Origins and Assumptions
by Omkari Williams
It’s an odd thing, being black in a world that mostly sees all black people as the same. In my entire life I don’t recall ever being asked where my family was from. The assumption was that the origins of my story were clear.
In fact, my family came from the Caribbean to New York City in the twentieth century. My grandparents, who all settled in Manhattan, were looking for the same opportunities that brought people here from Ireland, Poland, Italy, and all the other places that have contributed to the melting pot that is America. They came to this country for a better life for themselves and their children. What they also came with was a different sense of who they were in the world because they didn’t come with the relatively recent history of slavery that plagues race relations in the United States to this day.
My paternal grandfather was an engineer in his native Jamaica, my grandmother a schoolteacher. They came to the United States with assumptions that allowed them to envision a larger future for their children than was the norm for African Americans of their generation. My dad and my uncle both attended an Ivy League college. One of my aunts eventually became a doctor, even though that required that she go to Germany (where she did not speak the language) for her medical degree. In 1950s America black women were regularly excluded from med school. My dad would later go on to work for two US presidents.
My maternal grandparents came here from Trinidad. My mother and her sister were sent back to Trinidad to live during the Depression and returned to the U.S. when they finished high school. They were expected to go to college and they did. My mother went on to become the first black, female executive at AT&T.
My parents’ achievements are remarkable, and all the more so because they are black. But I believe that while they were disadvantaged by being black, they were in a better position than most African Americans because they didn’t also have the burden of the emotional history of slavery behind them. The same is true for me. It is hard being black; I believe it is often harder being African American.
Growing up in the North, and without a family experience of slavery as the backdrop for generations, meant that, as a child, I didn’t see my opportunities as possibly being limited by my race. I assumed I would go to college as my parents did, without undue struggle. As a child it never occurred to me that I would be treated differently than my white classmates. As I grew older, though, I began to see that my experience was, in reality, vastly different than the experience and expectations of many of my African American classmates, the majority of whom were less financially comfortable and stable than I was. Most of the other black children I went to school with had parents or grandparents who had moved north from states where Jim Crow laws had often limited the quality of their education and, as a consequence, their employment and economic opportunities. Not that the South was unique in this racial discrimination; my educated grandparents couldn’t find jobs in their fields in New York. My grandmothers worked as domestics, while one grandfather was a building superintendent and the other worked in the garment industry.
I, in contrast, grew up in a somewhat rarified environment, unencumbered by the historical, institutional, and individual efforts to keep blacks “in their place” that was the experience of most African Americans. As a consequence it wasn’t until I was out in the world as a young adult that I really began to feel the impact of the distinction between being black and being African American. Being black is a racial distinction, being African American is an experience, and being black but not African American is a different experience. If you are black in America most people assume that you are African American; to me that’s as odd as assuming that every white person I encounter is of English origin.
I vividly remember the experiences I’ve had of being discriminated against because of my skin color. Some are so bizarre as to almost be funny, like the time in my early twenties when I was sitting in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan. I was waiting to meet a friend for lunch. He was in town working on a film and the pouring rain had cancelled their planned shoot for the day. He gave me a call and I headed to the hotel wearing jeans, rain boots, and a yellow slicker. As I sat in the lobby I noticed the security guard eyeing me; after about five minutes he came over and asked what I was doing. I replied that I was waiting for a friend. He then began to question me a bit more aggressively. It took a few moments for me to realize what was going on, then I said, “Oh my God, you think I’m a hooker?! Are you kidding? Look at me! Dressed like this? I’d starve.” At which point he started to laugh. But really, it wasn’t funny. When I related this story to an African American friend of mine she asked, “Weren’t you uncomfortable, sitting in the Waldorf?” The thing was, even though it is a very fancy, very expensive hotel, I wasn’t. Nothing in my history had told me that I was worth less because of the color of my skin. I wasn’t carrying that burden of slavery and oppression.
When I thought more about that encounter I noticed something else. I had a different expectation than did my friend. She immediately wondered if I was inherently uncomfortable sitting in the lobby of the very fancy, way out of my budget for even tea, Waldorf Hotel. That the possibility of being uncomfortable there had never entered my mind was another thing that I think often separates black people who are African American from those whose origins are from elsewhere. To me the Waldorf was just the place I was meeting my friend, while to many African Americans it was the sort of place that actively kept people who looked like us out.
Let me be clear: If you are black in America, discrimination is a normal experience. No one encountering me on the street knows or cares about my background. They see a black face and that is what they respond to. That said, my internal experience is different from that of many of my African American friends. I never thought about whether I would feel uncomfortable in the lobby of a fancy hotel or an upscale store. It wasn’t that I felt entitled to go to those places, it was that I never thought about it at all. I went where I wanted to go with no worry that there would be a problem.
For me, the trickiest part of being black but not African American is that there is a way in which I live in a no-man’s-land. I was born and raised here, so this is home, but I don’t have the historical experience which my skin color leads people to believe is mine. I’ve been looked at with confusion, and sometimes suspicion, by other people both white and black, when they realize that they have no easy way of categorizing me. I have no easy way of categorizing myself or my own experience. That natural, human pull toward finding and identifying with one’s tribe simplifies life in some ways and makes us vulnerable to the limiting aspects of “group think” in others. I remember wishing, as a child, that I was more like some of my classmates who shared a cultural history, a history that almost felt like a foreign language, not of words but of experience. I felt that I was missing an important piece of information, a piece that once understood would allow me to feel at home, rather than the disconcerting feeling of being an observer rather than a participant in important aspects of my life.
I believe there is a freedom that comes with having forebearers who came from places where they were in the majority, where they were educated as a matter of course, and where their voices were not only heard, but also were the dominant ones in their societies. My grandparents did not grow up in places where they were “other” and I believe that makes a tremendous difference. I think being black but not African American is akin to being like any other group of immigrants to this country. My grandparents chose to come here and had high hopes and dreams of a better life than the lives they left behind. They weren’t kidnapped, shackled, and enslaved. They came with optimism and a sense of possibility, not with the feelings of fear, insecurity, and anger that come with the legacy of slavery. Our human experiences, whatever they may be, are passed down from one generation to the next and those experiences mold how future generations engage with the society in which they find themselves.
To this day I sometimes find that engagement tricky. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told “you don’t sound black” by people who thought they were paying me a compliment. How does one engage in a society where sounding like a race of people is viewed as a bad thing? How does one engage in a society where people think you can sound like a race?
One of the most challenging things about growing up black but not African American was the expectation that I shared the African American experience. I didn’t. I couldn’t. I shared the sadness, the frustration, and the righteous indignation, but I couldn’t lay claim to an experience that wasn’t mine. I share the black experience but there is always a way in which I feel as though a chapter was left out of the book that is my story. As a consequence I needed, much as any non–African American might, to listen to the stories my African American friends and their parents and grandparents told, as they needed to listen to mine. Listening to their stories gave a broader context to my experience; I hope the stories I shared did the same for them.
As I watch the spectacle of this presidential election season unfold I am struck by how many of our social problems stem from an unwillingness to engage with people as individuals. It is certainly easier to lump people together into broad demographic groups, but once we do we lose the distinctions, points of connection, and subtleties that have created our country. When we look at people and make sweeping generalizations we close off access to the true and complex stories that they, and we, have to share.
Growing up black made me sensitive to the ways in which we describe ourselves. It made me sensitive to the ways in which we can be unkind to those we experience as “other.” It made me sensitive to stories that, while not my own, deeply impact my life in America. Mostly what growing up black but not African American has done is make me avoid labels whenever possible, and when that’s not possible, it’s pushed me to look past the label to the individual beyond.
Omkari Williams began her professional life as an actress, a career she pursued for years and loved, until she didn’t.
She fell into her next career as a political consultant when a friend asked her to help someone she knew who was running for office. From there she worked for candidates for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. In that job she used the skills she had honed as an actress to help professional politicians polish and refine their presentations so that they could better connect with their constituents.
That led to a stint teaching many of the same skills to Fortune 500 executives as they sought to improve their abilities to speak in public, and address both shareholders and their peers.
When the siren call of returning to her creative roots came she put everything she had done together and became a certified creativity coach. She then began working with people in differing creative disciplines and those wanting to live their daily lives more creatively.
Now a resident of Savannah she coaches and leads retreats on living a creatively inspired life. To find out more about Omkari and the work she does visit: www.LiveInspiredUnlimited.com