By Eden Mekonen
Black. Tayim. Ethiopian. Ethiopian-American. Person of Ethiopian descent. Habesha. African. East African. African-American. Second-generation. Child of immigrants. Diasporic. etc. These are just some of the many ways that I’ve heard others describe my racial background and nationality as a Black, United States born, diasporic, Ethiopian-American woman.
Having recently relocated to Addis Ababa through my participation in the Ethiopian Diaspora Fellowship, I have had the opportunity to more genuinely explore my identity by working and living in the country that my parents are from. I view my social interactions with coworkers, family members, friends, and strangers as an opportunity to better understand who I am through the lens of people around me. For example, some days I am able to walk around Addis without drawing too much attention to myself, for the most part blending in. Other days, I hear people on the street loudly directing English phrases at me, as if my mere aura screams “DIASPORA.”
Living in the United States, Ethiopian-American diasporic people, like most black people, generally face overt and covert racism which often affects our quality and access to medical care, jobs, education, media representation, and personal safety – the list goes on and on. However, in relocating to Addis, many of these oppressions have instead shifted and granted me privileges—earned or otherwise—based on my issued passport and country of origin. As a result, I have admittedly had access to people, spaces, opportunities, and experiences which were previously unimaginable to me in the US as a black woman.
This privilege ranges in visibility from freely traveling to and from Ethiopia without too much visa difficulty, to subtle interactions in which entire workplace conversations shift from Amharic to English upon seeing me mentally struggle to translate a particular phrase. Its seeing and feeling the difference in positionality when local youth go out of their way to impress you by reciting all the words to a western pop song, when maybe you were really just hoping to sing along to Teddy Afro with them. Its accepting that while your Bole accent often results in price hikes when attempting to negotiate taxi fares, it doesn’t negate the privilege of affording a taxi. And finally, it’s acknowledging the privilege in having the time to sit down and critically think about your experiences, family, and mental health/wellbeing, to write an article in English—instead of one of the many Ethiopian languages—while recognizing that others are unable to afford the luxury of such reflection time.
But beyond the general privilege of U.S. citizenship, in working at Selamta Family Project, a nonprofit that “creates forever families and bright futures for orphaned children, marginalized women and at-risk families of breaking apart in Ethiopia,” I’ve also had the space to also consider the ways in which we talk about, represent, and privilege certain “traditional” families. While western media often promotes familial images of single, biological families comprised of a mom, dad, and a single set of siblings, this visibility of a nuclear family erases the experiences of people who are part of “nontraditional families.” As Selamta Forever Families, are made up moms, aunts, and youth, their family model highlights how to create and be loving support systems while challenging assumptions of what a “family” is, looks like, and can be. Working at Selamta Family Project has enabled me to often reflect on the meaning of family beyond simple biological relationships. It has forced me to acknowledge how infrequently I seek out and amplify representations of families that may be chosen, blended, extended, fostered, adopted, single-parent, multi-parent, multi-racial/ethnic, childless, same-sex, legal, transnational, step, separated, divorced, widowed, etc. Though my upbringing technically counts as “nontraditional,” having been raised as an only child in a single-parent household.
Working at Selamta Family project and living in Ethiopia showcases the diversity of individual experiences within local and global Ethiopian communities. In doing so, it has forced me to consider the ways in which familial privilege, like American and linguistic privilege, can be ignored or actively acknowledged and challenged. While I don’t mean that it’s the role or responsibility of people of the diaspora to “Save Africa” or Ethiopia for that matter, I do mean that it is important to self-reflect on how we engage with, and relate to one another as locals and diaspora. As there’s privilege in being intentionally ignorant of other people’s experiences, challenging this status quo means recognizing that our stories and experiences may be different although we may identify with the same community. It means recognizing the multiple intersections of our identities and how they inform the ways that we move through the world. At the same time, it is necessary to recognize that these identities often change depending on the time, place, context, and people we are with. It means interrogating underlying assumptions we may have about each other and complicating simplistic or romantic images we may hold of each other’s communities, practices, and ways of existing. For me, understanding our interwoven global communities is like tibeb of a hand spun netela: vibrant, beautifully complicated, and uniquely intertwined.