Perceived Otherness

Maya Williams explores what it means to be a black American foreigner in Accra, Ghana.

I’ve never been around so many black people in my entire life, which is part of the reason I chose to study at NYU Accra over other campuses in the Global Network University (GNU). While not my sole motivation, there was a part of me that was hoping to achieve the sort of anonymity one gets when they are the same race as the majority of people living in an area. I loved my time in Shanghai, and look forward to going back, but living in a place where I stood out so violently took a significant toll. Of course all non-Chinese-looking foreigners immediately stand out by appearance alone, but being a black female can sometimes qualify you for even more attention just because there are a lot of things about you that are attention grabbing: being black, and a foreign female, and having curly or braided hair, and the fact that light-skinned foreigners and black men are just more common than black women in China. I didn’t expect the inability to be invisible to be so exhausting but it was.

Knowing I would spend the first semester of my junior year in Washington, D.C., I thought I’d have some time to recuperate from the experience, but with the political climate stirred up by the elections and the obvious racial disparities present in D.C. it made it hard to recover. As a result, by winter break I was very nervous about coming to Accra. In Shanghai blackness was a shared identity that could possibly bond you with black foreigners from African countries, because we were all black in China. But as I was getting ready to come to Accra I was concerned about how much weight my blackness would actually hold in my interactions with people. How obvious is my Americanness? Will I be mistaken for a Ghanaian or as a person from another African country, at least until I speak and sound super American? Is there a difference between being a black American foreigner and a white American foreigner or are we all seen as American foreigners? I spent winter break worrying myself sick and no one could relieve my anxiety, not my best friend who grew up in Accra, or classmates who had studied there in the past. I couldn’t relax until I actually arrived in Accra and experienced the place for myself.

It’s been four weeks and I want to ask my past self what I was so worried about. I’m really enjoying Accra, because although I still get a lot of stares on the street I feel a pleasant sense of ease here. It is in part because Ghanaians have lived up to their reputation of being very friendly and hospitable. But more importantly, it is because although I am being seen as different, my difference is not perceived with the same severe “otherness” or abnormality it has in both the U.S. and China. I certainly don’t have the anonymity achieved from blending in– although there is one confirmed occasion where someone thought I was Ghanaian– but there is a sense of relief and lightness that comes from not having to worry about my skin color making other people uncomfortable. I am reaping the benefits of being black (which makes me a little bit familiar) and being foreign (which makes me a little bit intriguing). This has made the other parts of adjusting to a new culture and climate just a little bit easier; made engaging with strangers just a little bit more enjoyable, and, to be honest, made nightlife just a little bit more fun, because I’ve never been as popular in nightclubs as I am in Accra.

This article was written by Maya Williams. Please send an email to to get in touch.
Illustration Credit: Arshaun Darabnia

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *