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Meb Keflezighi is American, and so am I

"I am black. I am Ethiopian. I am American," author writes

Haimy Assefa | 4/24/2014, 8:44 a.m.
I was born in Ethiopia, raised in Oklahoma and Colorado, and ended up in Brooklyn, New York.
The first American man to win the Boston Marathon since 1983 crossed the finish line Monday, triumphant in a storied race that has become a national symbol of resiliency and determination. Race officials said Meb Keflezighi, 38, won the men's division, with an official time of 2:08:37. Taylor Hartz/BU News Service

— There was man there who refused to speak to me, let me take his order, or even look me in the eyes because I was black. It was understood that only my white co-workers would interact with him.

The people I was close to would praise me by saying how well my parents raised me, and told me: "You're not like the rest of them. You're different."

I almost thought that they said these things as a compliment.

But I understood they were making an exception for me, in order to maintain their bigoted views of black and brown people. Because I defied the scope of their prejudice, I had to be unique.

This infuriated me.

I tried to take off-the-cuff comments from the elderly with a grain of salt. After all, they are from a different time period, when those sentiments were expected and accepted.

But it was when I heard my peers say, "You're not really black. You don't even act black," that I realized just how much the perceived singularity of the black identity transcends generations, age and gender.

This made me embrace my "blackness" more passionately, and I began to identify more as "black" than Ethiopian.

I wasn't quite Ethiopian enough for some of my Ethiopian friends who were convinced moving to the U.S. at such a young age caused me to lose some legitimacy. My vivid memories of Ethiopia and ability to speak my native language didn't cement my "Ethiopian-ness" to some.

And I did not live up to my American peers' expectations of being African-American either, even after becoming a naturalized citizen.

So there I was, the president of the Ethiopian Students Association, a member of the Black Student Alliance, and the founder of United Women of Color at Colorado State University.

I became quite the skilled juggler. But it was exhausting.

Tired of the balancing act, I began to care less and less about others' perceptions of me.

Eventually, I became proud of not fitting neatly into someone else's definition of being black or Ethiopian.

When I moved to New York, I felt at home, and met people with a similar understanding of black identity -- one that was varied and nuanced. They were more interested in having conversations about my experiences, and less interested in my color.

I no longer felt the weight of defending all of the different aspects of my identity to everyone.

But there is one thing about the black identity that remains constant: the complexities of the individual experiences that inform our identity.

Yes, I am black. I am Ethiopian. I am American.

I am also a journalist, a filmmaker, a sister, a daughter, a friend, an avid traveler and a woman who is constantly growing and evolving.

There is no doubt that my experiences, at times turbulent, have contributed to my racial identity. But my identity is never static. Instead, it remains fluid.

The reality is that my story is not singular simply because I was born abroad. It is distinctive in the way that each of us, as individuals, is distinct.

And so are our identities.

So when people say I am not "really black" or that Meb Keflezighi is not "really American," I'd invite them to run a mile in each of our shoes -- to see what we've gone through to become as uniquely American as anyone.

Haimy Assefa is a CNN news assistant in New York City covering breaking news in the Northeast region. She has a background in international affairs and multimedia storytelling.

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