In the seventh grade, I decided that I wasn’t going to be called “black” or “African American” anymore. I re-classified myself as “chocolate,” which I felt was a better descriptor of the actual shade of my skin. I told all of my friends about my new racial identity, told my parents, and checked “Other” on multiple tests or surveys that asked me my race. My family has no idea where we’re from in Africa, and I was old enough to notice that my skin wasn’t actually black. 

Since eighth grade, I’ve stopped seriously referring to myself as chocolate, and I don’t check the box that says “Other” anymore. However, I’ve retained the lurking idea in the back of my mind that neither “black” nor “African American” are accurate descriptors of who I am. Maybe I haven’t experienced the same brutal awakenings as to our county’s maltreatment of African Americans, but I’ve never thought of myself as anything but American. Most days, I don’t consider myself African American, and I wish the blanket geographical qualifier wasn’t constantly pinned to my identity.

Toni Morrison and Muhammad Ali became two distinct role models for me in their own right. The feeling Morrison’s writing was able to evoke became a model for my own, was the warm comfort and reminder that I wasn’t alone; Ali’s fearlessness was the spark that burned inside me to be fierce, confident, and unapologetic. 

We come to believe that our heroes are just like us, or just like who we aspire to be once we achieve our ideal place in life. Consequently, it comes as a shock to find that these personal heroes, who I felt shared my identity and understood my subsequent identity conflict, had resolved their own identity conflict by completely rejecting the only part of my identity I felt sure of. I have grown up knowing that, if nothing else, I’m American. It’s the only nationality or geographical affiliation I’ve been able to claim with confidence. The same realization about both of Morrison and Ali came within a week of each other: while I’ve only been able to comfortably describe myself as American, during their lifetimes, both Muhammad Ali and Toni Morrison rejected the American part of their identity entirely, and both said they had never thought of themselves as American. 

Muhammad Ali was an Olympic gold medalist in 1960 and won the world heavyweight boxing championship in 1964, but once he returned to the United States, white Americans still refused to serve him in restaurants because he was black. When he received a notice to enlist for the U.S. Army, Ali refused to fight in the Vietnam War. He was expected to risk his life fighting for the freedom of a country that didn’t allow him to live free. It is said that after Ali won a gold medal at the 1960 Olympic Games, once he returned to the U.S. and received the same racist treatment, he threw his gold medal off of the Second Street Bridge and into the Ohio River. An Olympic medal, besides a symbol of world-class athletic achievement, also represents the spirit of the winner’s country of origin. All of Ali’s achievements clearly did not mean enough to Americans to merit dignified treatment for him or other black people, and I can see why his experiences and a similar sense of forced alienation for Morrison led them to completely reject “American” as a part of their identity.  

For me, I felt like I had no other option, and I haven’t had any jolting and identity-altering experiences that push me to sever my ties with my American identity. My family has absolutely no idea where in Africa we would be from. All we’ve known, possibly for longer than some of my non-black friends’ families have lived in the U.S., is America. My parents grew up in America. My grandparents grew up in America. My great-grandparents lived in America. Other than a few vacations and one study-abroad experience, all I’ve known is America. And since we’re arguing now that there isn’t one way to look American, act American or speak like an American, I feel like I am one. 

It still hits me with indignation and anger when I think of the Three-Fifths Compromise, see videos of civil rights marchers being attacked by police dogs and fired at with fire hoses, when I hear about another instance of police brutality. I’m not always proud of America. I’m not always proud to be an American. But for lack of any other place to belong to and too many gaps in my family’s historical records to lay claim to any other place, I am just American. 

Which is why I don’t like being called “African American,” especially with the additional revelation that white Americans are never called “European Americans.” For them, just “American” is sufficient. I’ve never been to Africa, and while I wish I knew what country my ancestors came from, so few records were kept of where American slaves were from that anyone would be hard-pressed to pinpoint an exact country. People see my dark skin, brown eyes and curly hair and immediately classify me as “African American”—which isn’t their fault. 

It’s the way we as a country have decided to categorize people based on race. I’ve had friends, Uber drivers and random people in public tell me I “look like I’m from Kenya” or “could definitely be Tanzanian,” but their guess is just as good as anyone else’s. Despite my skin tone, I feel no more attachment or affiliation with Africa than I do with Japan. 

Victoria Priester is a Trinity first-year. Her column, “on the run from mediocrity” runs on alternate Fridays.