The Identity Crisis of Growing Up African in Australia
“Am I Australian, Sierra Leonean, African or am I Just me?”
It’s a tough question faced by many who have lived longer in Australia than in their country of birth. Born in Sierra Leone, Ma-Musu Nyande outlines why there’s an identity crisis for many born outside Australia who grow up in it, but especially for those who look like her, and how she’s learnt to cope with it.
When we migrated to Australia, we came with barely anything but hopes, dreams, our culture and traditions. My parents, like many migrant families, have raised my siblings and me to speak our language, cook our food and to be proud of our heritage. We migrated to Australia during the era of the Howard government. We arrived with excitement, but the country was in turmoil about immigration. I arrived in Australia aged 9. Focussed mainly on resettling, I was totally oblivious to all the political upset and debate that surrounded the arrival of people like me. I had no idea that I would eventually have an identity crisis as a result of the ever-changing government policies and attitudes.
As a child, the questions I received around my background didn’t phase me. I was intrigued and eager to respond. I wanted people to know my country, Sierra Leone. As I got older, I recognised those questions made me feel uncomfortable. It made me question my place in this country. I questioned my identity. From strangers asking me, ‘Where are you from?’ to people screaming “Go back to where you came’. My identity continues to be questioned in this country. With questions, comes doubt. I might tell myself I am Australian, and I have documents that prove it, but I continue to be questioned, poked and sometimes provoked – naturally I have become doubtful.
I am not ashamed of being born in Sierra Leone. I am crippled by the fact that I have lived in Australia longer than my country of birth and yet I am still questioned about my identity.
Now, asking “Where are you from?” can be friendly and out of curiosity to learn about someone … but this innocent question can also trigger discomfort. It is a question that reminds you, you’re different. That regardless of what your documents states or how long you’ve been here, you are not Australian enough to be Australian. You are the ‘other’.
The conversation around identity and an identity crisis is something I have with myself daily. From the conversations I have in the mirror before leaving the comfort of my home, to my body’s natural reaction to ‘code switch’ when I am a minority in a room. I, like many migrants and refugees, question our place in this country. The state of our nation continues to depict what a lot of us already know. We are only seen as Australians when we ‘act right’. The privilege over our Australian identity is dependent on our behaviour and it can easily be revoked. My citizenship isn’t guaranteed, it is temporary!
But yet again I find myself torn.
When I visit my birth country, I receive a warm welcome, but I am treated like a foreigner and it is no different here. I’ve recognised as soon as you choose one identity, you sort of automatically dismiss another one. For a while I thought owning an Australian identity meant disowning my Sierra Leonean one. As I get older, my identity changes depending on my location. One day I am comfortable with identifying an African Australia, other days I just want to be Ma-Musu. That is, a person without all the labels, without all the expectations, just a space and place for me to be me. I’ve created that space in my home.
Ma-musu Nyande describes herself as an Endo Warrior, occasional writer and an event organiser, living in Adelaide. She’s also a strong advocate for her community . Ma-Musu’s previously written a guide for choosing and slaying a wig. Join Ma-Musu on Instagram.