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African in America or African American?

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African in America or African American?

"The riddle of identity means I can live in the US for 20 years yet still be treated differently – by both black people and white"

Africans who live in America do not share the history of struggle for civil rights, and indeed, even today, do not experience racism in the same way – the 'African foreigner privilege', Mukoma W Ngugi calls it. Photograph: Corbis

African in America or African American?

Mukoma Wa Nguigi

"You do not know what it means to be black in this country," an American-born son told his African father. He was right. White America differentiates between Africans and African Americans, and Africans in the United States have generally accepted this differentiation. This differentiation, in turn, creates a divide between Africans and African Americans, with Africans acting as a buffer between black and white America.

It is with relief that some whites meet an African. And it is with equal relief that some Africans shake the hand proffered in a patronising friendship. Kofi Annan, the Ghanaian former UN secretary general, while a student in the United States, visited the South at the height of the civil rights movement. He was in need of a haircut, but this being the Jim Crow era, a white barber told him "I do not cut nigger hair." To which Kofi Annan promptly replied "I am not a nigger, I am an African." The anecdote, as narrated in Stanley Meisler's Kofi Annan: A Man of Peace in a World of War, ends with him getting his hair cut.

There are several interesting questions here. Why would Kofi Annan accept a haircut from a racist? Why did he not stand in solidarity with African Americans who, at that time, were facing lynching, imprisonment and other forms of violence simply for agitating for their rights? And equally intriguing, on what basis did the racist barber differentiate between African black skin and African American black skin? Is an African not racially black? At a time of racial polarisation in the US, what made the haircut possible?

Being black and African, these are the types of questions with which I constantly wrestle as I navigate through myriads of confusing, illogical, but always hurtful and destructive racial mores. I was born in Evanston, Illinois to Kenyan parents. We returned to Kenya when I was a few months old. I grew up in a small rural town outside of Nairobi, and attended primary and secondary school in Kenya before returning to the United States in 1990 for college. I have now lived in the United States half my life. What I have come learn is that in the United States, being African can get you into places being black and African American will not.

For instance, take the "African foreigner privilege". In Ohio, thirsting for a beer I walk into the closest bar. Silence. I order a beer and the white guy next to me says, "Where are you from? Where is your accent from?" I say, "Kenya." Relief, followed by the words "Welcome to America. I thought you were one of them." The thirsty writer in me is intrigued. Now that I am on the inside, I can ask "What do you mean?" "Well, you know how they are," followed by a litany of stereotypes. Eventually, I say my piece but the guy looks at me with pity: "You will see what I mean." Never mind that to his "Welcome to America," I said I had been in the US for 20 years.

The end result of the African foreigner privilege, usually dispensed with condescension, is that Africans are becoming buffers between white and black America. There is now a plethora of reports comparing African students to African American students. The conclusion is that if Africans fresh off the boat are doing better than African Americans who have been here for centuries, then racism can no longer be blamed. But the reports do not consider that, just maybe, at either Harvard or a community college, Africans experience race differently from African Americans. Africans experience a patronising but helpful racism, as opposed to the hostile, threatened and defensive kind that African Americans grow up with. Racism wears a smile when meeting an African; it glares with hostility when meeting an African American.

Africans in the US can end up becoming foils to continuing African American struggles, because they buy into the stereotypes. They end up seeing African Americans through a racist lens. This is not to say that African Americans have not themselves bought into racist stereotypes of Africans, where Africans are straight out of a Tarzan movie. But to the credit of African Americans, they have actively, through organisations like Africa Action and Trans-Africa Forum, agitated on Africa's behalf.

Indeed, Nelson Mandela once said that without African American support, ending apartheid would have taken much longer. But one will not find organisations in African countries that reciprocate – for example, seeking to end a racialised judicial system in the US that sees more black men in prison than in college. And Africans in the United States tend to stay away from protests against police brutality and racial profiling. True, the fear of immigration police and offending the host country play a part, but I think there are ways in which Africans do not see the African American struggle against racism as their fight, too.

Twenty years and counting in the US, I no longer feel a conflicted identity, one is that torn between being black in the United States and African. Going to Kenya this past December for the Kwani Literary Festival, I saw no contradiction between going home to Kenya and returning home to the US. I do not fully comprehend terms like cosmopolitan. I do not float around in a universal home. But it makes sense to me that one can have two homes at the same time. Not just in the physical sense, but in the deepest sense of the word – to be rooted, and to have roots growing, in two different places.

And as a writer and citizen, I have duties to each. I want to open up the contradictions that, in Kenya, keep the majority in oppressive ethnicised poverty and violence and, in the United States, racialised violence and poverty.

As an African and a black person, I feel, rightly or wrongly, that I have a duty to love both homes. And love need not always be pleasant – it can be demanding, defensive, angry and wrong, but it always wants to build, not destroy.

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Just goes to show how image and speech can change perception. An African with a tongue twisting name, wearing robes and headdress speaking in either a clipped British accent or an African one comes across as exotic and impressive. Whereas a black American with a ghetto sounding name, speaking Ebonics and sporting hip-hop attire or pimped out in hustler garb is viewed as a clown by a racist society, - altho it's conceivable that these contrasting personas are different manifestations of a common root.

It is ironic that if you put an African man and an African-American one in a suit and tie and have them both speak standard English that they will be treated the same. This is a step down for the African and a step up for the African American, and the lesson that young black males can learn from this is that how you speak and dress does have an effect on your progress. This is how its works in the country of your birth which is suffering from a slavery hang-over.

Actually, our president Barack Hussein Obama is not an authentic black American because he is not descended from slaves. Yes, he did fall heir to all that accrues to a member of the black middle class but his ancestors did not pay their dues. Maybe that's why he's having such a hard time...

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It's the same in every country with an African descent population. I was talking to an Afro-French friend of mine and I was surprised and the racism he talked about there. "I thought the French liked black people," I said. "They like African Americans," he replied. "They can't stand their own black folks."

As much as I love my African heritage, I don't consider myself African. If I did, I would rather identify with the specific people, culture or region where my ancestors originated.

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Well, this is all certainly news to me. I had no idea that someone who was racist against African-Americans would see someone who was actually from Africa as being any different, or 'better', anyway. Thinking that an African is worse might have been less surprising to me, I think. Then again, I suppose that if I didn't like white people, I might not treat someone fresh off a plan from Ireland that same way I would treat someone who grew up in the states. After all, the one from Ireland doesn't necessarily have a history of oppressing people that share my skin color and heritage. So, maybe the guy at the bar recognized that disconnect between Africans and African-Americans related to civil rights and discrimination, which means that you might not have quite the same emotional "baggage" (for lack of a better word) as many African-Americans may have.

Then that leads me to wonder whether or not an African-American would be treated with the same respect if they just pretended that the racism and discrimination and history between whites and African-Americans doesn't bother them or didn't happen. Then again, most African-Americans probably wouldn't even be able to get 2 sentences into a conversation with someone who thought so lowly of African-Americans anyway.

Thanks for giving me something to ponder. :huh:

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TLCurtis said:

"I had no idea that someone who was racist against African-Americans would see someone who was actually from Africa as being any different, or 'better', anyway."

Waterstar:

Is this question based on something that you have gotten from the article? If so, I am not exactly following the rationale behind the assumptions in your question. Care to elaborate?

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It's the same in every country with an African descent population. I was talking to an Afro-French friend of mine and I was surprised and the racism he talked about there. "I thought the French liked black people," I said. "They like African Americans," he replied. "They can't stand their own black folks."

As much as I love my African heritage, I don't consider myself African. If I did, I would rather identify with the specific people, culture or region where my ancestors originated.

Well, Bro... To each his/her own of course.

I will say this, though. Specific ethnicities/cultures/regional differences don't keep us from experiencing the global struggle that we experience.

Peter Tosh summed it all up in a matter of minutes in a song by the name of "African". Perhaps if more of us shared his mentality, we would not be as elephants ruled by ants.

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Just goes to show how image and speech can change perception. An African with a tongue twisting name, wearing robes and headdress speaking in either a clipped British accent or an African one comes across as exotic and impressive. Whereas a black American with a ghetto sounding name, speaking Ebonics and sporting hip-hop attire or pimped out in hustler garb is viewed as a clown by a racist society, - altho it's conceivable that these contrasting personas are different manifestations of a common root.

It is ironic that if you put an African man and an African-American one in a suit and tie and have them both speak standard English that they will be treated the same. This is a step down for the African and a step up for the African American, and the lesson that young black males can learn from this is that how you speak and dress does have an effect on your progress. This is how its works in the country of your birth which is suffering from a slavery hang-over.

Actually, our president Barack Hussein Obama is not an authentic black American because he is not descended from slaves. Yes, he did fall heir to all that accrues to a member of the black middle class but his ancestors did not pay their dues. Maybe that's why he's having such a hard time...

I think that it is not really taken into consideration just how much a goup of people can be impacted by living in a society in which they are dominated in both number and political 'power'. Especially when this minority goup is met with hostility by the dominant majority group.

This can have a very negatively strong impact on the collective psyche. Inferiority complexes are learned just like positive self concept is learned and one thing we have to know is that the way that one feels about him/herself has almost everything to do with the way that he/she goes about life. It affects how one perceives others greatly and if one does not perceive others as superior to him/her, then the way in which he/she interacts with them is going to be much different from the way in which one who perceives others as superior to him/her interacts with them. This, in turn, often affects how the person/people on the other end will interact with them as well.

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At some point you have to deal with reality and understand that it's to your advantage to masquerade as a member of the majority in order to manipulate its members. Pragmatism is a tool that reaps more results than idealism which assumes that you can expect people to relinquish their advantage over others; wishful thinking.

I got the impression that poster TL Curtis was saying that he wasn't aware, as was suggested by the anecdote related by Kofi Annan, that in America, Africans were not subjected to as much racism as Black Americans are. It hadn't occurred to him that this was the case and he was enlightened to find this out. Incidentally this is the case. Back in the day, it was a standing joke in my generation that if you could pass yourself off as an African you could go check into hotels or be admitted to restaurants that would turn away "Negroes". There was even a little scenario attesting to this in one of Eddie Murphy's "Beverly Hills Cop" movies.

I also understand where Milton is coming from. As we know, African like Europe is a large continent so to just randomly claiming an African heritage would be like a person from France adopting the culture and heritage of Spain because both of these countries are a part of the same continent.

BTW, Waterstar, I appreciate all your postings because they do lend themselves to debate, and that's what this forum is all about. I don't mean to harass you but you should know by now that I am very argumentive. :unsure:

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You don't harass me. I don't care about people's opinions enough to be harassed by them, because in life there are two options: You can either agree with me...or you can be wrong. :angry: Outside of this universal truth, however, I think that it is good to hear more than one perspective. It can be beneficial on whichever levels one allows it to be.

Now, I am going to tell you something on a different note.

Cynique said:

"As we know, African like Europe is a large continent so to just randomly claim an African heritage would be like a person from France adopting the culture and heritage of Spain because both of these countries are a part of the same continent."

We are the only ones with a global level of idiotic thinking that keeps us from understanding that our commonalities outweigh our differences. Most people of European descent understand the importance of solidarity and they will stand in solidarity with one another even when they don't particularly like one another.They understand that there is a greater goal to focus on and with this understanding, they organize and, as a minority, control the world's majority. We all in da same (slave) ship yet we focused on who got da best view.

Just because most people laugh at an idea does not mean that the idea is not a good one. Reality is the majority of people are too busy with box-type thinking and have only box-type vision. It wasn't so long ago that the idea of you and I communicating through something that could connect anyone anywhere anytime was laughable. "Har har har! It'll never happen." Mind you, many probably said that about Rome before it fell. Marcus Garvey's idea of Africans continental and Diasporan doing business with each other was both wonderful and workable. Why wouldn't it be workable? Do we not see Europeans from all over the corners of the Earth doing business with one another and doing well (oh and very often on the backs of the people of color, too)? As for us, all we can often think about is "Us four and no more" or feeling as if we've arrived once we've become high ranking tokens.

I think that it also has something to do with a level of cowardice, too. The path of least resistance is preferable to others because it is comes with less effort and less backlash. I sure hope that the generations to come are much different than their presently punk behind progenitors.

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How about it has something to do with being a new breed, a cross section species descended from slaves and whites and Native Americans? Our history lies in this country and is one rich in its own unique traditions. White peole are in the minoirty in this world, and their day will soon be over. Africa had its chance and blew it. All we can do now is roll with the punches and learn Chinese. :blink:

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Don't get me wrong. I embrace and I am proud of my African roots. I am also aware of the struggles we share across the globe as people of color. At the same time I'm aware at how we respond to these challenges differently based on where we are geographically and socially. For example, as African Americans we constantly struggle for equality and recognition in a society that has ignored us for hundreds of years. We also work to fill a void created by a deliberate cultural disconnect forced upon us. A Nigerian does not have the issue of cultural disconnect; although their region suffered the ravages of colonialism, the fact that they remained in their homeland allowed them to retain the dignity of place and the pride in knowing one's culture.

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People who reprimand Blacks by using Whites as an example of unity are presenting examples laced with half-truths, and need go no further back than 1914 when England and France waged war against Germany during World War I, wiping out a whole generation of young white men in the process. This scenario repeated itself during WWII. In a quest for power these white nations did not stand together. They fought each other. During WWII Germany and yellow Japan were allies. During the cold war, Russia wanted to bring down America and America wanted to defeat them. During the Korea war, Russia and China were allies. White nations don't stick together any more than those of Africa do. Even today France hates America. Each nation does what is in their best interest. Or has Pan Africanism has ever forged a strong front. Talk is cheap.

And it behooves today's generation to stop killing each other long enough to mount a united front against their oppressors before they start pointing their fingers at their " punk progenitors" who fought the good fight in the civil rights movement only to witness an erosion of the progress they made.

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Cynique, I don't think it's being too hard on us, the givers of tomorrow's torch to consider our actions (or lack thereof) as punkish. Of course, these are all my opinions, but I feel as if we can't blame the youths, because we are failing them miserably.

On the civil rights movement, while it is to be acknowleged, the liberation struggle is to be acknowledged no less. It was not one without the other that helped to bring about the change that occured, but the combination of both.

World War I was also the result of complications in regard to allies. Even America was to be neutral and remained so for a time, but events occured to change this. At any rate, let me make it known that I do not feel that no black people stick together and all white people do. At the same time, I maintain that, on a large level, white people do know how to put aside their differences and even dislikes for a greater goal. At the very least, most of them throughout countless nations will have a working business relationship. The same cannot be said for us.

While I am undoubtedly a supporter of pan-Africanism, I am also a supporter of the coming together of those who are sincerely tired of these miserable conditions (though often pacified with perks) all around this globe to invest time, energy, talents, money, etc. in the building of a better day.

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Don't get me wrong. I embrace and I am proud of my African roots. I am also aware of the struggles we share across the globe as people of color. At the same time I'm aware at how we respond to these challenges differently based on where we are geographically and socially. For example, as African Americans we constantly struggle for equality and recognition in a society that has ignored us for hundreds of years. We also work to fill a void created by a deliberate cultural disconnect forced upon us. A Nigerian does not have the issue of cultural disconnect; although their region suffered the ravages of colonialism, the fact that they remained in their homeland allowed them to retain the dignity of place and the pride in knowing one's culture.

I totally understand what you are saying.

I will say this, though. I think that the struggle for recognition by the dominant culture is also a big problem because at its core is an inferiority complex. While I do not at all feel as black people should be kings and queens and white people should be servants, I do feel that we should try to build our own links. I feel that the more autonomous we are, the better we will be.

In many places in Africa, the situation is that indigenous people have been dispossessed and have been made exiles in their own land, not much different than the situation with the indigenous peoples of America. Many have had to be on "reserves" while foreigners have been living it up on the land of their mothers and fathers. Then there is, of course, the issue of missionaries coming to justify why all of this has happened; because of their own wickedness and refusal to accept the deity who is perfectly cool with their dispossession. So there are many cases of cultural rape in addition to the rape of resources and human dignity.

I still feel what you are saying, though, because it is true that the American experience for an African (a black person) is so unique that many look at the effects of it and say that they have never seen anything like it. Still, I think that the commonalities of those who are continental and diasporan far outweigh the differences and that this should be the focal point more than anything with us as we seek to erect among ourselves bridges and not walls.

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While I am undoubtedly a supporter of pan-Africanism, I am also a supporter of the coming together of those who are sincerely tired of these miserable conditions (though often pacified with perks) all around this globe to invest time, energy, talents, money, etc. in the building of a better day.

What is it your are doing to alleviate the woes of the world and have you had any success? Didn't somebody try this once and end up asking his father why he was forsaken? :(

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LOL That is pretty funny. Maybe it is just my mind, but if I were to look at the situation with the guy who asked his father why had forsaken him, my question would be why his father, all knowing and all powerful, had to create a bunch of screw-ups in the first place and why he created a child who would have to be slain for all the screw-ups that he himself created. I realize that my mind is not the mind of the world, but hey...such a question does not seem invalid to me.

Cynique, though it is neither my intention nor desire to personalize/individualize these issues, I can tell you that I got into education much less because of money making opportunities and much more because of a concern to do contribute to the positive influence on the minds of our children. I am a firm believer that "together we make solutions out of problems" and while I do not at all feel that I can save the world or anyone for that, I do feel that I can make positive influences as I strive to build the builders. However, again, that is just "my" mind. I am the kind of person who will listen to someone on the streets, who people avoid, for knowledge and wisdom just as quickly as I will listen to someone who has several degrees for knowledge and wisdom. My personal outlook is every drop counts.

Social enterprise is another thing that I believe in promoting, because it's always bigger than just profits; it is about trying to reach back and add those drops to the community. The program that we have is about to be offered as an elective in a highschool that is located in a community with poor access to a better quality of life. The students are learning to take raw materials and turn it into a product for a profit. What they are making is not only good for the body but is also good for the building of skills and ultimately the building of communities. Not every student who graduates from this high school will go on to college, but some will and we encourage that for sure. However, after taking this social enterprise elective, those high school students will have something meaningful to put on their resumes or even become owners of their own stores as upon exiting the program, they will know fully how to work in, manage, operate, and own a store and part of the larger goal is having these community oriented small business franchises to add the small drops of bettering communities (and stronger communities build stronger nations).

I see success everyday of the school year, Cynique, because I see children whose achievements levels have increased mostly as a result of the increasing of expectations placed on them. I see children who have come in with relatively short attention spans who leave with much longer attention spans. I see children who were not performing anywhere close to their levels of potential doing so much more mostly as a result of being exposed to their potential. I see the confidence in children rising, their excitement about learning rising. Perhaps to many that is nothing, but to me, it is the stuff that it takes to help to reverse the cycles of hopelessness and self destruction which plague our children so much, the stuff that helps to bring about a better day, one child at a time.

On another note, you are my elder and worthy of respect for many reasons. Yes, I might be younger with more fire in my belly as you say, but this does not mean that I have any desire to negate the first sentence of this paragraph. Again, I think that the generations have to try harder to let differences be a strength and not a point of division. Plus, I'm wise enough to heed the two simple words that our elders love to say, "Keep livin"...and I tend to believe that those are two words that I will also one day tell the younger generations.

Peace.

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Gotcha. Keep up the good work and keep posting! Hopefully my challenges will strenghten your convictions.

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No, you have killed them and guess what? I'm next. When I came back, I was going to slit my wrist, but discovered that my computer had been on all that time since this morn, so I thought this presented the perfect opportunity to do share the experience via webcam. I hope you're happy!!!!!!!! (Don't pay me too much mind. Life is short.)

Thank you. Yes, there is always something to learn in every exchange that we encounter in this life.

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