traveling while black.

african, discrimination, prejudice, race, travelingwhileblack

Growing up in the predominantly black suburb of Stone Mountain, Georgia perhaps shrouded me from ever feeling like I was different. I grew up submerged in sea of other people who looked like me, spoke like me, listened to the same music as me. There was no clear separation. It wasn’t until I went away to school at Mercer University that I grasped what it meant to be within the minority.

And being in the glaring minority was only amplified, to gross, sweeping levels when I moved to Madrid in the fall of 2013. I had never experienced the phenomena of being the “only one” because I was always one of many, many, many others who were just like me. I had never identified with the isolation, confusion and frustration of constantly having to navigate my (literal) physical space within others who were not like me and clearly did not understand me, nor where they committed to, in the very least, of being tolerant of those like me. I never had to stuff down the constant anguish of doling out explanations of who I was for the sake of sanity or knowing, intimately, how a little bit of you dies and breaks off each time you have to negotiate within yourself to do it.

Maybe if I was more deluded, more in denial, more oblivious, I could pretend one of my greatest passions behind writing (ahem) and cooking — travel — bears some affect when my race comes into the picture. And no, I’m not just pulling the “race card,” holding a chip on my shoulder, being overly sensitive or reading too into things. This is something I know firsthand from the several experiences I’ve had over the past year, when me, my Black self, was jetting around the world in search of adventure, and I realized, a sober realization, that doing so was a revolutionary act in itself.

I can reflect on London, strolling the cobblestone streets. My feet, exposed and uncovered frozen solid, my teeth chattering, the layers of clothing I attempted to wear still rendering me frigid. Eating a kabob loaded with pickled red onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, succulent lamb juicy and bursting with flavor and a cooling yogurt sauce, dripping onto my the front of shirt, laughing with my cousin and his friends. Staring bright-eyed, in childlike wonder, through the wrought iron gates, speckled with gold leaves which looked as delicate as foil, at Buckingham Palace at the change of the guards, the guards clad in morose, somber grey posts instead of the red pea coats I thought I’d see.

But I only, mostly remember, slapping a vibrant head wrap on my head the wee hours of my departure before heading to London Gatwick airport. I remember, vividly, being asked if my head wrap was donned for religious reasons and when I shrugged in confusion, leading the border control agent to believe I meant no, urging me to remove my headwrap, exposing my nappy natural hair, my TWA, matted to my head. I remember her roughly fingering my hair, attempting to feel my roots but only snagging my kinky coils, and causing me to yelp in pain. And being asked, with vitriol and aggression leaking in her voice, only seconds later, to remove my shoes, although I was originally told I could keep them on.

I can reflect on Brussels, stumbling into Grand Place, where one of the most ornate, beautiful and awe struck cathedrals I’ve seen with my naked eyes — outside of The Duomo in Milan and the Catedral de Sevilla in Sevilla — or pushing my way through the Godiva where the smell of freshly churned chocolate tickled my nostrils and aroused my taste buds. I remember the nine hours I spent there, not knowing a word of French. Eyes being cut at me, like I was a suspicion, a threat, someone to be feared. People bursting my bubble of boundaries, demanding I answer them in French, because of course, I’m Black. My skin is brown. I have to be African which means I most likely speak French. But I didn’t. Not then, not now.

But I only most remember, going through passport control at the Brussels airport and the officer looking at me stunned, blown away and utterly bewildered. After looking at me and down at my passport and up at me and down at my passport and up at me and down at my passport, he cocked his head to side and peered at me and asked, “What happened?”

I squinted back at him and stuttered, not sure what I was supposed to say. And okay, maybe I did look different. In my passport photo, I had honey blonde hair stringy and broken off and in person, I had a dark haired (my natural hair color) nappy coils which were short and low cut. But did I really look that different? My face looked the same. These were the microaggressions. The demands to explain.

I could also go into grave detail about how dozens of times I’ve been “randomly selected” to undergo extra screening before jetting off to a new locale. Asked more questions then necessary. My belongings being rustled through for an indeterminate amount of time, threatening me to miss my flight. Or being stared at like I have three heads when out and about in a foreign city. Or feeling like I was abnormal or strange because of the color of my skin. The whispering, the pointing, the slower than slow service because of my brown face, because of course, I’m not deserving of the customer service that other, White customers, receive.

But I think you get the point. I think you can see that I’m not exaggerating. That these are very real micro aggressions which can wear on someone who is so determined to see as much as the world as possible but when other people are determined to remind you of the global appeal of anti-Blackness. How Black faces being unwanted isn’t just an American construct and how it is a global one, in every truest sense of concept, one bolstered by colonialism and White supremacy coursing through the veins of every living soul.

And yes, many will argue with my passport, my blue passport emblazoned with a gold eagle on the front presents me with a horde of privilege. But let’s also be real — what difference does my blue passport really make, that when whomever flips it open to the photo page, and they see my un-American name? When they look at it, and instantly, know it’s not American? When they know I’m foreign, in some sense of the word, and decide, right then and there, to discriminate?

Many others will tell me that yes, as a Black woman, a tall Black woman, I’m warranted the stares and the ogling I get whenever I go somewhere where I’m not in the majority. People will tell me to expect it. That it’s just because I’m tall, as a I stand, statuesque at almost six feet. And in the same breath, they’ll also tell me to extend an olive branch, to be more understanding of their confusion and the subsequent ignorance which arises in their questions and their ignorance. They’ll tell me explain, to be a good example, to be a representative on behalf of countless others.

But dammit. That isn’t me. The me I am, the me I have grown to be, isn’t interested in that. The me I am isn’t interested in extending nary of even a damn twig branch. The me I am isn’t here to be your bridge to cultural understanding. The me I am isn’t here to be representative of what it means to be Black, to be Black American, to be African. The me I am doesn’t want (or ask) to be affronted with the different treatment and surely doesn’t want to be exhausted to have to bother to explain. To me I am understands that Black American and Africans aren’t a monolithic group. That there are differences and wavelengths that vary along gender, religion, sexual orientation and socioeconomic levels. And to be asked to be a representative is insulting and denounces the vasty amount of diversity that exists within us, among us.

I understand my existence, for most, is audacious. That daring to be a Black American and African woman who is unapologetically proud of who she is…unfathomable. But who I am is who I am. Who I am is proud. Who I am is authentic. And who I am won’t stop daring to see the world, one city, one town, one country, one continent at at time. And the who I am doesn’t ever want to, have to, desire to, have to explain.

paris

lovely leaving.

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As the overpowering scent of chlorine invaded my nasal passages, I held my breath and tiptoed through the locker room at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. My mother had enrolled me in my first, official swimming lessons and although I’d been “swimming” for years, she thought I could use special instruction from those who actually knew what they were doing— lifeguards.

That first summer, I had to be around eight or nine, started a yearly tradition of summers filled with quickly changing in the girls locker room with the slick, sticky and ancient tiled floors, holding my breath so the chlorine and bleach smells didn’t give me a headache, as they always did when I was submerged in the water, panting, blinking furiously and trying not to complain from the burning of my eyes. 

Many, many, many times, although I was being guided by my instructor, I felt out of control, powerless to the depths of the water. Often, even when my instructor explained to myself and my classmates what we’d be doing and demonstrated, it seemed so easy, but when I attempted it was a complete flop. My most vivid memory of such instance is when I was a teenager and almost finished with all the levels of swimming courses. This class was strictly on diving in the deep, twelve feet end. I scrapped my knees on the side of the pool several times, streams of amber trailing behind me as I attempted to touch the pool floor. 

This past weekend when I celebrated my 28th birthday in Palma de Mallorca and spent the bulk of my Saturday sunbathing and frolicking in the Mediterranean Sea at Cala Major beach, I had a deja vu moment. It was one of the few times I ventured out into the water alone and thought I had my footing, but the aggressive waves slapped me back. Once this made my bikini top fly completely off and I was rendered topless. Another time, I was pushed underwater, the salt water burning my pupils and stinging my nose, forcefully shoving frigid, salty water down my throat and causing me to scrape my left knee on a rock on the bottom of the sea. 

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But I fought and laughed through it. Eventually, I was panting and limping back to the shore, collapsed on my towel in the sand and napped for fifteen minutes, completely drained and exhausted. The waves had not certainly not killed or defeated me, but it had zapped me of any energy I had before. 

Which, ironically, is what I can say about my experience living as an expat in Madrid for the past eight months. There have been countless experiences where I was slapped around, forcefully shoved and left drained and depleted as a result of circumstance. Whether it was weathering delicate (and dysfunctional) roommate situations, withstanding teaching jobs which took everything out of me although I showed up everyday determined to make it work, losing friends from back home and realizing newfound friends I’d made here weren’t the best fit, coming into my own as an adult woman and standing on my own two feet. 

And although none of these things have defeated or killed me, they’ve shed so much clarity on life as I know it and the path I want the rest of my life to continue to take, beginning with leaving Madrid, ending this Spanish journey. In nine days.

To be fair, this wasn’t a decision I made with haste or without much deliberation. I knew at the end of February when I was asked whether or not I wanted to renew my current contract with the Spanish Ministry of Education teaching in a high school. I knew, rather, that I wanted to return home, to stop forcing myself to be someone I wasn’t or enjoy a job or country I’m not happy in. 

So, leaving, for me, is two-fold. 

I’ve spoken at great lengths about the racism I’ve been affronted with in Madrid, and it’d be wholly dishonest for me to say it wasn’t a huge factor and not wanting to continue to live here. I’ve expressed at many junctures the frustration of being both a Black American and Black African here. I’ve either received empathy from those who agree with the racist notions which abound in this country or those who are so engrossed in their privilege they don’t even notice it, let alone their participation in the perpetuation of systematic racism and hatred of people of color. 

Privilege is the main thing which irks me about all the micro aggressions and othering I know to be by-product of long-standing ignorance and racism, rather those who just don’t seem to get it, even other people of color, and tell me I should take the respectability route. Those who suggest to me I act as a bridge to cultural understanding and undertake the (unwanted) burden of shattering stereotypes and incorrect, negative cultural and racial assumptions. 

I’ve arrived at such a place of pride about Blackness and my Nigerian heritage, and no, my existence has never and will never be to be an ambassador or tolerant of the ignorance of others. I don’t have to be understanding of White privilege. I don’t have to be understanding of why people think the way they do about Black Americans and Black Africans and give them a pass. I won’t accept being told I’m “overly sensitive” or that I have a “chip on my shoulder” or I should “stop reading into every little thing.” I won’t be told just because I look different and have a different name to expect to be treated differently because of the curiosity of others and to be open to it. And I won’t. I simply won’t. 

 I’m not here to assuage guilt, make myself understood or to constantly explain myself, and I’d much rather not live in a country which I feel is committed to misunderstanding me and people like me.

On the flip side of the coin, my vocation is not to teach. This I know undoubtedly after trying (and failing) to transition to what I Initially thought would be a complete career change before moving. I’ve taught adults, I’ve taught children, I’ve taught really young children and I’ve taught teenagers in my short TEFL teaching stint. The lessons and insights I’ve gained about myself are truly endless, but one thing I know overall is writing is not something I can run away from. To run away from my vocation, my calling, my purpose is akin to running away from myself.

And yes, I can admit my move to Madrid was pre-meditated as an escape, a flee, running away as fast as I could. I ran away from a lot: the familiarity (as well as predictability and boringness) of home I had grown tired of, family issues, constant disappointment with friends, a pathetic (and nonexistent) love life, impending doom about the direction (and shape) my writing career was taking, exhaustion from being broke and my talents and passions not being valued and appreciated. 

I thought the magic solution would be to move thousands of miles away to start over from scratch. Of course I had goals. I wanted to finally become fluent in Spanish and relish in the Spanish culture and…la la la la la la. Instead, what I have found is that the things I ran from never disappeared but morphed into a new form. Because you can’t run away from yourself or your problems or your issues. You have to dig deep and conquer them, conquer your demons. 

After going through endless changes with teaching: being fired, dropping classes which weren’t a good fit for me, payment not being on time or the proper amount or not receiving it at all, dealing with shitty language academies who just deemed me yet another native English speaker and treated me with no decency or respect for my time and what I had to offer. 

I found myself after finally getting a coveted position with the Spanish Ministry of Education in a high school, where I was finally getting paid a steady, livable amount and working 16 hours a week in a rather lax working environment, that I was still not happy. 

My coworkers were everything I’d wanted in colleagues: genuine, kindhearted people. They respected me as native English speaker and treated me as such. They valued my knowledge and wisdom about the many idiosyncrasies of the spoken (and written) English language. There was an open door policy where I could express concerns or issues I had with certain classes or students. 

And yet…there was a gaping hole. A longing for more. A decided feeling there had to be more for me to look forward to, to be excited about. 

After a few weeks, mornings became a new routine of dread. I’d sleep later and later to avoid getting up and slugging through teaching classes I didn’t want to teach. Several times the teachers would forget to send the groups of students to me in the library where I held my English classes, and I’d be holed up in a room for hours at a time, with only the birds outside the windows bordering the room and the echo of my own voice to talk to. At the end of each day, I felt drained and dragged myself back to my flat, ate lunch and passed out for siesta. Rinse and repeat for the four days a week I worked. I was living for the weekend…again. This was exactly the kind of pattern and mentality I had wanted to escape in my old life. 

At the end of February when I was asked to renew, I knew the answer would be no, but yet I hesitated. How could I give up this Spanish journey so quickly? I’d told so many people I’d probably be here for years. What would people think if I packed up just shy of a year? They’d think I was failure. That I was rejoining the ranks of everyone else, caught up in the working grind. That’d I’d somehow been wrong about choosing to be an expat in the first place. 

But then I just said no. A still, sure, strong, no. I said no, and felt for the first time a months, a peace I had been longing for. I knew I could put an end to all the fighting, forcing myself to fit the mold of an English teacher when I knew my heart had never been in it, that I’d pursued it for the wrong reasons. And that all this time, the only thing which had given my transformation, this journey, any meaning in the first place were my words. 

My writing. 

I needed to tap into another part of me I hadn’t known existed to write honestly, vividly, vulnerably. Moving thousands of miles away had finally given me the courage to write from the heart.

In nine days, my Spanish journey may be ending, right at the nine-month mark, but this new direction is spiraling out into something uncharted, uncertain, unknown, yet incredibly beautiful. I will be moving to Washington, D.C., a city I fell in love with last summer weeks before I moved to Madrid. I knew it’d be on my short list of places to live in at some point after spending time there and things have worked out amazingly for me to live there post-Madrid. 

I am leaving. But it’s not the messy, storming out because I’m angry, leaving. It’s the walking towards hope, wonder and newer horizons. It’s clean slates. It’s creating an optimum life fit just for me. 

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obstinate othering.

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Somewhere in-between all the hey day, thousands of adjustments, millions of failures and just plain trying to figure shit out, five months have passed since the green light flashed and I said a resounding, “Yes!” to living my life as an expatriate.

I’ve changed addresses twice. I’ve made fast friends with people only to realize the people I befriended I couldn’t stand. I’ve quit teaching jobs (and of course, been fired, heh)  and re-embraced the philosophy central behind the reason I left my life behind in the States–my comfy lifestyle with my expensive car and driving to a job everyday that I hated–slowing down enough to be present to enjoy the gifts life offers. I’ve started writing more, or should I say consistently, versus going days, weeks and months without trying to make sense of life as it unfolds with my words. I’ve cooked the most amazing meals of my life in a kitchen the size of a pantry and an oven the size of a shoebox. I’ve slept in twin sized beds so little and compact my feet dangle off the edge if I don’t sleep in the fetal position.

While so many things have changed, while various components of life as I know it, my Madrid experience as I refer to it when I’m all by my lonesome, other things have remained static, unchanging and rather, things I’ve not wanted to consciously deal with or think about so most of the time I (try to) ignore them.

The ill-fated r word: race. And it’s dear friend, the ill-fated cousin: racism.

When I was home for Christmas, many people asked me if there were many “Black people” in Madrid. So many people looked at me, doe-eyed, wanting to know if there was an inkling of people of color, people who looked like me or them. Most of them were shocked or confused (or both) when I declared there weren’t and that because I was one of the few and I was quite tall, it made me a spectacle. I found (and still find everyday) stares lingering far past the typical “Spanish stare.”

But the way Spaniards deal with race in particular is quite…interesting. They won’t come out and say really prejudiced and racist things that would shed light on the way they view other races and other people in general that are different from them.  Instead they box those “other people” into these neat little categories. I suppose categories which make it more comfortable to wrap their minds diversity and enable them to distance themselves of the concept of being open to the concept of diversity altogether.

Here’s a relevant example I’ve received from Spaniards as well as fellow expats quite a bit:

There’s this neighborhood in Madrid, which, although I don’t go there often is easily my favorite. It’s called Lavapiés, also known as a vibrant, thriving melting pot of culture.

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Buildings lining the street in Lavapiés on a sunny, sultry Sunday evening.

The first few times I ventured to the barrio I was in search of delicious food because the bland and greasy Spanish dishes weren’t quite hitting the spot. I’ve had delicious Indian food on a table lining the streets while languages whooshed past my ears that certainly wasn’t Spanish and enjoyed the tastiest tacos with equally invigorating margaritas in the same barrio as well.

Africans, Jamaicans, Indians and numerous other ethnicities call this barrio home. I love being in that neighborhood because there I feel less like an alien. I can look onto to the faces of people who look like me, who are clearly different, whose heritage is closely aligned like mine and for once, I don’t feel shame. I don’t feel inclined to try to ignore the racist rubs and inclinations I’m faced with almost daily.

When the subject of the neighborhood has arisen naturally in conversation with either my students or others of Spanish descent or fellow expats or even other immigrants here who aren’t those of color, they say the same sort of things. They frown up at the neighborhood. They immediately say the neighborhood is composed of immigrants, as if it is bad thing. They’ll say the area is notorious for crime and to “watch your purse and belongings” if you venture there. They’ll also mention the alleged bed bug infestation and how the buildings look dirty and the area is dirty in general. There’s never a positive nod to the abundance of rich culture there.

And it reminds me of the same notions from back in the States. As an Atlanta native, these are the exact same sentiments I’d hear about people not going to “that part” of Decatur or Stone Mountain or Lithonia on the Eastside or anywhere on the Southside past a certain time because of course “thugs” abound. Because of course, any area where there are a lot of people of color there’s sure to be crime and it’s not safe and it’s not anywhere anyone would want to be. Right?

I used to live in Tetuán, a surburb roughly 20 minutes north of Madrid. I only lived there for three months and moving from there had much more to do with me not liking being compadres with the three cats and dogs (along with three human roommates). I got sick of cat hair being on all my belongings and also being so far from the city center. The commute drained and depleted me. But again, if you ask many people their opinion of this barrio, all negative. They’ll mention, immediately, the number of immigrants. And how the area isn’t pretty to look at. And how there’s nothing to do there. Same things said about Lavapiés.

But these notions, these reactions, these thoughts I’m continually bombarded with has me thinking: is this how I am viewed when I’m just innocently walking around, commuting on the Metro, eating in a restaurant? Are people in Madrid automatically thinking negative things when they see my face or are they already internalizing the type of person they think I am because of the media and other negative interpretations of what it means to be a person of color, to be Black, to be African?

As I’ve stated before, I’m not interested in changing any aspect of me just to fit in or be desirable and to not get the rampant amount of lingering stares. But at one point or another, one has to wonder whether or not it’s truly worth calling yourself a temporary resident of a country, despite its beauty and slower pace of life and many, many, many enjoyable things, that in one way or another is committed to misunderstanding you, to othering you and plain out making you feel like you don’t belong.

awake and anti-assimilation.

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I don’t think I’ve ever really known how to blend in, how to not to stick out from the masses, how to not be less unidentifiable from the next person.

My first mark of differing identify, my name, prevented me from ever really being just like many of my other classmates, neighbors, church members or friends. And when I hit my grow spurt at the tail end of my sixth grade school year and shot up as tall as the oak trees that lined my family’s house and shrouded the sleepy house from the strong, unrelenting summer rays in Georgia during the scorching months of June, July and August, there was yet another reminder that I wasn’t made to blend into the crowd.

I became the tall, lanky, socially awkward girl with the weird, African name. And I hated everything about myself, too. I rejected each of those sentiments that made me a constant source of crazy questions, condescending looks and stares and an overall sense of discomfort. I would’ve much rather been average height with a “normal” name like Ashley, Brittany or Nicole.

These are thoughts that I had nearly two decades ago, and I never expected to feel even a tinge of those thoughts, to feel in some childish, silly way wishing I didn’t have to stand out, that I didn’t have to get the more than usual amount of stares.

But isn’t thinking like this, in a way, a bit natural, especially when I walk around in this city that inspires me and takes my breath away in both big and small ways each day and there are no faces that don’t look like mine?

Perhaps, and perhaps the months leading up to moving to Madrid, a period when I slowly began to realize that I was rejecting every notion that told me that it was wrong for me to revel in being both a Black American and African, served a greater purpose than even I considered.

Because the racial affronts I’ve faced here in just my past three weeks have blown my mind, partly because I’ve never had to take into account how Blacks (and Africans) are viewed outside of the States. And to be honest, living in Atlanta can have one thinking one way about how race and race relations are.

In my 27 years in Atlanta, there weren’t many moments where I had to consciously confront the pain, isolation and feeling of being othered that being Black and/or African brings because I was constantly interacting with those who were just like me and looked just like me. I wasn’t one of a few within a sea of a majority.

I’ve had people ask me bluntly to my face if I’m African or Latino, and yes, in that, “What are you?” tone of voice accompanied by a quizzical expression. I’ve been asked hair questions and had unwarranted hands mingling in my hair. I’ve been called “morena” which is supposedly a term of endearment for women of color. I’ve been referred to as “my sister” by other Africans as I pass them by on the street. This makes me smile.

Went I went out on a Friday night two weeks ago, an older Venezuelan man who was drinking solo in the corner a young, hip bar in the city center, approaches me, after noticing me dance as I waited for my food and asked where I was from. After I told him I was from the States, he matter of factly states that I have “skin like Obama.” I nodded and smiled unsure of how else to respond. I shared the story with many people who thought it was hilarious. I just thought the entire interaction was weird.

Last week I was asked if I spoke Nigerian. I responded kindly, with a smile, that Nigerians speak English and ended it there. When I got back to my flat later that day, my feet planted firmly on the floor as I sat on the edge of my unmade twin bed, I sobbed because it was yet another stark reminder how many people here and period just don’t “get it” and how I don’t feel like it’s my role or responsibility to forge that bridge of understanding and lack of ignorance.

Being outrightly othered can wear you down.

I’ve had several conversations with people about racism and race relations in Spain because I needed an outlet to vent my frustration. One person told me that it wasn’t really an issue, and that if I was confronted with being called “negrita,” supposedly the slang word used to refer to Black people that I should shrug it off and not take it personally.

But wait.

Shouldn’t I be able to determine what or what shouldn’t offend me as a woman of color? How is it anyone else’s role outside of people of color what or what shouldn’t offend us in these cases?

And that’s when I knew that it “not being an issue” was code language for covert notions  lurking in the shadows or—If it doesn’t affect you personally in your day-to-day life then of course it’s not a big deal and can surely be ignored.

Especially when already, in terms of other minorities here I’ve seen small shreds of oppression that bother me. For instance, there is a huge Chinese population in Madrid, many of whom are business owners of shops in the barrios throughout the city.  These shops offer everything you could imagine in one place for an affordable price. Many Spaniards refer to their businesses as the, “Chino,” which literally translates to The Chinese in English.

Does anyone else see the glaring issue with this?

But I hear it often: in casual mentions of where people will pick up items they need on the weekend or after a long day at work. And although, once again, I was told that the term was not offensive and was okay to say, I can’t help but put myself in those shoes.

What if there were shops with everything imaginable under one roof called the “Africano” which literally translates to “The African” in English? How is that not offensive? On what universe is it not offensive to refer to a store solely as the nationality that owns it and not what is actually sold there?

I digress.

Before I moved to Spain, I made a silent vow to each day, be proud of who I am, my heritage, where I came from. One way I’ve consciously done this is insisting that people refer to me with the true, proper Nigerian pronunciation of my name, versus the Amercanized pronounciation I have gone with for years, to coax myself out of my previous heritage insecurity. Often I slip up and default back to the latter pronunciation because it’s comfortable and familiar, for others, but not me. In those instances, I feel silly, because people wonder why I say my own name differently. No one knows how much of a personal struggle that has been for me all my life though, so I can’t become too fixated on what others think.

Although being “me” here, being one of the few brown faces, is down right uncomfortable, unnerving and clearly establishes me as different, I won’t tone it down or adjust or code-switch or attempt to blend in solely for the sake of not having to bother with answering the many questions that continue to flood in.

I’d much rather deal with the anguish of being authentic versus the anguish of being a fraud.