While I was scrolling through Tumblr, I came across this blog post accusing African Americans of being hypocritical when complaining about their image in the media as they’re the ones who perpetuate it. The post was a response to criticism against a K-pop video that featured a scene caricaturizing a black woman’s body, and the writer said that black women shouldn’t feel offended about their bodies being mocked as sex objects in the video since they “have supported and perpetuated the stereotype”. According to the writer:
“You made your bodies the joke when you supported Nicki Minaj riding her ass to fame. Dear lord forbid [a K-pop star] make a joke of what you have already allowed to become one[…]My opinion of black American society is that what is allowed to be portrayed to the world feeds into the negative stereotypes[…]If a vocal minority can mange feats like tearing down segregation and getting rights for all people of all creeds and nationalities, I believe they change their image, if they wanted to.”
Aside from how incredibly anti-black this post was, what struck me was that the writer seemed to be a black person living in the U.S. who was not African American (as in having ancestors born/raised here). She used words like “you” to address ‘Black America’ and ’Black Americans’ (by which she meant African American), and complained about how she “can not stand being lumped in with [those] hypocritical morons.” Her language made it clear that she did not consider herself an African American, and after exploring her blog and reading about her experiences in the U.S., I realized that she was most likely a black immigrant. Her blog was later taken down, but some of her words can be found on other blogs (though her thoughts are scattered and incomplete).
Though the fact that this language is coming from a black person might shock some, I unfortunately wasn’t so surprised. It’s a dirty little secret that there is a rift between African Americans and black immigrant communities fueled by uninformed opinions on all sides. My personal experience as a second-generation black immigrant is one of many testaments to this divide—throughout my life I’ve seen black immigrants make negative presumptions on African Americans, and I’ve also seen African Americans say ignorant things about black immigrants. And I know I’m not alone; in fact, this phenomenon was the subject of a recent Round Table discussion here at The Stripes.
As someone who grew up hearing black immigrants voice very misguided opinions on their American counterparts, I will choose to focus this article on how black immigrants view and treat African Americans. And I’d like to start by addressing and debunking the myths the writer above raised about African Americans; myths I’ve seen circulated all too often in non-black as well as non-African American black communities.
First, the writer claimed that African American women “made [their] bodies the joke” and what they’ve “allowed to be portrayed to the world feeds into the negative stereotypes.” This claim demonstrates myth #1: African Americans ‘allowed’ the way they’re portrayed to feed into negative stereotypes.
The truth is that “Black America” isn’t in total control of its image. The American media has always promoted the dominant group as the norm by dehumanizing and reducing minority groups (whether races, genders, sexualities, etc.) to mere tropes. A long history of anti-blackness has led to African Americans in particular being typecast in the media as stupid, perverse, gross, etc., and has demonized every aspect of their culture as negative. With this in mind, the stereotype of black women as sexual objects isn’t something African American women “allowed” to happen. Rather, black female bodies gave have been forcibly objectified under the white gaze for centuries, reduced to caricatures such as the hypersexualized Jezebel and the desexualized Mammy. And these negative images continue to be disseminated because they’ve been promoted to a point that the mainstream public gets uncomfortable when you show them otherwise – just look at the backlash that occurred when an African American girl was used as a symbol of innocence in the Hunger Games film.
Another claim the writer brought up was that “if a vocal minority can manage feats like tearing down segregation and getting rights for all people of all creeds and nationalities, […] they can change their image, if they wanted to.” Which brings us to myth #2:African Americans could change their [image/social status/other problem] if they really wanted to.
“If they wanted to” is a statement I hear all-too-often to imply that the problems African Americans face remain unsolved due to a lack of proper motivation. Such a belief fuels the “African Americans just don’t work hard enough” stereotype, which black immigrants sometimes use as a standard of comparison. For example, in a podcastabout the African American/black immigrant divide, Nigerian-American blogger Chuks recounted a story of when his sister came home with a bad grade, their immigrant parents yelled at her for not meeting expectations, and then said, “This is what happens when you hang with African American friends.”
While the belief that anything is attainable with the right motivation does lead to success, it isn’t okay to use such reasoning to negatively generalize and dismiss those who haven’t achieved the same levels of success, especially when you disregard their unique struggles. In the case of African Americans, the legal ending of segregation did not immediately erase an anti-blackness mindset and the institutions that were built on it. It takes much more than “really wanting to” to overcome centuries-old systems of oppression – systems that black immigrants did not have to deal with. If motivation was their only obstacle, then African Americans wouldn’t even be dealing with problems today—history has showed countless times how the motivation and hard work of the African American people has moved mountains.
Clearly these myths are damaging and should be an insult to black people everywhere, so why do some black people choose to believe them? Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie posits why in an interview on being a black immigrant in the States:
“When I came to the United States, I hadn’t stayed very long, but I already knew that to be “black” was not a good thing in America, and so I didn’t want to be “black.”…There’s the overriding desire to do well, to succeed. If it means absorbing the negative stereotypes of a particular group, then that’s fine, they do it. I think also that many black immigrants don’t realize that they’re able to be here and do what they’re doing because of the sacrifices of African Americans. They don’t know the history. I didn’t when I came. An African American man called me “sister” once, and I was like ‘No, no, no, I’m not your sister, I’m not doing that.’ ”
It was only when Adichie started learning about African American history that she started to truly appreciate the community and all its achievements and contributions despite its many obstacles. But not all black immigrants take the time to learn – as Adichie states in the interview:
“When immigrants come here they absorb stories that have no context and no history. So it’s ‘oh, black Americans are very lazy. They all live in the inner city because, you know, they don’t want to work hard.’ Sometimes you’re in a gathering of immigrants, and some of the talk can sound like you’re in Alabama in 1965.”
Adichie suggests that these negative stereotypes fueled by a lack of context might lead to black immigrants wanting to make distinctions between them and others, even if it means throwing another group of people under the bus. But if we’re going to be perfectly honest, this attempt at separation doesn’t do anyone any favors.
Distinguishing any group as a “good” or “better” black community does nothing but fuel the notion that there are “bad” black communities in the first place. And this mentality just contributes to the spread of anti-blackness as a whole, which affects every black community, including immigrant ones. Because like it or not, whether you are African American or a black immigrant does not make any difference when you are being racially profiled or discriminated against. I personally have been made the butt of slave jokes despite none of my family ever being enslaved. And when you’re being stopped and frisked, no one cares if your family came here in 1792 or 1992.
Considering these repercussions, the “perks” of being differentiated as a “good” black community just aren’t worth it. Especially since the reputation of being a “good” black community is so tenuous due to its fickle nature: I have a Haitian friend who did well in school, thus her ethnicity was praised for its work ethic, but when another Haitian in her grade failed, her classmates said “Oh, how typically black.” As Adichie bluntly says in her novel Americanah, “Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.”
Adichie and I are not saying that people need to shrug off their individual ethnic identities, but rather that we need to not elevate one at the expense of another. In the end it is not our place as black immigrants to use us as a standard to measure African Americans against. Despite sharing the same racial roots, we did not live with the same history—nor do we currently live with the exact same legacy—of oppression. After all that the African American community has done to make it possible for black immigrants to even be here, us black immigrants should in turn stop elevating ourselves at their expense and start learning from them. At the very least, we should give them more credit; as Chuks says in his podcast, “Black immigrants need to respect African Americans, and understand them.”
Though this article focuses on how black immigrants view and treat African Americans, I would briefly like to remind everyone that the divide works both ways. As Adichie points out in her interview, “the African stereotypes are very easily absorbed in the African American community as well. I remember how amusing I found it that African Americans were shocked that I can speak English. Because, you know, you came from Africa.” I can personally testify that I’ve had African Americans ask me if my parents’ country “had houses”, “spoke their own language”, etc. I’ve also had African Americans question and judge my blackness because of my perceived foreignness, and Chuks addresses both in his podcast and this blog post the frustration of having his identity and experiences as a black American be dismissed because he isn’t African American.
Because despite all our differences, we still have a shared experience as black people living in America. Though I’m a second-generation immigrant, my upbringing involves similar experiences to those whose families came here long before mine – whether its pop culture references, childhood memories, or that awkward moment when you’re the only black person in the room. On a more serious note, we also share similar problems as we face negative stereotypes, fetishization and denigration of our bodies, and many other manifestations of racism on a daily basis. But most importantly, we share a story of survival – whether it’s the African American struggle, the history of colonization in Africa and elsewhere, or the hardships that come with being an immigrant – that has shaped not only our communities but also the world around us.
And not only does the disconnect across the black diaspora trivialize this rich and diverse narrative, but it prevents the narrative from progressing further. Anti-black stereotypes won’t stop if black immigrants are buying into them. The alienation and marginalization of America’s black population won’t stop if it’s also being perpetuated within the black community. All in all, if we really want to improve our experience as black people in America, then America’s various black communities need to stop trying to distance themselves from each other and start fighting for equality together.
It’s Black History Month, so let’s celebrate by promoting solidarity between all our black brothers and sisters.