This is why your compliments offend me, dear well-meaning person.
I am one bad day away from becoming an “Angry Black Woman” if I get one more backhanded compliment about my “accomplishment” of graduating from college with honors. A few months ago, I wrote a piece about my multicultural tensions, and briefly mentioned the factor of exception, that is attached to being a successful African, immigrant, Black woman, in America. Don’t get me wrong; I know that many young people all over the world, and especially in developing countries, do not have access to higher education, let alone the opportunity to graduate from college. However, there comes a time, where I just want to be judge strictly through the lens of my performance, and not my skin color or my national origins.
Before I came to the US, I was not a Black person. I was just a person. Whenever I am asked about my biggest culture shock, almost always by American White people, I hesitate to mention the realization of my blackness. This, unfortunately, is not a conversation that would exactly make many of them comfortable. I usually stick to the shallow clichés about buildings and highways. Sometimes I’ll mention the forty different types of cereal, or eating in the streets. When I started college in the US, I wasn’t just a Black student. I was also African. I was also an immigrant. I was also Rwandan. That’s like quadruple exotic right there! “COOL!” This is the reaction I usually get when I answer that I am from Rwanda. “I saw Hotel Rwanda!” —the sentence I dread to hear each time my nationality is revealed. I always wondered what could possibly be “cool” about being from a country that is seemingly only known for the genocide, by most Americans.
I might appreciate a few words of affirmation, and maybe sometimes a little praise when I’ve done extra, but I am also an inquisitive person. I usually overthink small details, and sometimes my intuition serves me very well. At some point, between the “cool” comments, the pitiful gazes, the eyes of amazement, and the incessant adulation, micro aggressions felt wrong, long before I knew the term. I remember when someone told me, “Wow, it’s incredible what you have accomplished!” I didn’t think much of it. All I had done was finish my freshman year in college. Yes, with straight As, but school was also my only job, and the classes were rather easy. I merely considered the comment as just another form of American exaggeration—something I wasn’t used to at the time. After all, most Americans I’ve met “love” everything and everyone. They think everything is “wonderful.” Many also give their kids “stars” when they do their homework, or eat their dinner—a concept I still struggle to understand because doing your homework is not exactly a trophy-deserving accomplishment, and if you don’t eat, you will starve.
Slowly but surely, I started understanding the implications of what gradually felt more like compliments with subtexts of an expectation, to perform lower than average, because I am African; because I am black; because I am an immigrant, because I am Rwandan. Accepting those compliments would be nice of me, but I don’t always want to be nice. Most times, I just want to do what’s right. Sometimes I don’t mind “hurting your feelings” if it helps a greater cause. Not calling out this kind of constant micro aggression would unfortunately be perpetuating the separatist attitudes that many people, consciously or unconsciously, exhibit when it comes to the intellectual capacity of people of color, and immigrants. It is unfair of you, and reductive of my personhood, to only look at my accomplishments through the lens of my national origins, or my skin color.
To my brothers and sisters who come to pursue your studies in the West, do not get fooled. Do not condone the ideas of Black intellectual inferiority, by humbly accepting compliments that are not offered to your White counterpart under the same circumstances. Do not naïvely accept praise for simply doing you job—like passing a class. As black people, African people, we are technically new to the academic world—no news here, we were not always allowed in schools. We also still are, for the most part, studying from White school of thoughts, because people of color have not yet become validated to be competent enough to create academic content. So when you are praised for learning so well, and assimilating so well, think twice before kindly and humbly accepting that sweet ego-booster. Find a polite way to ask what is so remarkable about a rather common accomplishment. If you have a chance to educate, even if it’s just one person, do it for those who will come after you. Maybe, they will see a generation that truly believes in intellectual equity across races.