Subculture on Main: Derartu Ahmed

Subculture on Main strives to raise awareness of the diversity of people and important issues on the Lawrence University campus. Care is taken to give equal platform to unique individuals and to listen to their stories with an open mind. Interviews are reflective only of the interviewee on not of their whole group.

The idea of smaller groups within a larger one gets across the idea that groups of people are quite different from each other. The difference can be small or very large, they are an illustration of the diversity of people. But for some students, like sophomore Derartu Ahmed, subscribing to just one group does not do their identity justice. Having a dual cultural identity — a cultural or ethnic identity that shares the characteristics of two or more groups — comes with its joys and struggles and certainly displays how permeable culture really is. 

Ahmed described her experience: “I am from a certain region and a certain culture of Ethiopia. I speak Oromo, but I grew up here [in the U.S.] so you could say I’m integrated into the American culture, too. So, I have the privilege of having the best of both worlds.”

For Ahmed, having labels and separation is not what is special about having an identity. She said, “I try to stay away from identifying myself as anything, to be honest, just because if I identify myself as Ethiopian completely there is always a part of me that thinks, ‘Well that’s not completely the true story.’ But neither am I 100% American, not 100% of any subcultural group. […] [I]n Ethiopia, we often try not to identify as one [group] or the other just because we don’t really have [total separation]. It’s newer. We kind of integrate the culture, so we are a new culture on our own because we get to mix two things, but it’s not fully one or the other which makes us the middle.”

Ahmed explained that being in the middle sometimes has its problems. On one hand, you deal with people trying to interpret your identity, and on the other there are some feelings of guilt because you want to be proud of your heritage. “I think as you grow older,” she said, “you also learn to just be like, ‘Hey, I represent both so you’re going to have to accept that part of me too.’”

She continued, “It’s definitely not easy being two because I sometimes wish I can speak Oromo all day, like I sometimes hate speaking English. I miss just being Ethiopian. I miss being the black of my community without actually being called ‘black’ because such a thing doesn’t exist [there]. […] I am Ethiopian. I am the dominant race. I am the race. So, coming from that kind of culture and coming to the U.S. where there is such huge division in skin tone [can be challenging].”

It was a challenge, Ahmed recounted, learning about and being integrated into the U.S. with its historical context of racial conflict and the concept of Blackness. She shared, “I was privileged; understanding my privilege and the privilege of not being judged for your skin tone, I took that for granted. It kind of humbles you, too. Yes, it makes me proud to be Ethiopian, but it also shows me the challenges that you can face because sometimes you’re not going to be accepted in [a group].”

Speaking on her experiences with identity, Ahmed stated, “The first thing you gain [from dual identity] is endurance. Endurance is used when you’re running, but this is running to find your identity: to find where you want to be, to find that sometimes we don’t even want to be that thing but you are that thing. You can’t change it, so it’s running to accept yourself. [We are] running fast enough to see if you can accept yourself within that timeline of our lives. Sometimes we say, ‘Oh, I can’t accept myself’ but that’s the whole point. It’s that this culture of things makes you unique and makes you who you are. It is how you’re shaped. I am definitely 100,000% shaped by my culture.”

 Derartu studies biology and serves as president for Lawrence International. She would like to see more diversity (and Ethiopians!) on campus. She also likes to make friends based on their character and not their group membership, offering herself as representative of her own identity. 

If you would like to represent your group, contact Dani Massey at