In this Issue IV Heirloom: ‘My Family and I’ series our Creatives share personal insights into their lives. Grace explores her dual heritage and cultural experiences born as a Brit with Nigerian heritage.
: Grace Shutti and Christina Shutti
I’ve lived in England all of my life. Like most British-born ethnic minorities, this is the only home I’ve ever known, but sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. Between having to identify as Black British on official documents and people asking where I’m “really” from, I’ve become aware that ‘British’ isn’t all I am. Initially, I hated this idea – I didn’t want to be thought of as ‘other’ – but looking at myself as Black British – as having two identities – has made me think about who I really am.
I’m British but I’m Nigerian. I’m Grace, but also Ibidolapo. Balancing my Nigerian heritage and my British nationality is something I’ve done for as long as I can remember. While friends went on holidays to Tenerife, I was in Lagos shuttling between the city and the village. I told classmates about the heat, the beach, and my cousins, but left out the bucket baths, 6am alarms for church and the ever-failing electricity supply. I was self-conscious about having an upbringing that was different to my friends. I wanted to fit in, and having Nigerian parents made it impossible to do that.
Nigerians are brash and unbothered. Most of them have been through more by their teens than the average person goes through in a lifetime. Hardened by circumstance, they don’t have time for softly-softly antics. When my parents dictated discipline, traditions of etiquette and respect and “because I said so“s, I thought that this second culture of mine was rigid and heartless. Yes, there was fun – parties, a guaranteed full belly at every aunty’s house and luxurious lace fabrics that we wore in every vibrant colour – but life was always clouded by rules. Greet elders correctly. No sleepovers. J.M. Bond exercises after school. Play only in front of the house. No unsupervised outings with friends. So, I wanted to be British; English even. I wanted freedom and that’s what Britishness meant to me.
I love England. I love that it gave my parents opportunities they wouldn’t have had. I love that in turn, I have the freedom to do what makes me happy without the burdens that they dealt with. I love our humour, how we embrace other cultures – especially the food – and our refusal to show any enthusiasm even when we’re all really excited. I can’t imagine living life anywhere else, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve changed direction.
“I’M BRITISH BUT I’M NIGERIAN. I’M GRACE, BUT ALSO IBIDOLAPO”
I’ve realised that the culture I thought restricted me has made me the person I’m now proud to be. No one had a blissful childhood and that’s more to do with humanity than culture. Now I’m so fascinated by my Nigerian heritage that every moment is a trigger to ‘back home’; a reference to the cuisine, or a joke in my language only the initiated understand. It feels like I’m finally making up for lost time, exploring the parts of me that I hid because I wanted to be like everyone else. But nothing is worth experiencing unless you can share it. And I do, but sometimes I worry that I become so militant in my expression that those who don’t have a similar experience will get sick of hearing about it. Even worse, I’m scared that they’ll misunderstand my excitement for opposition.
Making the two intersect is hard. Some days I feel completely British and other days I could swear I’ve lived in Nigeria my whole life. Having a space to share stories, ask questions and jokes about living with these two identities is something I had only previously found with cousins and friends with similar backgrounds. As subcultures like Black Twitter have sprung up, there’s this new reality where thousands of us going through the same thing have created a little hybrid nation of our own. Spaces like this remind me that I don’t have to choose between one or the other. I’m British and Nigerian. I’m Grace and Ibidolapo. I’m not one or the other, but all.
Grace Shutti | @graceshutti