Mariama Sesay’s name is telling of her multicultural heritage. In fact, it adapts to each of the cultures in her family: “Sidautu (given name)” for her French mother, “Maria” for her Dominican grandmother, “Mary” for her British father and “Mariama,” for her Islamic African roots.
“My life is complicated. All these cultures overlap all the time,” she said. “It’s good, though, because I respect other people’s culture a lot because I have so many cultures in me.”
Born in Sierra Leone, Africa, Sesay grew up in Freetown, a capital city that welcomes foreigners and boasts a similar diversity to her heritage. When she turned 12, she moved to Colorado and added yet another culture to the mix.
With the American culture, Sesay assumed a new identity as a victim of racism.
“I’ve never been through anything like that. In Sierra Leone, and just in Africa in general, we don’t care about someone’s race,” Sesay said.
Sesay discovered that while her diverse background lends itself to her culturally-tolerant personality, it had not prepared her to handle all aspects of American life. At first, she didn’t recognize instances of racism. Having been raised in a country that does not emphasize racial differences, she didn’t realize her peers were bullying her mostly because of her skin color.
To add to the confusion, Sesay faced animosity from both her white and African American peers. She struggled to find which group she belonged to because her physical features — including a British accent and tightly curled hair — didn’t fit in with either race.
“I feel like a lot of Americans think that black people can only be African American, so if you are outside for that generalization, then you’re weird;” Sesay said. “I know all the time people look at me weird, they act differently around me. And then when I start speaking, they go, ‘Oh, you’re not that black then.’”
Sesay began to question how Americans categorized race. Her diverse cultural background provided her a lens different from her American peers.
She says the American view is often restricted to stereotypes that fail to consider global diversity.
“The ‘blackness’ in African Americans is so small; they don’t see all the blackness in all the other countries,” Sesay said. “African blackness is huge. There is so many varieties. There are black people who are darker than me who have blonde hair — they were born with it.”
At HC, Sesay shares her broader view of culture, race and diversity with the Multi-Ethnic Outliers Valuing Excellence in Society (MOVES, formerly the Black Student Alliance). She is part of the leadership team for the campus organization, and it’s a group she finally “feels comfortable in.”
MOVES provides Sesay with a safe environment to embrace her unique heritage, as the group advocates for diversity and underrepresented ethnic groups. For Sesay, this all-inclusive mission helps dispel closed-mindedness about race and facilitating her addition of the American culture.