ANTI-BLACKNESS AND THE AFRICAN IMMIGRANT
Updated: Jun 23, 2020
Itoro Bassey and Ugo Edu
(This article is part of a larger series on African Diasporic relations, travel, and ancestry. “Anti-Blackness and the African Immigrant” is written from the experience of two Nigerian-American women. We understand that this article does not capture everything, but the hope is to open important dialogues within our communities.)
Part of being an African immigrant in America is to sometimes think we wield a political and social choice when it comes to our racial identity. Am I Black or nah? But the thing is, once we get here, we are Black. If we’re honest about our experiences, specifically as the children of African immigrants—most of our parents went through great lengths to keep us on the straight and narrow. This meant getting good grades, attending prestigious universities, and keeping our nose to the grindstone for that American dream. Part of our conditioning required us to separate ourselves from Blackness and the Black struggle with the hope that we would embrace White American-centric standards.
Here are six statements that many of us heard way too much growing up in order to “make it.” At the end of each point, we have highlighted affirmative statements on the Black experience as told by our African immigrant mothers. It’s important to highlight the ways our consciousness has grown, and the radical conclusions our parents drew from living and raising children here. So in the name of casting out these anti-Black demons and the foul stench of white supremacy, we commit ourselves to our decolonizing and recovery.
1. “I’m not Black, I am [insert nationality here].”
For the African immigrant, there are so many things to navigate. Am I more Nigerian than American? Am I Black or Nigerian? For African-Americans, they also have these conundrums too, as their cultures are rich and complex. On any given day, they may identify with other facets of their racial or ethnic identity (I am Creole, I am Gullah, I am indigenous…). It’s not wrong to identify with one’s nationality, tribe, or ethnicity. We are nuanced peoples and we get to be more than a monolith.
But we all know that whether it’s Okonkwo or Otis walking down the street, when the police officer stops and frisks you, or when Karen clutches her purse when she sees you, or when you get passed over for that job because your workplace feels more comfortable with Andy’s “style,” it don’t matter if you’re from Lagos or from North Carolina. That’s the Black experience. Okonkwo and Otis are linked through a common struggle. Rather than trying to contort ourselves into the model immigrant, maybe learning all we can about how Black people in the US have survived and thrived is the way to go. If anything, it gives us an opportunity to invest our time and care into supporting one another. I think of my mother, a Nigerian immigrant who worked in Texas as a nurse’s aid and then went to work as a scientist in Massachusetts. When telling me of the racism she endured in these places she said, “I wish they had taught me about what Black people went through here. Of all the things a school could teach an African child, why wouldn’t they teach us about this?”
Affirmative Statement: “I am Black. There is diversity within Blackness that the US just hasn’t paid attention to. I can celebrate my particular heritage, but not at the expense of the Black struggle and our unity.”
2. “Marura is such a well behaved student.” Mrs. Davies said in front of the entire class. “Not like, [insert name of African-American child here].”
A likely scenario where we begin accepting this false narrative of specialness is in the school system. Usually, our position as being both foreign and Black becomes tokenized and used as a weapon against other students, namely African-American students. In my high school, we had a small number of exchange students from Cameroon. They were often applauded for their “work ethic” and ability to “excel.” In another scenario, a teacher once tried to pair me with an African-American student because they thought I would serve as a “good influence.” I can’t tell you how many African-American students were shamed by white teachers because of their biases. And I can’t tell you how many times I—and other Black immigrants—were used as bait.
What my school needed was wrap around programs, Black teachers, and a culturally competent curriculum. We needed preventative programs and emotionally mature adults to guide emotionally complex youth. But rather, we had racist adults pitting fifteen-year-olds against each other like we were in a boxing ring. It would be years later when I realized the brutality of my schooling. And the truth was that I thought being a token would save me. But at the end of the day, if you no longer want to be a puppet, you need to get off the stage.
Affirmative Statement: “I would have benefitted so much more from learning about the history of Black People before I came to America.
3. “Why don’t they work hard? They are wasting opportunities. How can I, a foreigner, come in here and make it in their own country and they can’t make it?”
This is a tricky sentiment that often runs through our families. The idea that African-Americans are “lazy” and do not work hard enough is what we are led to believe from a racist society that unfailingly pushes this narrative. If we investigate this colonialist idea thoroughly, the African continent’s inability to “develop” is also tied to a lack of will and inherent laziness. But we know that in our own countries, many of us work hard. Take Nigeria for example, Africa’s most populous nation, how many people have worked hard for their degrees only to enter an economy with no job prospects? Is that an individual issue or is it systemic? And we haven’t even covered the life of someone selling produce at the market or a domestic worker.
Regardless of what side of the Atlantic one finds themselves, if you have black skin, most likely someone somewhere considers us lazy. This idea is also compounded with how Western media determined our understanding of Black American life. The T.V. showed us the pinnacles of Black success, Oprah, Michael Jordan, Jay Z, Barack Obama, and Whitney Houston as markers. Before we got to the U.S., they told us that if we worked hard, we could get a seat at the table too. But when we get here, we are usually balancing different jobs while trying to attain our dreams, whether that’s Uber driving, retail work, or nannying. When many of us arrive, we start from the bottom and the top is a long stretch away.
And then we learn that the conditions for most Black people do not reflect what the media has shown us. We learn about systemic racism and police brutality. The transparency of social media users allow us to witness these truths in real time. It becomes clear that “Attaining the American dream” is the exception, not the norm. It becomes even clearer that the privilege of arriving in America to study, and grind to “make it,” is due to the engaged struggle African Americans continue to fight and die for.
Affirmative Statement: “To be Black you must work harder than anyone else. This is what I told my son. He may have white friends, but he is not white. He’s gonna have to work harder. That’s life here.”
4. “Have more white friends.”
The idea that the more you align yourself with Whiteness, the less Black you will be, is another way we internalize anti-blackness. In exchange for being told that we are “not like those Black people,” we become out of touch with what's really happening in the hopes of "fitting in." Our investment in being viewed as "not being that kind of Black" becomes a way to police Black people, serving as the perfect divide and conquer tactic to enforce white supremacist ideologies.
It teaches us that in order to attain access into white spaces, we have to weaponize our differences to hurt rather than connect to one another. Yet—our perceived ticket into privilege will not save us. We don't need to be used as safe havens for prejudiced people to feel comfortable with their racism and complicity, how twisted is that?
We don’t have to continue white America’s mistakes (shout out to Audre Lorde), and the gravest mistake of supremacy is that those with privilege think they have the right to wax poetic about our humanity. How many times has someone tried to play devil’s advocate with our lives when we mention inequity? All of us are made out of flesh, bone, heart, spirit and the intellectual capacity to know we deserve better. Our lives are not theoretical, and any one who wants a sincere relationship will do their work to know that. The complexity of the Black experience is of great value, and limiting ourselves to a vicious binary of who’s good and bad is basic. We deserve more than the crumb of fake camaraderie. And we deserve so much more than the measurement of whiteness.
Affirmative Statement: " Don't differentiate me from Black people because I am African, I am proud to be one of them.”
5. “They always complain. Let’s just focus on sharing our culture.”
We experienced this, “let’s just share our culture'' dynamic A LOT on college campuses (over twelve years ago). It was always easier to have a culture sharing night, or a fashion show where everyone could simply “feel good” and eat jollof rice. Our attempts at keeping the “peace” made us the more palatable Negro non-Black folks could “connect” with, so long as we steered away from pointing out all things racist and political. If we did create organizations focused on African identity, it was important to say that we were a “multicultural” organization open to anyone interested in Africa (remember that random white lady we elected as the event planner for the African Students Association simply because she gave a basic speech about how she wanted to travel to Zimbabwe for her junior year? Or the White South African lady who wanted to unload all her white guilt on us, and then proceeded to tell us that her people were not colonial settlers and had every right to claim indigenous land as theirs?). Dare we behave like the African-Americans who are explicit about protecting Black space in a world of anti-black hatred. No, we had to be “welcoming” because at the end of the day, “we’re all human.” But when it came time to talk about things that really affected us, like constantly being stopped by campus police, or a white student saying that our traditional food smelled gross, or having Karen question if you belonged in a certain dorm hall, where was the power of culture sharing then? And what about Becky—you all know who we’re talking about—that white woman with dreads who took that one West African dance class and is now teaching around the world and making bank? Today, Black students continue to share horrifying experiences of racist Halloween parties where students wear blackface and think it’s a joke to simulate a lynching. We may be happy to share our cultures, but we don’t want to welcome culture vultures who will exploit us without having a real understanding of the challenges we face and what actually brings us a semblance of peace.
And frankly, we should be questioning the conditions that necessitate constantly “displaying” our culture and the reduction of our culture to food, dance, hairstyles, and fashion shows. Why don’t they ask how we resolve problems? Or how we practice health and well-being? And to whom are we actually ok with sharing our culture? This is real talk here, some of us are comfortable—even gleeful—when Connor wears a dashiki (because you know every African wears a dashiki). But somehow, if our Diasporic sisters and brothers try connecting to a heritage that was ripped away from them, we say, “How dare you appropriate our culture?” It’s not to bypass the fact that we have deep fissures to heal when it comes to admitting our mistakes and understanding each other. And it’s not to say that sometimes we experience anti-African sentiments from our African-American folks. But if we have little to no patience for each other, or keep dismissing each other at every turn, what does that say? Perhaps our work is to figure out how we can understand each other, rather than sharing culture with whiteness to vye for that honorary “white” status. It’s time to mend and heal the loss we have all suffered as a result of colonialism and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
Affirmative Statement: “I am more than just the interesting parts of my culture...If you are not interested in my struggle, and the ways this society oppresses me, your interest does not flatter me.”
6. “Well…if things get bad here, I can just go back to my country.”
I don’t think we even realize the privilege wrapped up in this one statement. And even if going back to one’s country is to go to the village and sit, there is still much privilege in having the mobility to simply “escape” to where one is from. This is actually a deeply violent statement, considering the violence Black people in the Diaspora had to survive, and considering that if we were to trace our lineages, our people may have very well been the ones who sold them. Some of us may have been the ones left behind to mourn them. But in 2020, we don’t get to ignore the ground we stand on. On an ancestral and spiritual level, this demon of separation and a refusal to see ourselves as a people in need of reconciliation and healing keeps us from the truth. So let’s account for some of the things Black people who were stolen and brought to the U.S. did.
They built the U.S., fought in their wars, gave free labor, and managed to turn something heinous into a rich history of resilience and beauty. The country is theirs. Periodt. Let’s not say a statement that erases the hard work done by those that stay because they have too, or because they choose to. If not for African-Americans fighting for equality and inspiring Black people all over the world to do the same, where would we be? We certainly wouldn’t be able to live and study in the US with the liberties we currently enjoy because of how they fought.
And—if ever they want to return to Africa, we should welcome them with open arms because that’s their home too. We can say, “If I decide to leave, you’re welcome to stay with me if ever you need a rest from this white supremacist nightmare.” Or we could say, “Here’s a plane ticket homie! Let’s go. (For those of us who are balling).” Or we could raise funds to sponsor cultural exchanges, or we could fight alongside African-Americans in the U.S., or we could do the soul surgery required to make sure this shit never happens again, and ask ourselves the questions that feel dangerous. But to say something like, “I’ll just go home,” is reckless. It reveals that we’ve internalized cruelty, the prime ingredient needed to keep this imperialist system going. When we do leave to go back home, we have a responsibility to let people know the truth about what’s happening abroad. We can build safe havens for Black people in the Diaspora who need a break, or push our countries to adopt legislation that seeks to protect those of African origins living abroad, because at the end of the day, they are us. We can do much better than cruelty. We must. Having the privilege to leave requires great responsibility.
Affirmative Statement: “Let’s find new pathways for our healing...I’m going home for a breather, and you’re welcome to join me. We can strategize about how to end white supremacy.”
This list does not capture everything we experienced growing up. But wrote it because it is an important conversation to begin, if we ever intend to bridge the gap that divides us.
As African immigrants in America, we have also had our share of anti-African sentiments hurled at us by African Americans, rather than engage in our usual unproductive back and forth, accounting for the mess in our own backyard seemed ideal.
It is imperative that we acknowledge and progress in decolonization and detachment from whiteness. It is our hope that this conversation, breeds thoughts and responses that continue us on our journey of connecting, unlearning and learning from one another.
To read more from Itoro Bassey, visit her medium page here.