How it feels to be purple

“Hey white boy! What are you doing?”  I started.  This call had just come into my direction.

My family and I were on vacation.  We had decided to visit our second home country once again after the long absence of nine years.  Ever since we had moved to Germany I had experienced my English fade a little every year and the memory of Ghana vanish slowly.  So, here I was again, in Accra, the capital, sauntering about Labadi Pleasure Beach with my father and then this surprise.

I turned around.  The man the voice belonged to came running towards me.  I wondered what he would have to tell me just having called me white boy.  I thought of Germany were I was clearly considered a black person as my skin was somewhere in between my dad’s and my mom’s complexion.  Here I had been baffled by the contrast, as the people seemed to see me as a light skinned tourist.

Finally the man arrived in front of me.  To my surprise he knew where I was from and started to speak some words in German, as well.  He turned out to have lived in Germany as well and it was fun listening to him telling stories after all.  I was left in a quandary, however, and I kept asking myself this one question again and again.  “Who am I?”

I had gotten into some arguments with my father every now and then.  He would start telling me that I had to work harder, be stronger, and be more resilient; the reason he said was that I am not white.  “What am I then,” my thoughts would be, “blue, purple?  Just because dark skin colour is genetically dominant this makes me a second-class person?  I am a human being not more nor less and I can’t stand the idea of being labelled something just because my colour doesn’t fit in.  What about biology?  Am I not supposed to carry 50% of my mother in me as well?  Now, what do you say, I am as much black as I am white and no one can dispute that.  And why should my colour prove anything about my potential whatsoever?”

Of course my difference had always had some negative effects.  It had always been a challenge to prove that I was just as motivated and adept as the others of my age.  The worst feeling though, was when along with the gazes I would immediately be branded with the label “less intelligent”.  At my school of about 400 students I was the only really different person, one of my classmates who’s father comes from Ecuador easily managed to avert the problem by changing his entire name into German.  In my opinion it changed nothing.  Unfortunately, judging appears to be based on looks rather than names.

Three years after that visit to Ghana I decided to go on an exchange to the United States.  Part of the reason was to find something I could call an identity I would be comfortable with.  I finally wanted to get away from that wish of being just like the others.  There, in multi-cultural America everything would be different, they had gone through this special history.  I must admit that I was more than just a little ignorant.

Again I was different, again on my own, this time in the middle.  Somehow, my black friends in high school didn’t really socialise a lot with my white friends, it was the same the other way round.  And somehow it was special that a black person took challenging classes.  So there it was again.

Yes, I had black and white friends, yet there still was this sense of “difference”.  It was very similar at home with the host family.  We had problems in the fourth month of my stay; we somehow couldn’t quite agree upon whether I was black, brown, or white and with whom I was to socialise.  It was no problem at all for me to have friends that were black or white and I loved to spend my time with Shizuka from Japan, or Annie from Quebec, or all the others from all over the world.

So after my first host mother and I had both agreed that our views were too different, I had to leave to start the same thing over again.  New family, you are still hurt from leaving, and then you are expected to play the same game again.  And then there are still other hurdles to master.  This for me meant finding out that I knew nothing about high school and American life.  There were even more problems, major and minor, but all of them had to be solved, and it was a great feeling, after achieving every one of them, to be able to know that I had accomplished something.  And then there was this special feeling, this certainty and knowledge that every grade I got was justified, that, although the way I was seen by others hadn’t changed too much, I finally got an equal chance to show potential.  I observed that life was different there indeed and it all was the beginning of a journey of learning that I don’t think has yet ended.

In this time I think I can say that I ripened.  This year showed my weaknesses to me, made me change my mind on certain topics, and foremost made me relinquish my attitude regarding stereotypes.  It isn’t about being the victim of racism, it is about proving them wrong, showing that indeed a so-called biracial person can very well succeed in life.

I had come to the US as a troubled exchange student, and I left as a slightly less ignorant individual.  It was not a German who made that journey, not a black nor a white boy, it was just me.  And I want to continue it, and where else could I better do so than in the diverse country that I started it.  I want to grow more mature, I want to learn more about this world’s different people, and I want to take responsibility for my weaknesses, my achievements, myself.

No one should be able to blame the fact that I am black for any failures, nor the fact that I am white.

Kofi Quakyi works in the field of NGOs in Berlin, Germany. This article is a part of a University application letter, which he wrote in 2000.

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