“But you speak such good English!”– random person I just met.
The above statement has been said to me countless times; usually when the person finds out I’m African, sometimes even before discovering that. The last time this happened to me was a few days ago when I ran into a girl from Alabama on my way to the library. She happened to be a Mormon missionary and she asked me where I was from. She had never heard the name of my country before, and when I explained where it was she said “Wow, but you speak such good English!” She was clearly in complete utter amazement as she repeated that phrase a couple of times.
I know what she expected my reaction to be; she expected me to thank her for her”benevolent” back-handed comment. As it was, I tried to end the conversation with her as quickly as possible because I didn’t want to lose my temper. I also tried to rationalize that maybe due to her age and her upbringing she may have never come across an African person before. I was lucky enough to have had an international education and to have been exposed to people of different races and religions from a very young age. Rationalizing people’s actions has saved me from getting angry over all ignorant comments I face (and trust me, I hear lots).
So, according to this girl’s assumptions Africans aren’t supposed to speak English well. Well, most of the Africans I know are polyglots and can speak on average four languages , and usually that number consists of at least two European languages. Also, if the missionary had cared to find out, English is pretty much my first language, I learned it while I was very young and I am more adept in its usage than I am of my mother tongue. It shouldn’t be a surprise that my English is good, regardless of my skin tone or my heritage. However, so many people operate by stereotypes.
So what’s the big deal? Am I right to feel frustrated by this? Well, for me this is my reality; something I have to deal with day by day (and even at my workplace initially). The language comment is just a part of the problem. Being constantly judged and feeling the need to prove one’s “worthiness” while people around you don’t have to, is so trying. I’ve spoken to other minorities who have said they’ve also felt the need to prove themselves in society. My Aunt, who has an MBA from a prestigious Canadian university and works for the provincial government tells me that people with less education than her ask about her credentials before they let her handle their cases. She says this isn’t the case for her white co-workers. My teenage male cousin was subjected to a drug test because his teacher thought he saw him smoking marijuana (my cousin’s test came back clean, like he said it would). And the list goes on and on.
So yes, stereotypes are harmful and no matter how thick one’s skin is, they do get to you after a while. To end with a very apt quote from one of my favourites, Anais Nin:
|—||Anais Nin, The Novel of the Future|