I have always been very much aware of how different I am from others. I was the first black person to have been born in the Italian province where my parents lived in the 90s. At the age of four, I was sent to Ghana to live with my auntie for three years. I then returned to Italy for five years, before returning to Ghana at age 12. Being a chubby teenager and having an Italian name always made me stand out among my peers in Ghana. My inability to speak any of the local dialects at the time also made the situation worse, as everyone I came into contact with could tell I wasn’t a local.
I never felt a sense of belonging in Ghana, but when I returned to Italy at age 17, I did not feel that I belonged there either. A lot of things had changed and the values I’d absorbed from my conservative Christian upbringing were often at odds with those of my liberal Italian friends. My escape came when I moved to the UK to do an undergraduate degree, but that was also a big transition.
Looking back, I have always struggled to build friendships and often felt really anxious in social situations. Being anxious and struggling to fit in any of the societies I lived in left me feeling angry, frustrated and isolated. Moving to Ghana had become synonymous with pain, loss and abrupt endings, and I developed a strong hatred towards the place as a result. Sadly, I also began to hate my African heritage and all it signifies and comes with. I didn’t want to integrate or be associated with Africa. I didn’t like my personal features that made me recognisable as an African. I also began to have feelings of inferiority in relation to white people. On reflection, I realised that this self-dislike was borne out of a culmination of experiences and not just the frequent residential moves.
Throughout my life, and even to this day, the various media platforms, situations and interactions I engage in or come across remind me that being non-white is a disadvantage in our society. On a personal level, my wife and I had to keep our relationship secret for two years as she was too scared to disclose to her parents that she was seeing a black person. I have also had cause to frequently respond to everyday racism and micro-aggressions.
I went into therapy as a tick-box exercise as it was mandatory on my counselling course. I wasn’t expecting to unearth anything I didn’t know – how wrong I was. I had been working as a psychological wellbeing practitioner for IAPT after graduating in psychology but felt drawn to a more integrative, pluralistic approach of working. I started training in integrative counselling in 2018, and at the end of the first year I was paired with a white male integrative counsellor.
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To be honest, I thought it was going to be a waste of time for both of us. Race was the elephant in the room – I was waiting for the therapist to bring it up but he never did. Then, one day, I started talking about it and was surprised at how positively it was received, like he was waiting for me to bring it up! From there on, I had a safe place to explore memories and emotions I had blocked out as too painful. I remembered that, growing up, I would hear my parents and other adults talking negatively about black people’s ways of thinking and behaving and praising white people, and this contributed to my feelings of inferiority and developing low self-esteem.
Through therapy, I came to the realisation that I had lost touch with my African identity, which is a fundamental component of my being. Gradually I became aware, accepting and in tune with my blackness. Embracing my blackness means that I have accepted all that comes with being black. It means loving my complexion, my people, my culture, my history, our music and our food, among other things. That I did this with a therapist who was white, not black, is a testament to the power of the therapeutic relationship in transcending race and cultural barriers.
I have become more confident in myself as a person and free from the overwhelming fear of others’ perceptions of me. I value my uniqueness, just as I value the individuality in the people I come into contact with and the clients I work with. I am still very much aware of how some might perceive my blackness, but I try as much as I can to prevent that from defining the way I behave, feel and think of myself as a person.
The experience of being in therapy was so fundamentally life-changing for me that I feel compelled to research about identity and self-acceptance as part of my final-year dissertation project. One day, I hope to be there for someone else on their journey to feeling comfortable in their own skin.