Monday, April 14, 2014

Black vs. African: "Race Consciousness"


Black vs. African. There is no versus in me because I am both. I am black American and I am Nigerian American. I am all American, all black, and half Nigerian.

So when I am reminded of the tension between black people and first generation African immigrants, or the imagined tension between the two groups, it feels especially arbitrary to me. But I must respect that it is very real for those so impassioned and involved in our difference from our recent immigrant cousins, so to speak.

I say that the tension is imagined because I do not see the tension play out in real time. As a teenaged Nigerian-black-American girl, a few of my (black) friends felt it appropriate to get the scoop on why Africans thought they were better than black people. I can't remember exactly how I answered, but I should have said, "Well, I don't know. You should ask an African."

And how many times, in west African families (the only group I can poorly speak to), are all the hushed assumptions about black American people spoken out loud, those that lead mothers and sisters to decry their sons and brothers ending up with black American women, for example? And how many times have these women actually met the very people they have decried and confronted them about these perceived inadequacies?

Real tensions are lived out in heated discussions and shouting matches, African immigrant on one side accusing black American of being, whatever, lazy, violent, thuggish, and black American saying, ah-hah! I knew you felt this way about me! Now let me tell you why you're ignorant to the legacy of institutionalized racism...

I am not yet aware of this happening, but I'm hopeful a civil version of this gets played out in campuses across the country.

Because that's the only way imaged tensions turned real tensions can devolve.

And as I felt my friend back in high school unfairly placed me in the center of this unfortunate contention, I also refuse to place myself in the middle of it. I by far do not have the authority to lie bare the root of the tensions between African immigrants and black Americans. I don't think any one does, not another mixed person, maybe a scholar on the subject, and definitely not me.

In my family, the only black vs. African tension that existed was any sexual tension that existed in my parents prior to the realization of their relationship, but that is long gone 30 years into marriage.

And as the Nigerian daughter of a black American woman, maybe I wasn't privy to what our Nigerian family friends said behind closed doors about black people because they knew my mother was black. And maybe no one in my circles really meditated about the state of black Americans and that's why I didn't hear it.

So I cannot really confirm or deny the tension. But as a very black Nigerian American woman, I can say the following things with certainty:

--Africans are not better than black Americans by any measure, any more than any group of people is better than another.
--As black Americans, we must understand that the context in which race exists in our country does not exist in the same way outside of this country and in many places does not exist at all. Neither does our consciousness about it.
--As African immigrants and second generationers, we must make an effort to understand the history of institutionalized slavery and racism and the resultant Civil Rights Movement that is responsible for allowing us or our parents to immigrate into this country in the first place.
--All of us need to make an effort to know each other before dismissing each other on the basis of long-held reputation or rumor.

When I was little, my mother used to remark that Africans, particularly our Nigerian friends, could move into all-white neighborhoods and not blink. And often, their children would fare just fine as the only black children in the schools. Not so for this second generationer who's looking at the prospect of moving into the mainly-white suburb that my SO lives in. What changed with one generation? Race consciousness.

Being aware of my blackness, or what I think it means to be black in America, makes me fear that I'll encounter people who feel I don't belong in their suburb. It'll make me feel out of place. The majority of immigrants do not carry race and racial oppression on their bodies like many Americans do. My father would have felt comfortable in my SO's suburb and probably would have liked the weather better than the first place he lived when he came to this country, the upper peninsula of Michigan.

I didn't hear my father speaking the language of race consciousness until a friend of his, also Nigerian, experienced racism in the workplace. It was as if it became real for my father at that moment. Because the whole, "You're not like other black people," or, "I don't consider you really black" thing that a lot of us first- and second-generationers get isn't full-proof and it's far from universal.

We black people are not imaging things. Racism is real. It's a real force that is external and very much internal. It incorporates itself often in the nay-saying voice that all people have that we are variably able to silence. We have to fight off that negative self-talk that convinces us that our shortcomings are racially based and that we are inferior, somehow, because it's been said and implied so long.

Yes, internal. We internalize it because we consume it. It is spoon fed to us as children as soon as we learn we used to be slaves, that we used to be absolutely unequal, that we used to have separate everything, like we were dirty, like the brown of our skin was tainted and would rub off on others.
Nigerian children, for example, do not learn this about themselves.

Even when we are taught that it was wrong, of course, (though that was not necessarily implicit in the teachings I got about slavery, even in the North), it makes us fearful. Do racists still exist?

We internalize it when we, black kids in a poor school district, have test grades that are compared to the richer, whiter school districts. We internalize it when our test scores are lower than our white friends at the same class level. Was some of that true?

As a Nigerian American black girl, I was not immune to this internalization. My father had no context for it and always harkened back to his, "Do the other students have two heads?" to motivate me. I pushed through intense feelings of inadequacy.

My father's experience as one of the only black people in his science classes at the University of Michigan was, therefore, very different than my experience as one of the only black people in my science classes at the University of Michigan.

Internalized racism is the most damning form of racism there is. It makes us hyper aware of our racial difference and makes us move differently in space, to only our own detriment. It made my teenaged friend believe that Africans think they're better than us. And how did that make him feel? Alienated from a group of people who looked like him but where just another group in the list that thought they were better than him, and maybe actually were.

Whereas...I've never encountered an African immigrant who asked me if black people consider them stuck-up, ignorant and other.

Internalized racism makes us wonder if that neighbor in the all-white suburb glancing at us is racist and if they're wondering how a black woman could afford to live in this neighborhood, whereas someone else may not even notice the glance.

Internalized racism makes us wonder if the boss has been waiting for you to screw up because he was convinced that you didn't belong in the company as a black person and expected you to fail, whereas someone else may not have that tension.

Internalized racism puts us constantly in the defensive because so many people could potentially be against us at any time because of our culture and heritage and we have to be prepared, whereas that is not a reality for so many other people.

Internalized racism is confused to be race consciousness in so many of us.

Let me not run to the subway, because people get scared when they see a black man running toward them.

In summary, ruminations on what African immigrants think of us, black people, comes from a place of internalized racism, because as my father says, "Is that what you're going to eat?" No, it's not. If they do think they're better than us, screw them! Seriously.

Easier said than done, right? It hurts for someone who looks like you, who may share ancestry with you, to also be down on you like everyone else is. So first- and second-generationers, recognize that and respect it.

And African immigrants and second-gens, institutionalized racism was no joke! We will at some point feel the effects of it while in this country. It will be very hard for you to protect your children from it. So recognize and befriend your black neighbor who has come up with ways to teach his child to respond to it, recognize it in themselves and repel it.

Monday, April 7, 2014

We Are Fantastic!

As salaam alaikum,

I was single until I was 27. Scratch that, I was woefully single until I was 27. I am 29 and still unmarried. In the age of more equality for women than in recent past, higher percentages women in colleges and universities than men and entering the era of embracing or rejecting leaning in, people have given me reasons why we're still single since before I should have been worried about it.

Those of us who are in this class, those of us who are or have been woefully single, know these "rationale" well. We know it so well and it's so tired that I'm not going to recant it here! Suffice it to say, it is largely untrue.

Whether it's a small pool of black men who will accept a woman who has more degrees or more earning potential, whether it's a small pool of Muslim men who will accept such a woman, whether it's a small pool of men, regardless of religion, who won't push sex...there are diverse factors at play as to why so many of us have been so woefully single.

But we should never think that it's because we are impossible. That it's impossible for us to be desired by a man, impossible for us to be loved, impossible or just too damn hard, because that is also not true.

We, my sisters, are fantastic!

Every long-single woman I know, whether she is woeful or not, is a fantastic, multifaceted woman who is not in any way impossible.

Granted, being in an actual relationship after being long-single is a steep learning curve. We are fantastic but we're far from perfect and after living comfortably in your own clutter, so to speak, someone else being present and moving through that clutter puts your shortcomings on blast!

After being long-single, being in a relationship with another person will present a steep learning curve, but it's not impossible. And it may be hard to break through the walls we've built for so many years to protect ourselves from loving too easily and getting too hurt. And things that may be self-evident for someone who has had more relationships than we have we have to experience for the first time. In some unanticipated ways, we are grown women like young girls in ways our partners do not expect.

And the rest is starting from zero and recognizing that letting someone, anyone into your life like this, this close, this intimate, is hard simply because that person is outside of your body and not you.

Not impossible.

And it's not our faces, the amount we cover or do not cover, our size, our shape. When it comes to the physical strictly, there is literally someone for everyone. When I was woefully single, I used to want someone who loved me but never did I imagine someone looking lovingly upon me when I couldn't look that lovingly on myself. Who would have though that I would still be gorgeous even when gaining weight and my face starts to take on that rounded oval shape?

We are fantastic! And there are tons of things that we don't have to have all figured out before entering these relationships. We don't have to love ourselves fully, we don't have to have lived out our every ambition, traveled to all of the places we wanted to go, be fully realized women. It would be nice, but we're not perfect, and we're still going to frown at our thighs in the mirror sometimes, and engage in negative self talk every now and again about the stupid mistake we made at work, stupid me. We won't have learned that third language, we won't have filled up our passport, because it's okay to still be a work in progress.

Because we won't change but the context of ourselves and aspirations change when we make space in our life for another. And it's okay to grow from that point, too.

We are not impossible, we are fantastic.

I know because at 27 I met someone with whom I could just be exactly the Muslim woman I am, exactly the physician that I am, exactly the black woman I am and everything in between that I haven't had the chance to be with anyone else. And I thought there was something wrong with me, intermittently, in the years before when I wasn't considered past my face, by body, my cover or lack of cover, and my potential in short-term sexual encounters. And loving me is easy to him. And loving him is easy.

And before I met him, I knew I was fantastic.

I just also thought I was impossible.

But none of us, sisters, are impossible.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Nigerian Parent Invencible


Today, I was reading the wikipedia entry for Chiwetel Ejiofor (an actor I've admired since Dirty Pretty Things) and read about the tragic death of his father in a car accident in Nigeria, while he survived, and my heart sank.

It was the same way I was saddened to hear about a Nigerian woman, single mother in Michigan who was hit by a car as she crossed the street on her way to work and was killed.

If I ever have puff puff again, I'll probably cry over it as I remember how my mother, father and brother ate puff puff prepared by her at the last Nigerian wedding they attended.

I realize I'm really shaken by these deaths more than baseline because they bring my father's mortality into focus. My father is such a strong personality and a strong force in my life, I cannot imagine him suddenly and violently leaving, as in the likes of a car accident. In fact, God forbid! I pray when I do lose my father, it's not in such a way.

You cannot prepare for life and you can't for death but I'm just coming to terms with my grandparents dying. Sometimes I call my parents to make sure they're okay. I'm not ready for them to leave, but who ever is?

I've known a lot of Nigerians in my father, aunties and uncles in that way that unrelated adults are aunties and uncles, and I see them as invincible, illogically so. I don't know if it's the inherent faith and God-fearing nature of so many of them, their ubiquity in my life for so long with little tragedy. It seems like they'd be here forever until they age and move on of natural causes.

There's something so alive, so vital about my father's presence in my life. Something about him that made me more apt to assume he was perfect for so long, even when I knew he was wrong. He's so steadfast in his faith and in his work as I suppose are many a first generation immigrant, like the auntie who made puff puff at the wedding, as I imagine Ejiofor's father may have been, a physician killed as he drove from a wedding in Nigeria.

And my heart sinks because they're not invincible, and I've always known it, but he feels so alive to me even when he's no where near me because of that presence his persona creates, and I'm not ready for it to be violently stripped from this realm. Not yet.

My father has commuted every day, one hour to work and one hour home, since the day after I was born, for 29 years now. I pray for his safe journey to work and safe return home, every day, for the rest of his life.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Other Side of the Storm


I'm waking up on the other side of the storm. I just completed 5 weeks of inpatient medicine where I was a senior on service. It was great - I learned a ton, I taught a ton, and I have so much more to learn. I passed Step 3, I'm completely done with the USMLE and I'm one step closer to being a sho' nuff doctor. I'm coasting through the rest of second year with all outpatient rotations after being fairly front-loaded.

And my life around me is a bit of a mess.

I'm sure I have some rotting food in my fridge that I'll soon be obligated to touch to throw out, my bathroom is the nastiest I've ever let a bathroom get (I have a low tolerance for bathroom mess), I have one load of laundry left to do, a bunch of clean laundry to hang and a whole new bunch of laundry piling up in my hamper. I have weeks of eating hospital food catching up with me and I'm off my wellness game. I have evaluations to complete, procedures to log, continuities to track, all sorts of things. I basically have my work cut out for me right now.

But...I'm going to take it one step at a time. Tonight, laundry will go unwashed, the tub will keep it's ring, the rotting food that is now frozen in time in my freezer will freeze another day. After clinic, I will go to the gym, I will come back and do a hot oil treatment, shower and shampoo, and then chill the rest of the evening.

Early spring cleaning? I'll save that for Friday after the gym.

I admittedly let myself go during this last block in favor of being a present, active, senior. I had a bunch of awesome interns that made my job easy. And I think I did the right thing. In order to be as fully committed to service as possible as a resident, you have to siphon some energy from other parts of your life sometimes. The part that I didn't want to sacrifice were relationships. So I kept relationships up and running, maintained the bare minimum personal hygiene, and pushed forward on service.

Last night leaving was relatively cathartic. But residency goes on.

Now what? I have a full day of clinic, then I begin our behavioral health block. I look forward to hanging out with my second year class and sorting out the untidiness in my life and faith right now.

On a slightly unrelated note, I only have nightmares when I sleep on my back. Last night, I had a disturbing dream that the world around me was being destroyed by huge bombs. Already, several people had died and the world was left in a state of anarchy and uncertainty. I was back at home, and it was only my mother and I at home at the time. I don't know where my father and brother were. I was sitting at the table, eating a breakfast of mixed fruit (which was dream fruit so it didn't look like real fruit) that I think was good. My mother and I were having a good morning, shrouded in the fact that we were living each moment like we could get killed the next. It was so scary, but I was a full physician at this time and I had to drive out to work. The problem was, I didn't know which route to take. There was a freeway exchange in my dreams (way back...I'm reaching back, now, because I hadn't had a dream about that exit in a while) that I usually avoided taking when leaving Ann Arbor but that I'd have to take because my other route had recently been destroyed.

And although we knew that we could get killed at any moment, our moments were filled with constant prayer and we had faith in God that we would be seen through. And with all of this on my mind, I ate the fruit plate before me and chatted with my mother about the state of the world as the sun shone more brightly than it usually does in Michigan and as the deceptively tranquil day was before us with blue skies.

I woke up, fearing for my life, sleeping on my back with my head to the side, looking at my open closet. Not sure why I only have nightmares when sleeping on my back.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Ideal


The other day, I was sitting with my SO and we were reflecting on our relationship (1.5 years now), and I can't remember how it came up, but I think I mentioned that I'd grown since the time I'd known him, and that I'm still growing, and I realize the things that I used to want in a relationship I don't actually want and things that I didn't think I wanted I really appreciate having.

He asked me who my ideal SO would be.

And I couldn't answer him. I know he's conscious of the differences in our spirituality and probably wonders if one day I'll wake up and decide I'd rather be with a more-practicing man and leave him on his way, especially when I get to talking about religion (even if I'm bemoaning certain elements). I feel like the answer I gave him would have only upset him.

Because, really, I've never thought long enough to formulate an ideal. My ideal man was always someone who would fit well with me. Someone who would make sense in my life, my practice, with my belief, and that was it. It takes actually being in a relationship to realize how selfish that view is and realize that it's never that simple with another, complex, whole human being at your side that you're relating to.

And just because I've waited and was prayerful and feel like I'm a really good person, doesn't mean I'm going to be the perfect SO. In fact, I spent so many years by myself, I still find myself being self-centered and forcing myself to put myself aside for a little bit to really hear my SO's point of view, his hangups, his problems.

Not that I'm usually a selfish person. Of course I know how to be a good friend and I do this for friends all the time. It's just...I guess I always imagined a relationship while being alone and relatively self-sufficient, so spending time with someone in the flesh who is filling that role after imagining it alone for a while makes it hard to get outside of myself and those imaginings and relate to the person on the other side of the dream.

So I feel like whatever I imagined as the ideal man or the ideal relationship before was fairly one-sided, as if there were a human man out there whose sole purpose in life was to be my eventual husband or something. And of course I never expected someone to be like that, but when one creates an imaginary man in their brains, he doesn't tend to have aspirations unique to your own.

What would be a better soul mate then one who also believed in care for the underserved, here and abroad? Maybe...

The fact is, the possible "ideal" combinations with me as a person are endless, but they are, regardless, combinations that I do not find often in nature. And implicit in my SO's question is his wondering if I'm settling or not, if I can do better or not.

And I guess I could imagine a lot of different types of men. Of late, I think it would be cool to travel to Brazil, specifically to Salvador, and meet some guy at the faculdade who was really into Nigeria, specifically Igbo culture, and therefore be fascinated with me, my family's history, my religion, and things go from there...

But I don't think about those things anymore. I don't construct ideals anymore because I have something real that is good, that works, that is better than I could have imagined in the package that it came in. I have before me a real man who has lived 6 years before me, has lived 33 years independent of me, has dreams and goals that do not involve me, and yet is now intimately interwoven in my life and it just seems silly to prefer to be with an imaginary man of my own making.

Whether or not I could "do better" is I guess up for debate, but I don't think I can fabricate an ideal. Not right now, not while things are so real.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Depression is...

As salaam alaikum,

I cannot survive without writing. Writing has become such a big part of my life, that even though I'm going to have to get up in less than 7 hours to finish clinic notes from today, darnit, I'm going to write! If I don't write before I go to sleep tonight, I'm going to explode!

And sometimes, that's what self-care during residency means. Exchanging sleep for doing something that will make your soul make sense.

Speaking of one's soul making sense...I, just a few seconds ago, over the course of several hours, whipped myself into a frenzy of sorts. I've done a lot of reflection about my place in religion, my place in Islam, my place with God, all of these things. This, in addition to facing a patient today who recently had suicidal ideation and a plan, got me feeling pretty depressed.

Soon, everything around me was depressing.

The fact that I had a patient who was 25 and a parent already while I'm 29 and single was depressing.

The fact that my best friend from med school is pregnant with her first child and I'm 29 and single, perhaps indefinitely, was depressing.

The fact that my younger cousin is enjoying the first few weeks of motherhood whereas I remember her being the age of her daughter and I feel no closer to motherhood than I was when I was her age was depressing.

The fact that over half of my friends from medical school are married and have already had their first child and I may never get married and or by the time I do I may be infertile was depressing.

The fact that I am overweight and currently hairy was depressing. No one would ever want me, and my SO would realize that and leave me, and that was also depressing.

Then I talked to my SO about God, a topic he shies away from with me because I usually have heavy thoughts. I talked to him with how my patient rationalized her severe reaction to the death in her family with God's plan and about how I realized that I've never been comfortable with God's plan. Not God's plan itself but the term, the simplified concept. I realized that it's always depressed me when it's suppose to be a source of comfort. He was not ready for this conversation at nearly 10pm at night, so I hung up the phone and brooded on my own.

And then I had an epiphany that brought me up from the depths of my self-constructed depressive episode.

For me, depression is believing that God has no plan for you, or that God's plan is for you to fail. In Qur'anic terms, that you are one of the ones who God is hardening your heart to prepare you for hellfire, and there is nothing you can do about it, because it's God's will.

This was the source of my depression when I was a teenager, and I hadn't felt that way in a long time. I don't believe it now, but I got a whiff of it as I found myself sinking deeper into my self-made funk.

That is the root of depression for me. Those times when I feel so remote from God that I begin to doubt the purpose of my existence...those are hard times.

And that is how my patient felt when she wanted to shoot herself.

And that is how I felt as an adolescent.

And that's how I would continue to feel if I didn't take a break from sleeping this evening and keep vigil by my laptop and write things out.

Depression for me is doubt in my purposeful existence. My only remedy, then, is belief.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Business of Being Born


I'm following along with my cousin's induction at a distance. She was excited to go into the hospital yesterday, but I knew all too well what a nightmare inductions from 0 dilation can be. I've been following along, step by step, and now, more than 24 hours into her induction, she is finally getting into a more active labor pattern (wouldn't call her being in active labor yet!).

When she and her mother began to get discouraged when she was 1cm after 12 hours of misoprostol, I assured her that I had managed some women who were inducing over the course of 4 days (I didn't include that some of these women were so tired by the end that they opted for c-section).

To which her mother, my cousin, said, "They were in labor for 4 days?"

To which I answered, "Yes and no." Putting misoprostol in the cervix is not the start of labor. The start of labor is regular, painful contractions and cervical change. So some of those women were not even in latent labor for more than 24 hours after the first cervical maturing agents were given.

My poor cousin, who did a lot of talk on Facebook and elsewhere about her moment, how no one was going to ruin it or force her to take medications...asked for an epidural after the first hour of contractions at 2cm dilated.

Can't say I didn't see that coming...but anyway.

When my time comes in the next 5 years insha'Allah, I will not turn my nose up at an epidural, I'll say that right now! It'll be nice to try natural, but I'm for safe delivery of babies first, and I'm not sure I'd tolerate a foley balloon, either.

Anyway, all of this bustle around the third great-great-grandbaby of my grandparents (my cousin's first granddaughter, my newest first cousin twice removed, hehe) has gotten me excited about my own childbearing prospects.

So I'm just going to say it, categorically, once and for all.

I love babies. I love babies, always have, always have wanted more than I'll perhaps be able to handle, and always looked forward to the day of being a mommy. And ever since the first time that I witnessed childbirth, I've wanted to experience that as well. Yes, the moment that make most women cringe as they watch the head pop out of the introitus, sometimes destroying the perineum in its wake and gushing forth with blood and poop made me say...I want to do that!

I'm continuously bitten by the bug of seeing women around me pregnant and birthing babies. From one of my attendings, one of the former residents of my program, who had glamor shots after she had a successful vaginal delivery of her 6 pound beauty, to my co-resident who recently went to c-section to deliver her surprisingly plump 12-pounder. From the plans of one of my attendings to conceive in the next year to the current 21 week pregnancy of one of my classmate's wives. Not to mention the oodles and oodles of babies my med school classmates have been having.

I can wait my turn!

That is not a typo, haha. I certainly can wait my turn, but it doesn't make me any less excited! I don't feel any less privileged to take part in the birthing process for all of the families that I've delivered, even as that number builds up. Every time I get to deliver a baby is still exciting, though in different ways than it was initially as I build up experience. But I've seen enough people on the other side of things to know that starting a family is no joke in a way I cannot appreciate until I'm there.

So I'll just keep training for now, work on getting married first, and then will make an actual five-year plan...

In the meantime, my cousin just dilated to 5. I have to go to work in an hour in which I will be managing our maternal child service in the afternoon. So I'll be surrounded by all things baby soon enough. For now, this morning, I have to focus on my medicine patients.

But, rest assured, I've been excited about having my own children for years now. I think about having my own children seriously every day, from what they'll look like (with my current SO as the combination) to what I'll name...the girls. Boys names are tough for me.

And having experienced, through friends and patients, the joys and traumas of the conception process, from miscarriages in the second trimester, fetal demises in the third trimester, preterm deliveries, complications, and infertility...I'm ready for parenthood in any form, whether they are my own children or whether I am adopting. Insha'Allah, I'm ready... wait!