Navigating My Identity as a Third Culture Kid

Bethlehem Gebre, American University

There are a lot of ways to describe people like us. Sometimes, they describe us as “too African for the Westerners, but too Western for the Africans.” As an Ethiopian-Canadian-American attending university in the nation’s capital, one might think navigating my identity would be easy, considering that the DC area contains the highest Ethiopian population outside of East Africa. For me, it is anything but easy.

Despite never being given the opportunity to visit Ethiopia, Amharic (Ethiopia’s official language) was my first language. By age two, I spoke Amharic almost fluently with an early 1900’s dialect because that’s how my grandmother taught me to speak it. Despite my parents’ best efforts to provide a traditional Ethiopian upbringing at home, I was alienated and made to feel unaccepted.

“Where are you really from?”
“Don’t worry, only real Ethiopians understand.”
"You’re not REALLY Black though.”

These were actual words uttered to me by members of the three communities I felt I identified with the most: the American community, the Ethiopian community, and the Black community.

What made it sting was that it wasn’t completely untrue. Yes, my ethnicity is Ethiopian and my parents still speak with beautiful, thick accents. No, I wasn’t born in Ethiopia nor do I speak Amharic fluently anymore, so I don’t get some references to things from back home. No, I don’t have ancestors that lived in the United States. Still, I didn’t feel like I deserved to be ostracized from every direction.

Ethiopian Jews protest racism in Israel

Ethiopian Jews protest racism in Israel

For a long time, I felt that I had to constantly prove my identity to everyone, from my classmates to Metro operators. I always felt it necessary to equip myself with comebacks to every challenge to my declaration of identity. To the American community, I could flaunt my dual Canadian-American citizenship, explain that I’ve never even been able to set foot in the Eastern Hemisphere, and insist that I am a proud Canadian-American. To the Ethiopian community, I could outline my knowledge of Ethiopia’s rich history, demonstrate my ability to perform dances from over five of the largest tribes in Ethiopia on command, discuss my experience with writing music in Amharic, and properly execute a traditional coffee ceremony from start to finish. To my Black community, I could explain that, despite what anyone says, on legal documents, my race is always categorized as Black and that I still face the same issues as other members of the community, including racism and colorism. However, through time, I’ve learned that none of these words or actions would ever make a difference to those people questioning me.

In all of this, I’ve learned that as someone who doesn’t perfectly fit into the mold of any specific community, my identity will constantly be questioned by those who don’t understand where I fit. Some might even say that their words come from a place of fear that their own culture may be threatened or overshadowed by our hybrid identities. While that never felt like proper justification, it helped me understand why I felt so ostracized by a community that I have done nothing but try to represent as accurately and proudly as possible. It also helped me realize that my identity would never be able to be simply pinned to one community. My value to a community is not defined by an arbitrary standard that I cannot control.

On the other hand, I don’t think people like us should abandon our various racial, ethnic, or national identities. Our various cultures are blessings to embrace. For me, the accomplishments of the members of the various communities I belong to are the reason why I’m afforded many of the privileges that I have. Furthermore, there, in fact, are members of my community, who do not reject my status as a fellow member of the communities and stand with my fight for my place in these communities. Neither microaggressions nor exclusion will ever change that.

There’s a reason why it’s called an identity. It’s not a “she-dentity,” “he-dentity,” or “they-dentity.” Only we can define who we are and no one can ever take that away.