Monday, April 14, 2014

Black vs. African: "Race Consciousness"


Black vs. African. There is no versus in me because I am both. I am black American and I am Nigerian American. I am all American, all black, and half Nigerian.

So when I am reminded of the tension between black people and first generation African immigrants, or the imagined tension between the two groups, it feels especially arbitrary to me. But I must respect that it is very real for those so impassioned and involved in our difference from our recent immigrant cousins, so to speak.

I say that the tension is imagined because I do not see the tension play out in real time. As a teenaged Nigerian-black-American girl, a few of my (black) friends felt it appropriate to get the scoop on why Africans thought they were better than black people. I can't remember exactly how I answered, but I should have said, "Well, I don't know. You should ask an African."

And how many times, in west African families (the only group I can poorly speak to), are all the hushed assumptions about black American people spoken out loud, those that lead mothers and sisters to decry their sons and brothers ending up with black American women, for example? And how many times have these women actually met the very people they have decried and confronted them about these perceived inadequacies?

Real tensions are lived out in heated discussions and shouting matches, African immigrant on one side accusing black American of being, whatever, lazy, violent, thuggish, and black American saying, ah-hah! I knew you felt this way about me! Now let me tell you why you're ignorant to the legacy of institutionalized racism...

I am not yet aware of this happening, but I'm hopeful a civil version of this gets played out in campuses across the country.

Because that's the only way imaged tensions turned real tensions can devolve.

And as I felt my friend back in high school unfairly placed me in the center of this unfortunate contention, I also refuse to place myself in the middle of it. I by far do not have the authority to lie bare the root of the tensions between African immigrants and black Americans. I don't think any one does, not another mixed person, maybe a scholar on the subject, and definitely not me.

In my family, the only black vs. African tension that existed was any sexual tension that existed in my parents prior to the realization of their relationship, but that is long gone 30 years into marriage.

And as the Nigerian daughter of a black American woman, maybe I wasn't privy to what our Nigerian family friends said behind closed doors about black people because they knew my mother was black. And maybe no one in my circles really meditated about the state of black Americans and that's why I didn't hear it.

So I cannot really confirm or deny the tension. But as a very black Nigerian American woman, I can say the following things with certainty:

--Africans are not better than black Americans by any measure, any more than any group of people is better than another.
--As black Americans, we must understand that the context in which race exists in our country does not exist in the same way outside of this country and in many places does not exist at all. Neither does our consciousness about it.
--As African immigrants and second generationers, we must make an effort to understand the history of institutionalized slavery and racism and the resultant Civil Rights Movement that is responsible for allowing us or our parents to immigrate into this country in the first place.
--All of us need to make an effort to know each other before dismissing each other on the basis of long-held reputation or rumor.

When I was little, my mother used to remark that Africans, particularly our Nigerian friends, could move into all-white neighborhoods and not blink. And often, their children would fare just fine as the only black children in the schools. Not so for this second generationer who's looking at the prospect of moving into the mainly-white suburb that my SO lives in. What changed with one generation? Race consciousness.

Being aware of my blackness, or what I think it means to be black in America, makes me fear that I'll encounter people who feel I don't belong in their suburb. It'll make me feel out of place. The majority of immigrants do not carry race and racial oppression on their bodies like many Americans do. My father would have felt comfortable in my SO's suburb and probably would have liked the weather better than the first place he lived when he came to this country, the upper peninsula of Michigan.

I didn't hear my father speaking the language of race consciousness until a friend of his, also Nigerian, experienced racism in the workplace. It was as if it became real for my father at that moment. Because the whole, "You're not like other black people," or, "I don't consider you really black" thing that a lot of us first- and second-generationers get isn't full-proof and it's far from universal.

We black people are not imaging things. Racism is real. It's a real force that is external and very much internal. It incorporates itself often in the nay-saying voice that all people have that we are variably able to silence. We have to fight off that negative self-talk that convinces us that our shortcomings are racially based and that we are inferior, somehow, because it's been said and implied so long.

Yes, internal. We internalize it because we consume it. It is spoon fed to us as children as soon as we learn we used to be slaves, that we used to be absolutely unequal, that we used to have separate everything, like we were dirty, like the brown of our skin was tainted and would rub off on others.
Nigerian children, for example, do not learn this about themselves.

Even when we are taught that it was wrong, of course, (though that was not necessarily implicit in the teachings I got about slavery, even in the North), it makes us fearful. Do racists still exist?

We internalize it when we, black kids in a poor school district, have test grades that are compared to the richer, whiter school districts. We internalize it when our test scores are lower than our white friends at the same class level. Was some of that true?

As a Nigerian American black girl, I was not immune to this internalization. My father had no context for it and always harkened back to his, "Do the other students have two heads?" to motivate me. I pushed through intense feelings of inadequacy.

My father's experience as one of the only black people in his science classes at the University of Michigan was, therefore, very different than my experience as one of the only black people in my science classes at the University of Michigan.

Internalized racism is the most damning form of racism there is. It makes us hyper aware of our racial difference and makes us move differently in space, to only our own detriment. It made my teenaged friend believe that Africans think they're better than us. And how did that make him feel? Alienated from a group of people who looked like him but where just another group in the list that thought they were better than him, and maybe actually were.

Whereas...I've never encountered an African immigrant who asked me if black people consider them stuck-up, ignorant and other.

Internalized racism makes us wonder if that neighbor in the all-white suburb glancing at us is racist and if they're wondering how a black woman could afford to live in this neighborhood, whereas someone else may not even notice the glance.

Internalized racism makes us wonder if the boss has been waiting for you to screw up because he was convinced that you didn't belong in the company as a black person and expected you to fail, whereas someone else may not have that tension.

Internalized racism puts us constantly in the defensive because so many people could potentially be against us at any time because of our culture and heritage and we have to be prepared, whereas that is not a reality for so many other people.

Internalized racism is confused to be race consciousness in so many of us.

Let me not run to the subway, because people get scared when they see a black man running toward them.

In summary, ruminations on what African immigrants think of us, black people, comes from a place of internalized racism, because as my father says, "Is that what you're going to eat?" No, it's not. If they do think they're better than us, screw them! Seriously.

Easier said than done, right? It hurts for someone who looks like you, who may share ancestry with you, to also be down on you like everyone else is. So first- and second-generationers, recognize that and respect it.

And African immigrants and second-gens, institutionalized racism was no joke! We will at some point feel the effects of it while in this country. It will be very hard for you to protect your children from it. So recognize and befriend your black neighbor who has come up with ways to teach his child to respond to it, recognize it in themselves and repel it.


  1. How weird that you posted this, I wrote about dealing with some of this in the Arab World... funny. But my take was a little different. The racism factor is real, and I like what you said about how internalized racism is what makes the black vs. African perspective different. Unfortunately, in American society, traditionally, historically whatever you want to call it, assimilation has meant making sure you are not treated as black. Anything but that... ugh.

    It can be heavy baggage that is carried into contexts where things are not so black and white. When I hear black people here make comments that are reminiscent of US Civil Rights era, it gives me pause. Not because this space is race(ism)-free, but because turning Cairo, or abu Dhabi or Muscat into Jackson Mississippi is such a strange thing to do (IMO).

    And yet, I wonder, when did I begin to accept this ish? Outside the US, everybody and their grandmother learns that I am American. Inside the US, I've learned to let it drop that my ties to the continent are just one generation away, lest someone confuse me as being just one of those "Kwanza celebrating African-Americans" as a white classmate once told me (in relief?).

    but yeah although the tensions are there, cuz I have definitely been called nasty things by AFrican-Americans growing up and felt the favoritism or lack thereof from black adults.... and heard Africans say quite unsavory things about their long-lost brethren. I think things have calmed down tremendously...

    I remember when AFrican parents in my community thought was sacrilege for one of their kids to marry an AA (the feeling I got was if their father's and uncles did it to legalize their status that was ok, but marrying one out of "love"... what??!!!) ... it wasn't like that in my family but friends and acquaintances had siblings that dealt with this. Now, it's whatever.

    I just seems that like every few years the same issues come to light of day, a few people address it in articles and soundbites and then it goes to collect dust again for another few years... change is happening organically... what can you do? (shrugs shoulders)

    1. I love that you bring up the assimilation piece being trying to be anything but black. And that works...until one's group finds themselves nigrified. And then suddenly people are reading about the history of the country and trying to mobilize Civil Rights style for their rights.

      We made this country and we made this country's pop culture. We are also everyone's least we're not that. *sigh*

      Anyway, you speak the truth in your comment. I wonder what my family thinks of my father marrying my mother. It was certainly for love, which neither of them will say because my father doesn't talk about love unless it's about Jesus and my mother says "ewwww" whenever people talk about love, haha.

    2. As a British first generation African, we suffer more from a superiority complex with people from the West Indies then AA's. Typically AA's are not even up for discussion because they are so culturally different from anything we understand.

      Growing up the amount of tension between first generation Africans kids and Jamaicans/Caribbeans kids was unbelievable. Africans considered themselves to be of richer culture, more studious, two parent families and just overall 'superior'. Which is ridiculous and even within Africans, we had our own divisions between West Africa/East Africa. Its all just a by-product of post colonialism and slavery. And even though Africans weren't enslaved the continent was divided up and we were pitted against one another and whilst we argued our wealth was stolen.

      I personally love all my AA/West Indian and African people.

    3. @clair - Couldn't respond to your response to my response, silly blogspot and layout issues.

      Love your comment, though...definitely food for thought. We have so many divisions between us, and as my father would say, is this what we're going to eat? Because, I don't know about in the UK, but while Nigerians are lauded as the "model immigrants" in the US, with the highest level of education of any immigrant or non-immigrant group, we still make less than Caucasian Americans. Because at the end of the day, in the black/white dichotomy that drives American social relations, we're still all black. I don't think that the optimistic pan-African efforts of yore will come back into full swing any time soon, but at some point we have to realize that we're defining ourselves and our interactions with each other by our former masters and/or colonizers.