Finding my Identity in America

Growing up in Ghana, I have always identified myself only as a Ghanaian, without any added adjectives. I was surrounded by people who looked just like me. Occasionally, I will see white visitors but only thought of them as either Americans or Europeans and nothing more. I don’t think I had the privilege of ever thinking of them as white people, I don’t recall a moment like that.
The most distinguishing attribute for individuals I met were more along ethnic lines. I belong to the Fante tribe and therefore speak the Fante language. Other people who lived in the country’s capital like me, belonged to different tribes like Ga, Ewe, Ashanti and the likes. Depending on how they pronounced certain English words, one could easily tell which tribe one belonged to. Having grown up around only black people, I have never really had to identify myself as a black woman.
But that reality changed for me when I got into the United States in 2012. Everyone who looked at me, reminded me that I was different, no one even had to speak, the stares and glances, spoke volumes. Unfortunately or fortunately for me, I came straight to Blacksburg as my final destination. I was in a predominantly white environment with a black skin and a different accent (which is actually a topic for another day). I found it odd that I was no longer a Fante from Ghana, or even a Ghanaian from Africa, but a black person, sometimes, I was referred to as an African.
I felt myself consistently obliged to introduce myself to everyone as a Ghanaian but somehow, those words fell on deaf ears or were simply swept under the carpet. I was constantly referred to as ‘the black friend’ from Africa by my colleagues who thought I was out of earshot. Even to my face, colleagues felt it necessary to introduce me as Iris from Africa, never Ghana. I remember getting very angry by this most of the time and asking why I just couldn’t be Iris because I referred to them only with their names and never with the American tag.
But I learned quickly that these colleagues of mine felt the need to qualify me as African because of my skin tone, not even because of my accent. I am sure it was not because of my accent because in that same year when I got to Blacksburg, there was another student who came from France that had an even more pronounced accent than mine. She was never introduced as Jeannie from France, just Jeannie. I reckoned that indeed she needed no other tag or qualification, because of her skin color.
Unconsciously, I began to refer to and see myself more as a black woman from Africa, than simply Iris from Ghana. These days, I think of myself as a black educated woman. I am looking forward to how I will identify myself after I have moved back to Ghana and I am surrounded again by people whose skin color is identical to mine…