Being a Nigerian born in America, it was difficult as a child to persuade people of my heritage. Often times the only way people knew I was African was from my last name and they would inquire “What are you?” as if I was a member of some extraterrestrial species or some unfamiliar form unknown to man.
On getting to know that I am Nigerian, they often exclaim “Really?! You don’t look African.” I received the comment in abundance as a child in middle school, time and time again as a teenager in high school and I hear the remark more now than ever as a young adult. I never really understood what such a comment is suggesting. Every time I hear it, I think to myself “How do I not look African?” And still I ponder what exactly does an African look like? Is there some general mental picture that I do not fit into? Are these authentic African features absent from my face? What are these supposed common characteristics shared amongst Africans that I for some reason do not possess?
Curiosity and a naive mind led me to take action at a young age but even after extensive research, I still couldn’t find the answer to what an African supposedly looks like. Most websites and books were more focused on the physical characteristics of landscapes and specific countries than the people. Assuming that every single person on an entire continent that has 54 countries, various heritages and cultures is ludicrous, so why is it that people have still not grasped the understanding that believing Africans have a “look” is absurd?
Of course that research took place when I was younger but I’m still curious as to what an African is supposed to look like. What image instantly comes to the mind of someone who decides that a person either looks or does not look African? What do African features entail? Are those people considering the stereotypical narrow nose and curly hair of an Ethiopian? Or perhaps they might be picturing a dark solid skin tone typically seen in those from Sudan. Or maybe they’re victim to the portrayal of Africans that the media broadcast.
Maybe they expect all Africans to be dressed in grass skirts, with their face showcasing tribal markings, walking barefoot and carrying a huge stick in their hand. Maybe they expect me to be walking my pet cheetah along the road, then would I “look” like an African?
The matter might be humorous to those who are enlightened enough to understand that there is no such look that all Africans possess, but the reality is that these are ideas that people genuinely hold in their minds. They refuse to accept the fact that we are all unique in our own respectable manner. They dismiss the thought that we represent different countries, various backgrounds and come from different peoples of different cultures. Our skin glows in hues of caramel, mocha, chestnut, toffee, hazel, dark chocolate and everything in between. Our hair has different textures, our noses come in various shapes and sizes, we have piercing eyes in a variety of assorted formations. We are all different people that share a common home, Africa. But our sharing of the same soil should not result in people believing that we share similar faces, traits, characteristics and features.
But maybe these people are confused because they don’t interact with Africans on a daily basis. Maybe their television screens have only shown them a particular type of African and their minds have willfully accepted that image.
But malnourished Africans stricken by poverty are not the only representation that Africa is receiving in modern media. A new wave of successful Africans who have acclaimed success on an international scene are emerging and presenting a new answer to the question of what an African might look like.
Does Somali’s world famous model Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid look African? How about popular Nigerian actress Genevieve Nnaji? Can Nigeria’s Dapo Danial Oyebajo, popularly known as D’banj, be the only face of Africa? Or even consider Ghana’s own Van Vicker? Even if these celebrities were to be accepted as “The Face of Africa”, how then can other countries be represented? What about Zimbabwe, Sudan, Sierra Lenone and Algeria? How can one or a selective group of faces with certain features represent billions of people?
The funny thing about the question of “What does an African look like?” is that the answer varies so much that it would take more time than this lifetime can allow in order to give a sufficient answer. We would have to address all 54 countries within the continent, visit each state, go to every village, and scrutinize the face of every single person who lived on the land.
Although we all share a connection to the continent, our facial or psychical features are not the same. Our uniqueness won’t allow it. Our distinction dismisses the very thought. What does an African look like? Picture strength in human form. Imagine courage given physical characteristics. Visualize a person who embodies triumph, victory, and the overcoming of disheartening obstacles. Not the color of a person’s skin nor the texture of their hair but the quality of their persona should come to mind when contemplating what an African looks like.
Beulah Osueke is a psychology major at Ouachita Baptist University. She believes the world's general view of Africa has been tainted and looks to address the inaccurate perceptions thriving in the media that result from an unjust past and unwarranted generalizations. She hopes to shine light on the efforts being made to generate a new respectable view of Africa, one that attest to Africa's rich culture, pure strength, and tenacious perseverance.