She said the punk leaned over and said to another student - loud enough for her to hear - "Did you understand what she just said?" His tone was irritated. "Because I didn't understand one word."
She never called him "punk" when she told me the story. I chose the label because it's the strongest non-expletive I could come up with that conveys both his petty ignorance and my aversion to comments like this. It infuriates me that such a thing could happen at my alma mater, the so-called "Mecca" for Black college students, Howard University.
Image Credit: FaceMePLS, via Flickr
The "she" who shared this story with me is C., a mom of 3 from Cameroon (west Central Africa) who works & attends Howard U. full time. C. had just finished giving a class presentation. The "punk" is one of many American Black students who openly and unapologetically "diss" Africans because of the way they dress, the way they speak, the way their food smells, the sounds they make when they speak their native language, or any other aspect of their culture or being that can be singled out for insult.
I don't have numbers on how common this kind of "Black on Black bigotry" is but I live in a suburb of Washington, DC, the metropolitan area with the highest concentration of African immigrants in the U.S. and I know a lot of African immigrants. Being ridiculed & humiliated by American Blacks because of your accent is a common experience shared by most if not all African immigrants.
I've often said "it's easier to love Black people when you don't have to be around them all the time." Nine times out of 10, this is the reason I've said it. When Black Americans flip the script and become the humiliator, the rejector, the oppressor to another person who looks like you and could be related to you for all you know, it makes me grind my teeth.
You see I'm married to an African. He has a Masters degree & another post-grad degree. Next year he'll add a Doctorate to his list of credentials. But American Blacks still sometimes ignore him & give me the "what's he talking about?" look when he tries to place an order for fast food, for example. They look at me to translate, like he's not speaking English... or like he's a moron.
It touches a nerve in me every time.
To be fair, I know many of the reasons Black Americans are hostile to African immigrants. They say Africans don't like Black Americans, that they look down on us, and they're arrogant. They say Africans come here and take our jobs. On the other hand, Africans say Blacks Americans are lazy and don't want to work and use racism as an excuse to justify their lack of motivation and substandard achievement.
The disrespect definitely goes both ways.
But here's why I think it's stupid for Black Americans to ridicule African immigrants, especially at an institution of higher learning. Don't they know that the African men and women whom they mock are the ones who will be held up as future exemplars of Black achievement? African immigrants are among the most educated groups in the U.S. The rate of college graduation among African immigrants is four times the rate of native-born Black Americans. Given that rates of college graduation among Blacks are remarkably low, if you remove African immigrants and their children from that "bucket", what's left is pretty pathetic. These same African immigrants are the Blacks that scholars and historians will use as evidence to show that we are capable of ascending corporate, academic and professional ladders of success. African immigrants and their children are among the people whose achievements will be trumpeted so native-born Black Americans can feel good about what Blacks can do.
I've spent a fair amount of time "schooling" Africans who make blanket generalizations about Black Americans. When the opportunity presents itself, I also try explaining to Black Americans the reasons African immigrants don't "get" structural barriers and institutionalized racism and how it still affects or limits Black Americans.
Call it my little attempt to shift things (minds, paradigms, prejudices, antiquated beliefs) so stories, understanding, compassion and cooperation start going both ways as well.
Black, but not like me: African-Americans and African immigrants often have uneasy bond
Wikipedia: African immigration to the United States
YouTube: Black people in America hate immigrants?
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