Saturday, March 17, 2012

Nigerian Privilege?

As salaam alaikum,

This was one of the mornings I just stayed up after fajr. I'm so excited about moving to Seattle now and starting residency! In three short years, insha'Allah, I'll be a trained family physician, ready to save the world in my own little way. I'm so excited to (finally) have a strong panel of black patients while still getting to have my Latino patients, though yo viajo del caribe para México with my new patient population (I miss speaking Spanish!). And maybe I'll pick up a little Amharic along the way...

And then, one of my friends posted this article on his facebook page: Data show Nigerians most educated in the US. This was from a Houston periodical.

I posted this on my facebook page, to be met with three posts from one of my facebook friends, one of which was this article: Hidden Discrimination Against African Americans and Asians In Ivy League Admissions.

My friend posted two comments, one from a friend of hers and her own take, but she concluded something that was very troubling to me: that "non-slave descended success" was different from "slave descended success."

That comment tried to rip my identities asunder, man!

So, what is my success? I have a Nigerian father and an African-American mother? Was my 3.985 GPA in high school with 7 AP classes, graduating top 5% of my class and getting into all of the colleges I applied to more because of my slave or non-slave heritage? Was my graduating top 10% from my college and getting into Harvard for medical school slave or non-slave? My success at HMS? Slave? Non-slave? Was it more slave because I grew up around my mother's side of the family, and we are all slave-descended? Or was it more non-slave because I grew up with a Nigerian immigrant head of household, carry a Nigerian first and last name, ate Nigerian food but had nothing but phone contact with my non-slave descended family?

You see how ugly that sounds? I mean, I know what she's saying, but damn, can we find another way to say it? And seriously, where does that place me? With the Nigerian name, am I the product of Nigerian privilege? Did I come this far because I'm half Nigerian?

Okay, enough with the rhetorical. I don't think so, that's the answer!

Let's look at the African-American side of the family. My mother is one of 10 in a family that was part of the great migration. Her mother went as far as the 8th grade and her father got his GED and her father's education was interrupted by WWII. He served in Germany as an engineer and always aspired to higher education. They were sharecroppers in Arkansas. My Grandmother's side can trace their origins back to Harris Farm in Mississippi, the plantation where my ancestors came from. They moved from the village of Hensley, Arkansas to Detroit than Flint, MI, where Grandfather worked in the plant while Grandmother cared for their family. They were very poor, living in a two-bedroom house that was later demolished to make room for a highway in Flint. The boys slept in the living room. My mother and her siblings all attended some college, and several of them graduated with bachelors and a few with masters degrees in education, social work and administration. My mother was one who graduated with her Masters of Social Work. They were simultaneously the first generation to complete high school, college and graduate school education. If there was arriving to be had, my mother and her siblings arrived and then some. Because of their experiences with the Jim Crow south and racism, my grandparents would come to adhere to the Nation of Islam form of black nationalism, and took in with them all 10 of their children. In the late 1970s, the family converted to Islam, making possible the birth in 1985 of this Invisible Muslimah.

Let's look at the Nigerian side of my family. My grandfather was born in 1896 and remembers when "the white man" first came to his village. His mother ran away with him in her arms to try to escape. After a bout of smallpox in 1918 in which he felt himself healed by prayer alone, he converted from Anglican to Faith Tabernacle, a denomination that did not believe in medicine. He raised his family in the church, and their home was connected to the church. My father, the youngest, was born to him when he was in his 50s. They were not poor in Nigeria. They had a car, which was a sign of wealth, because as the head of the Faith Tabernacle church in Nigeria, my grandfather had to travel. The family later fled their home with only a few pictures after the war started. My father left his boarding school for a while and had to continue his education later. In the interim, he lost his mother to cancer. Biafra, made up of my father's ethnic group, which tried to secede from Nigeria, lost the war. He arrived to the United States in 1975 on a scholarship from the Nigerian government to pursue his university education here, after attending some university there in Nigeria. Excited to go to a school dedicated to technology, he stopped first at Michigan Tech in the UP before his cousin, a professor at the University of Michigan- Flint convinced him to matriculate at the Ann Arbor campus, for less snow. He got his masters degree in Chemical Engineering and met my mother, a fellow graduate student in the School of Social Work, and the rest is history.

My success is neither slave or non-slave descended. My success, of course, is first by the grace of God. My parents were some of his agents. I grew up in a loving household with strong, opinionated and strict parents. When my father learned what we were doing in math, when he came home from work and on the weekends, he would teach me ahead in math from the time I was in first grade onward. My mother would read with me at home when she discovered that some of my reading skills were weak and encouraged me to write and expand my vocabulary. My parents made sure that my education was enriched with their own strengths as I went through a small, community, majority-black school. And when they sensed that the school no longer challenged me and would not suit my brother's special education needs, we moved to another school district. My parents taught me to work hard. My mother taught me as a black person, I would have to perform above and beyond in order to get what I deserved at base. My father taught me that there was no difference between me and my Asian classmates, that none of had two heads, and pushed me harder, to not accept the A- on tests even when it was an accelerated class and the grade was scaled up.

My success is neither slave nor non-slave. My mother's success is not slave. How limiting of ourselves it is to ever think of it that way! Yes, she and her siblings succeeded, overcoming her personal family history of discrimination on several levels, from the failures of Reconstruction for the black community to Jim Crow, from segregation to redlining. And non-slave is a grossly oversimplified way to express my father's success as a black African in this country, with the complex history of Nigeria that he lived in his lifetime, from independence to civil war, from dictatorship to corruption and ethnic strife.

Yes, there are ugly truths about the country and this very ugly social construct of race, but whether or not black people are getting into Ivy League schools where they do not receive adequate academic and career support anyway should not be the primary area of focus. Nor should black college admissions in general be the only area of focus. College admission is a shallow victory and, in my opinion, an inadequate measure of success. Successful college attendance and graduation is a better measure of success. We get to these schools and I can say first hand, no, you are not especially supported. I went to college and advised myself until my last year when I had a premedical adviser help me know that my MCAT scores were competitive and helped me with my personal statement, but that was it. If you are taking someone from a poor public school and placing them in a competitive college environment without intense guidance and mentorship, whatever Affirmative Action you have in place will most likely fail to achieve any intended outcomes.

So, in the spirit of my public health school education, what are solutions? I didn't even tough on the Asian-American discrimination piece...that is a problem that I know many of my Asian friends have felt when trying to get into prestigious schools...I must say, however, the issue with them is very different than the issue with African Americans. Most of my Asian and Asian-American friends got into great schools, even if they weren't Ivies. Few of my black friends went to these schools. Some did not go to college at all.

For Asians and Asian-Americans, I think California's race-free admissions policy is best extended everywhere, even if it means, yes, Asians will be grossly over-represented in higher education. They work hard, they deserve it. I don't think African immigrants will be hurt by this policy, because many of us also do well with grades, extra-curriculars and standardized testing.

For African Americans...what needs to happen is that Affirmative Action as it used to stand (as it is being largely abolished) cannot stand alone. Short of revamping the entire public educational system in the United States, intense mentorship and enrichment programs need to be put in place at the primary school level for black students in bad school districts. We need to cut the prison pipeline and get everyone in between the drop out to college continuum as well. The key is quality of education and whether our kids will be equipped to handle competitive college campuses, even if admissions relaxes grade and test score requirements to take into account the poor quality schools our kids are coming from.

For example, because of the rigorous education at my public school, I felt like college was easy. I also got a tuition scholarship because of my academic achievement, so I didn't have to worry about finding a job since my parent's income didn't qualify me for work-study so I could take 16-18 out of the max 18 credits per semester. I had supportive parents who enriched me and mentored me in elementary school and went to secondary school in a rigorous environment and pushed through even after guidance counselors told me that I probably had a low IQ but got good grades because I worked hard.

I celebrate the success of Nigerians as I celebrate the success of any African-descendant peoples in this country or around the world. I'm so proud of us showing that we can succeed in spite of the curse that this society placed on us because of our skin color, in spite of our bad reputation worldwide. To bicker about whether this success is worthy or not as if my lauding that success is functioning like, "See, black people, we're better than you," is short-sighted and a little bit insular. Nobody even said anything about that in the article! So it's like, what? One group can't acknowledge their success without us talking about failures in our community?

We need to get less sensitive and instead of basically taking away what I believe to be deserved merit from a group that has their own independent set of circumstances, we can see what we can learn from that group. The greatest thing having a Nigerian father did for me was something that an African American father in the same circumstance as my mother could have given to me. I will say, though, having the Nigerian name of my father and the religion of the mother often gave me a difference that gave me courage to break from the crowd and be the nerd I needed to be to get where I am today...

Anyway...those are my thoughts.


  1. ha, ha I'm supposed to be writing a little paper on Sufism in Arab media, but instead I am

    this post is interesting one those issues that come up all the time in the discussions about race and equality. At the end of the day your success is as you say a product of God's mercy and the wonderful parents He gave you.

    The problem though is that society likes to bunch people into big groups.. black folk Asian folk, heck even the privileged white paradigm is problematic. Sometimes we forget that just sharing the same skin shade is not necessarily an indicator of shared experiences or obstacles. Some people tried to make me feel guilty about this in college, like I had somehow taken the place of a real "African-American" when I accepted to go to Wellesley.

    I think when it comes to college/school admissions there needs to be a shift in focus away from race and towards socio-economic status... Race does not tell the whole story.

    1. Hmm...funny, I thought I replied to your comment. I think you're right...SES along with quality of school would probably better approximate, although the question would remain if there's any more need to pay special attention to African Americans because of the legacy of institutionalized racism in this country. But more emphasis on SES is definitely needed...

      I wonder if anyone has ever done research into admissions policies and see if we are in fact "taking slots" of any African Americans. Somehow I feel like that's not true, at all. What may in fact happen is that we're taking the slots of black people who never applied in the first place to X school.

  2. Assalamualaikum this is very interesting. I do agree with you about the racism...unfortunately now even if you are white and Muslim it's a what? any new word for it? That is this of luck in your endeavours. It does not mea,n when you are black or brown we cannot be clever like the "white"?

    1. Walaikum as salaaam.

      The bottom line is that we are as capable peoples, and Allah (swt) has endowed each of us with our own strengths and gifts. But in my opinion, when it comes to education, we are all capable. Racism and society's institutional discrimination has held people back from attaining their potential before, and the best way to deal with it is to eliminate any traces of this discrimination and give those marginalized groups the support they need to right societal ills against them.