Every Black person remembers the first moment they realized they were black. For me, I can recall a handful of times that my blackness became glaringly apparent to me.
I remember playing with my blonde, blue-eyed friend and her asking me why my hair was "so weird and curly". I remember trying out for the track team and a fellow student assured me I would get chosen because "black people are always the fastest". I remember the curiosity and confusion from friends when they asked me if I could burn from the sun. I remember the tears running down my cheeks as I stood in the makeup aisle, unable to find my shade of foundation.
Though I grew up in a diverse town, I found myself slowly moving into the position of Black Ambassador, explaining my blackness to my lighter friends; filling them in on all the "not-so-secretive secrets of blackness", debunking myths of black people, and shining a light ontheir black biases.
My role as Black Ambassador only grew when I began traveling abroad. I had been fortunate enough to study and live in some beautiful places, all in which I encountered people who were curious about my background and "my roots". But I found that while exploring these foreign corners, I was no longer simply a Black Ambassador, but an African-American Ambassador.
This realization came at the end of a conversation I had experienced about 15 times before while I had been in a foreign country, where each conversation leftme confused, annoyed, but more and more educated on how tobestdefine myself.
The conversation often follows this outline:
Them: "So where are you from?"
Them: "Oh, but where are you originally from?"
Me: "Well...I was born in Boston"
Them: "No, but where do your parents come from?"
Me: "New Jersey?"
This goes on and on until I realize they are expecting me to say that I come from somewhere Africa- adjacent. They wouldn't settle with the answer that I'm American; it frankly wasn't enough of a descriptor, and to them, inaccurate given my darker complexion.
I would soon fall into an expansive re-telling of American history and how/why identifying as African-American is not only accurate but significant, given the political climate as of late. I would explain how labeling myself as African would discount my upbringing and color over the rich, rigid complexities of growing up black in America.
African-American is an anomaly to some, as many feel my melinated skin is the sole determinant of where I come from. And though my ancestors did, in fact, descend from an abundant African nation, I cannot claim it as my home.
I knew I was black, but it wasn't until I went outside my home country that I realized I was African-American. I learned that this is fundamentally different from being black, both in how others perceive you and how others react to you, especially in international settings. Some days you get a pass for being a native English speaker with a shiny “American accent”, and other days your country’s politics are thrown around a dinner table, with only you to defend, rebuke, and attempt to explain how it’s gotten to this unnerving state.
Being American has its own connotations abroad, ranging from positive to antagonistic, but those nuances and prejudices are mine to navigate and with luck, repudiate. I claim this as my responsibility and privilege as an African-American outside the US of A.
Now, I have landed in Denmark, where I came for school and the love of a very tall, milky-skinned Dane. Every day, either with my Danish beau or without, I find myself on display as a black person in a predominately white country. And as a highly perceptive person, it's impossible for me to not recognize the looks from others passing me on the streets or notice the undertone of questions about where I was raised.
It's insanely uncomfortable, yes. It's a direct challenge to my confidenceand morale, yes. But what I've found, is it's also an amazing opportunity; an opportunity, to every day, step out as myself –proudly, triumphantly, and without cowering into full assimilation. It's an opportunity to – day in and day out – inform, educate, and enlighten others on what it is to be an African-American woman.
It took a year, but I have claimed my position as African-American Ambassador in this Scandinavian setting, and it's a role that I'm proud of, and do not take lightly.
Candace Stephens is an expat and graduate student in Denmark, focused on unearthing the intricacies of culture and it's relationship to all facets of life. When she isn't writing academic papers on Intercultural Film and Organizational Psychology, she is plopped on the couch watching the latest movie blockbuster. She is also a baby-vlogger, sharing her day-to-day experiences and rants with her friends all around the world (What's New, CandeeLouWho?).