When I heard last year that Will Smith was starring in the film ‘Concussion’ about Dr. Bennet Omalu, the man who discovered the correlation between football and later neurological trauma, I was stoked. Will Smith is one of my favorite actors, and I just knew that with him in the starring role the film would have to be amazing. However, upon release of the first trailer there was just something I couldn’t get over…Will Smith’s Nigerian accent. The cadence and inflections fell flat, making Smith sound like a bad impressionist rather than a potential Academy Award nominee. It was not horribly apparent exactly which African country he was supposed to be from. Upon consulting Twitter it was obvious that many of my Nigerian friends felt similarly, and reactions to Smith’s accent ranged from humor to outright anger. But after reading a few more tweets, I realized that the outrage had claws, and it was deeper than Will Smith just struggling with an accent.
No one of any other ethnic or minority group wants to be black. In nearly every culture we are seen as the lesser, the “at least I’m not,” something to be avoided and oftentimes ridiculed. This phenomena very conveniently does not extend to black culture. So I guess I should amend my statement to “Everyone wants to be black until they have to deal with any of the social ramifications and stereotypes associated with being black” (immediately assumed guilty of any and everything, unintelligent, lazy, violent). Black people have to learn to love being black themselves. To be us is to be taught by nearly every institution in this country that you are guilty and responsible for every one of your and this nation’s shortcomings, whilst ignoring all of the systematic injustices that lead to this point. We balance an unwavering pride and a self-hatred probably unseen in any other race of people. I can’t say that I know of any other group of people that is blamed for all the misfortune that has befallen them (“If you dislike it here so much, why don’t you just go back to Africa?”) and it’s a lot to survive, let alone thrive, with. We are taught that to be unapologetically black is to limit our own success. That to make it in a white man’s world we have to bury the parts of ourselves that make others uncomfortable (talk white, code switch, etc). It is rarely ever considered why just being black, just existing in the skin God gave us, makes people so uncomfortable.
So when I saw the outrage over Will Smith’s accent, I saw it for what it actually is: Nigerian people, and others of traceable African descent (ie not descended from enslaved peoples), rebelling against being labeled ‘black.’ Nigerians are an incredibly proud people, and as I said before, no one really wants to deal with the social ramifications of being black. The reality however, is that upon arriving in America, black is black. Period. To a white man we look the same*, and African or African-American has no impact on how likely an officer is to shoot. But many African people have a sort of superiority complex, maintaining that black people aren’t as smart as they are, are lazier than they are, and are not their equals (see: akata). I cannot count how many times I have been mistaken for Nigerian, simply because I am pursuing a technical degree from a reputable college of higher learning. Because it is unfeasible to some that I can be black, African-American black, and excelling, as if blackness and excellence are mutually exclusive.
I understand. Representation in Hollywood is a serious issue, and performances that reinforce the idea that Africa is a monolith, rather than a country comprised of different cultures and peoples, is damaging. But enough is enough. The issue wasn’t with Will Smith’s accent. The issue was with Will Smith, and the fact that people did not feel him worthy of representing their culture. I get that the accent was not good, but it is also important to recognize that Will Smith is just a man, who is in no way attempting to represent an entire group of people. He is one actor, trying to tell one story. He did the best he could. And if there was not so much negativity associated with being black in this country, I think more people would be ok with that.
*The Matyas Addendum: Someone I met in here in Stockholm, and whose opinion I value very much, read this piece and found issue with the statement “to a white man we all look the same.” He accused me of being a hypocrite, and he was right. I preach the need not to make sweeping generalizations about people, and then pretty much reduced not only all white people, but all black people as well, to a very simplistic narrow-minded world view, which doesn’t afford either group the ability to progress or improve. So below is my response to him regarding why exactly this particular bit of bias is present in the piece. I’ve stated before that I do make mistakes, and it’s for reasons like this that I really appreciate honest feedback, and discussing ideas with people who think differently than me. I apologize to anyone I may have offended, and I hope that if anyone ever disagrees with me, they bring it to my attention, so that we can learn from each other.
Yeah that’s true as well.
That piece was hard for me. Mainly because I was scratching the surface of a lot of issues Im still coming to grips with. Theres a lot of resentment in the Black American community of the African American community. But there’s also a lot of admiration and jealousy too. Like not only do these ppl, who look the same as me have this rich ancestral history that I don’t, but many believe they are better for it and are likewise treated better for it. I wrote something in the education piece about black kids who see other black kids, that are seemingly no different from themselves, getting better treatment for unidentifiable reasons. It breeds contention.
It’s harder for me to write “we look the same, but we’re not the same, and white people notice that and treat y’all better for not being us.” Than it is for me to just diminish the situation and pretend that we’re all mistreated equally.
So yes you’re right. I shouldn’t make a sweeping generalization about white peoples inability to recognize cultural distinctions just because I don’t like the fact that the distinction disfavors me. I’m telling other people to get off their high horse by trying to bring them down when I should actually just try to improve myself.