I am really enjoying reading other people’s posts on RamiTalks!
And here’s another one. In a year of worldwide protests against racial injustice, one aspect that has lingered in my mind is the problem of black-on-black ‘racism’. I think you know what I mean: blacks from Africa being looked down on by blacks in the diaspora. I believe it exists and I believe it is a problem.
I had no idea how to articulate it until I read this piece by a friend who has experienced it directly. She lives in the USA and when we spoke she said exactly what I had been thinking about. And she articulates it beautifully, and sadly, in this piece.
Please read it, and let’s talk.
It was my freshman year at college. I sat in a cafeteria and devoured my food hungrily after a full day of class and work. I was homesick and looked longingly at tables around me with groups of excited college students debating or bantering with each other. After I recovered from my lack of companionship, now secretly thankful that I had the peaceful solitude to reflect, I noticed that the students in the cafeteria were neatly segregated racially or by ethnicity. There was an African American table, a white table, an Asian table, a Latino table and although I knew some of these students, and indeed looked like others, it was both obvious and sobering to acknowledge that I didn’t quite fit in at any table.
Joining in voluntarily was possible and may even have been welcomed but would require a performance on my part that seemed too mentally taxing at that moment. Essentially, I was living through one of the greatest challenges of the immigrant experience in America – though this country is often touted as the great cultural melting pot – it isn’t always easy to be accepted as an immigrant, harder still as an African.
I chose to study in a foreign country fully aware of the cultural discomfort I could face. I recognized that blending effortlessly into a sea of straight or wavy hair and light skin wasn’t likely to happen and that as hard as I may try to punctuate my speech with the overemphasized ‘r’s and soft ‘t’s of American slang, people would still ask, “where is your accent from?” None of that surprised or bothered me; it was part of the refining fire of literally living outside my comfort zone. What gutted me was my struggle to become kinfolk with my skinfolk. Incredibly, the same skin that is strong enough to homogeneously categorize us is still too thin to bind us together. It has been most frustrating to watch black folk battle each other to be the better kind of black.
Many blacks in the diaspora, at least pre-Marvel’s Black Panther, weren’t entirely eager to embrace an African identity. When I first moved to America, I would be so excited to meet black people who looked Ghanaian or West African and would immediately inform them as part of my efforts to begin a conversation. Perhaps I needed more practice in small talk but the decisive ‘No, I am not African,’ I kept hearing in response cured me of that line quickly. I understood later that being African at the time was not in vogue. My skinfolk still nurtured an oversimplified image of who Africans were – we were either exorbitant royalty or lived naked in stark poverty in voodoo-governed jungles or mud huts.
The irony was not lost on me that the images that fed the African American perspective on Africa, mirrored the images Africans had also cultivated back home about African Americans. On screen we learned that they were either unbelievably rich athletes or entertainers, ghetto fabulous, or violent gang bangers. As African immigrants, we were reminded that our purpose for coming to America was for school and was warned not to be distracted by them or our dreadlocked, reggae and dancehall thumping Afro-Caribbean brethren. Where had we all built these ridiculous narratives about each other? How did we share a lineage and yet were still so dependent on erroneous stereotypes?
Ta-Nehisi Coates offers an informed perspective on how we may build these faulty narratives in his book, Between the World and Me. He explains that, “The black people in these films seemed to love the worst things in life – love the dogs that rent their children apart … love the men who raped them, the women who cursed them, love the children who spat on them, the terrorists that bombed them”(pg.32).
Though Coates refers specifically to the portrayal of freedom fighters on screen in his text, his words are enlightening regarding the power of the media to inaccurately define us. People of African descent are frequently caricatured because we have surrendered our right to tell our own stories, depending instead on Eurocentric media to keep us informed. We have anchored our self-worth on images that at best capture us only in very compromising angles and at worst are dangerously and purposefully skewed. Without the mitigating effects of an exposed and well-informed audience, the media left loose, nurtures a deep seated self-hatred that drives us to magnify our differences, weakening the entire black diaspora as a result.
Some of my lowest points of self-worth as an African immigrant have unfortunately been experienced at the hands of fellow blacks in the diaspora. During my college years, I used to braid hair to supplement my living expenses and avoid overburdening my parents. An African American woman responded to one of my flyers advertising my braiding services and booked me for a house call. From the moment I arrived in her home, however, she treated my presence as a major inconvenience. When I realized that she hadn’t purchased enough hair pieces for the long-braided style she wanted, she angrily accused me of not being scrappy enough with what she had available. “Is this how you waste hair in Africa?” she quizzed, her voice dripping with disdain. I was stunned at her angry reference to my entire continent in response to a simple braiding situation, but it wasn’t the last time I would experience prejudice from my skinfolk.
Over a decade later, HVAC cleaners were contracted to service our home and assumed upon entering that my husband, who welcomed them in, was the help and not the homeowner. Their patronizing demeanor improved dramatically only after they learned about our respective places of employment. Essentially, we had to prove our right to decent service and simply to exist in our own home to fellow minorities, even after paying heftily for their service. Sadly, this experience is common among African Immigrants in America. Too often, black people in the diaspora lose sight of our common humanity and shared struggle against white supremacy and instead, serve as agents of discord in our own communities.
Movements like the American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS), though important in advocating for the unique systemic racial and economic inequities faced by African Americans, also tend to encourage African American suspicion towards African immigrants as unintended beneficiaries of reparatory justice. In seeking to specifically advocate for African Americans, ADOS may inadvertently minimize all melanin-induced discrimination. Indeed, African immigrants face discrimination too in addition to the enduring perils of colonization and the betrayal of many of our African leaders, who have looted the continent’s resources for their own selfish gain. Our battered economies and societies have led us in droves into self-exile, frequently under the most inhumane conditions, to seek greener pastures across the world.
When African immigrants arrive in America and succeed against all odds, albeit without the baggage of a past marred by slavery and Jim Crow, our children are called Oreos by their black friends and accused of not being black enough as if blackness can only be defined within the structure of Black American street culture. Our African accents and characters are ridiculed and dehumanized in black Hollywood, and our strong representation in the Ivy league is frequently slammed as Affirmative Action gone wrong. In response to African American xenophobia and white divisive politics, accomplished African immigrant communities sadly buy into the narrative of being a superior kind of black, resurrecting the honed but inaccurate stereotypes we’ve learned about African Americans all our lives.
Black communities in America seem to be in a deadly battle for a single slice of the American Pie and ‘allowing’ immigrants of African descent too many bites of that slice means there isn’t enough pie for the rest of the black community. Instead of perpetuating inter-segregation and other exclusionary tactics for the limited opportunities available to us, what prevents us from baking our own pie – rebuilding communities and economies that are unapologetically ours and serve us all equally? Pitting our struggles in competition with each other is unproductive and futilely fans the flames of white supremacy.
How do we move forward?
The black diaspora needs to muster the creativity and tenacity to think outside the constructs of Eurocentric social imagery and reclaim the power to tell our own stories. We need to cooperate on cross-cultural creative projects – film, music, and other art forms that portray a pan-African perspective. When Africans, African-Americans, Afro-Europeans, Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latinx communities tell their stories, we all need to listen, engage, and educate each other to dismantle the false narratives we have nurtured in ignorance. This should be a mutual learning process, not a mere shift in oppressor-oppressed dynamics. Discrimination and imperialism of black people led by other black people is just as unethical and insidious as white supremacy and must not be encouraged.
We all need to engage with the African continent more widely and directly. If you can, post Covid-19, take a trip to sub-Saharan Africa or engage with African immigrants in the diaspora and begin to unpack the diversity, complexities, and layers of African humanity. Embrace the trauma and healing of visiting the slave castles across West and Central Africa but venture beyond the posts of slave trade in the West and the beautiful safaris of the East and South. Sample the flavors and spices in our food and enjoy the everyday hustle of our bustling cities. Share in the frustrations of thriving in a developing economy and invest and trade with us. Let loose and dance to the rhythms of our drums. You’ll trace the roots of your jazz, hip-hop, and calypso in those drumbeats and realize that far more than the nuances that divide us is a deep, spiritual connection of belonging that should edify us.
The most effective measure to improve cooperation across the diaspora, however, is education! We need to teach slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement in African homes and schools. African Americans need to understand the complexities of slavery (the fact that not all Africans sold slaves for example), the African experience with colonialism and the commonalities between our anti-colonial movements and the civil rights movement. We as a people have fought for liberation for decades in our homeland and across the world. From Dr. Nkrumah to Dr. King, Yaa Asantewaa to Rosa Parks, Baldwin to Achebe, and Mandela to Annan, we have a wealth of intellect and zeal to inspire us. We are so much stronger in this fight together.
Can we be kinfolk?
Decades ago, on tour with family at the Elmina Castle (the first European slave-trading post in sub-Saharan Africa), an eight year old me stood at the Door of No Return, eyes transfixed at the waves as they repeatedly crashed the shore. Even that young, I couldn’t help but wonder what my lost ancestors may have anticipated about the future faced with the grayish expanse of the Atlantic. Did the crashing of the waves petrify and distress them? Or did they embrace their fates stoically? What horrors did they endure on those haunted journeys? How disorienting was it to land in shackles on a foreign land with no hopes of ever blending in? If I can never again nonchalantly gaze at the ocean since that experience, I can only imagine the enduring traumas my lost ancestors faced. Yet, I remain grateful for the empathy that was born in me that day.
In the end, a good dose of empathy is what we all need to neutralize racism and prejudice in all its expressions. There won’t always be a well-prepared seat at the table. Folks will not always look like us and even when they do, there will always be an expansive ocean of divisions to explore if we choose to focus on our differences. Skin notwithstanding, at our core, we are all kinfolk, we all bleed red and we all share a vital need to belong.
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