschiedene Räume, Regionen und Kulturen thematisiert.

I was born in Lagos, Nigeria, in August 1995. It was a short-lived scene, as by 1998 my parents immigrated me along with my two sisters to Canada. This is where I would spend my most formative years experiencing the growing pains that come with the process of adultification. Both places served as a complex contortion of worlds that seemed to juxtapose each other. 

Growing up as an African/Black girl in the early 2000s in Canada was unbearably arduous. The cultural backdrop of that era was one that left those who looked like me often on the periphery of social acceptance. Being African/Black was not in fashion as it seems to be now. My identity contradicted the quintessential blonde blue-eyed image whose temperament was praised as being poised, gentle, the epitome of what it meant to be seen –to be humanized. Such an image permeated every facet of my daily life leading to internalized feelings of social invisibility, my very existence was antithetical to this status quo. I was a tall, dark-skinned, opinionated, and strong Black girl – this made me a pariah. It didn’t help that I attended primarily white schools that only reinforced my feelings of otherness. The awareness of my difference became neurotic. I was unable to dissociate publicly; it was only within the confines of my parents‘ home that I felt some sense of grounding as everyone around me mirrored me although, there a secondary disconnect also formed when at home.

„To assimilate to whiteness we abandon ourselves in the process, rejecting our names, our cultural identities.“

My home transported me into a world that contradicted my outside reality. My home life also seemed to reflect the confusion and loneliness I felt outside of it. My parents, who were devout Catholics, struggled to maintain our Nigerian heritage. In their child-rearing, they clung to preserve primordial practices and teachings in the hopes that I along with my sisters would not lose our cultural identity. For instance, my parents insisted that I be called by my Nigerian name as opposed to my white name Sharon. This is a common occurrence within the immigrant world where in order to fit in, to assimilate to whiteness we abandon ourselves in the process, rejecting our names, our cultural identities in the hopes that it brings you greater proximity to whiteness. My parents were successful in this aim however, all other attempts at cultural preservation were overshadowed by the whiteness that consumed me in my outside world, making me untethered to both my parents and my African culture. The older I got the more I felt the pressure of choosing a side which identity would take precedence over my new found nationality – being Canadian or my cultural identity-being Nigerian?

„I began cosplaying with whiteness.“

At sixteen, the call to choose my identity became influenced by the consuming desire of conformity, I so desperately wanted to fit in, therefore the choice was clear I had to pick my Canadian identity. At the time I believed that in doing so it would give me a proximity to whiteness that aligned with societal norms. However, this decision only served to further obscure my sense of self, leaving me feeling adrift and fully disconnected from both my African heritage and my Black identity. I began cosplaying with whiteness; in retrospect, this was an act of survival. As both an immigrant and a Black woman, I faced a greater degree of persecution and subjugation, so this seemed like the only way to combat the sometimes social and material harm that whiteness lobbies against anyone who is non-white.

Whiteness is a social construct that creates a racial hierarchy, shaping all social, cultural, educational, political, and economic institutions of society. (University of Cologne). Whiteness and the normalization of white racial identity throughout history has created a culture where non-white people are seen as inferior or abnormal. This white-dominant culture also operates as a social mechanism that grants advantages to white people since they can navigate society both by feeling normal and being viewed as normal. Whiteness is a dominant cultural space with enormous political significance, with the purpose to keep others on the margin. This construct permeates every layer of society as it is the cultural  default. Therefore if you are antithetical to this, you become inherently oppressed by it. This is why many racialized, immigrant, ethnically diverse individuals are forced to entertain the choice of coerced assimilation. They sometimes have to abandon parts of who they are to be given the chance to achieve, to survive in societies that were never designed for their participation. It’s an act of preservation, to protect oneself from inequities and injustices that we will undoubtedly incur.  

„I was Nigerian only in the worlds where I had to be.“

At sixteen, I lacked the perspective to grasp the mental turmoil that arises from adopting an identity outside of one’s own – whiteness. Unintentionally, I reinforced the idea that conformity to whiteness is necessary to avoid anticipated difficulties. I felt compelled to code-switch, a process of shifting linguistic dispositions depending on social context, as a means of assimilating. In youth, external validation often defines one’s sense of identity, overshadowing self-acceptance. Being raised in predominantly white environments as a Black woman, this pressure becomes all-encompassing, with few spaces allowing for authentic expression. Conformity appeared as the sole option, the unaware acceptance of its detrimental effects contributing to layers of identity crisis.

Conversely, my cultural identity as a Nigerian also suffered greatly because of my choice. I was Nigerian only in the worlds where I had to be – usually at home or at any function I attended that was predominantly African. I felt dually alienated, my abjection from this identity meant I never really embraced it nor experienced its richness. I was only a specter. Throughout my formative years, I truly had difficulty reconciling who I needed to be, which identity I needed to cosplay given the situation. 

It wasn’t until University that I really started to examine my identity crisis. I actively pursued a journey of self-discovery, delving into who I truly am and who I wanted to be. This path led me to African studies, where I immersed myself in subjects that gave me a deeper understanding of my identity as an African/Black woman. Engaging with the words and theories of influential African/Black scholars profoundly shifted my perspective on the world. Take Franz Fanon, for example, a Francophone Afro-Caribbean psychiatrist and political philosopher, who introduced the concept of double consciousness. This idea of perpetually seeing oneself through the eyes of others resonated deeply with me, shedding light on the struggles faced by Black individuals in post-slavery America and providing a framework to understand the challenges of oppressed communities in an unjust society.

„It wasn’t until I moved to Germany that I fully realized the depth of this exploration.“

Understanding Fanon’s concept helped me grasp why I had gravitated toward whiteness over Blackness, as my predominant exposure to white culture left me feeling scrutinized by a white gaze that misunderstood my choices in identity. This realization allowed me to break down my internalized self-rejection and start moving toward self-acceptance. Thus began my journey to reconcile both my identities, my Canadian identity with my Nigerian heritage. How could I merge them harmoniously? It wasn’t until I moved to Germany that I fully realized the depth of this exploration.

I immigrated to Germany in July 2020, amidst the chaos of the pandemic. It marked a new chapter in my already diverse identity. Stepping into this new world, I wasn’t sure which part of myself I’d need to rely on to navigate – a fresh encounter with the complexities of whiteness. Unlike Canada, where diversity is more pronounced, Germany is predominantly white. I thought I could lean on my Canadian identity for a smoother transition, but Germany proved to be a challenging social landscape. In Berlin, although celebrated as being more diverse and open than other parts of Germany, I found myself feeling increasingly isolated as a Black/African woman with intersecting identities. While the city appears diverse on the surface, it lacks the cultural depth I craved, clinging instead to a distinct brand of whiteness. The whiteness in Berlin feels steeped in denialism, social ambivalence, and a strong allegiance to nationalism, leaving me uncomfortable in my own skin most of the time.

„Today, I find myself grounded in the interplay of my identities.“

In contrast to Canada, where embracing whiteness felt more like a statistical norm, with choices encouraged but not enforced, Germany presents a different narrative. Here, the expectation is clear: assimilate into German culture, because that’s where you’ve chosen to be. The absence of negotiation in choice, while initially disheartening, ultimately allowed me to embrace my Nigerian/Canadian identity. I found solace accepting that I was given the freedom to choose in my former life, reconciling the two worlds because I had agency in the matter. Reflecting back, I realize that despite my perceptions at sixteen, I always had a choice, even amidst my surroundings. This realization was liberating, enabling me to appreciate the beauty in both identities and recognize that my choices were purposeful, they were always available to me. Today, I find myself grounded in the interplay of my identities, offering me a sense of stability and a place to anchor myself in this ever-changing world.

The reality is navigating across various cultures will never be easy; it will challenge every part of you. The existential woes will confuse and distort your reality, but it also allows you to transmute time transporting from one world to another in a way that gives you a nuanced understanding of the world. This enlightens you to the many realities that you and those around you may be experiencing and also makes you realize that in life we get to choose, even if the choice is not always right we still get to choose.