By SOPHIA WITTE, The Daily Pennsylvanian APRIL 30, 2015*
Over the past year, students at University of Pennsylvania have taken action against racial discrimination as the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other black victims have amplified calls for racial justice across the country.
Spearheading campuswide discussions and student demonstrations at Penn, such as “Ferguson Fridays” and campaigns for racial profiling reform, many student groups have taken on a united voice against ongoing instances of racism in the United States. But given this strengthened unity, students contend that it is important to also recognize the nuanced differences that exist within the larger black community, which includes all students from the African diaspora.
Many African and African-American students at Penn believe that the black community is unified because of a shared experience of living as a black person in America — not because black people constitute a homogenized group with assumed similarities beyond the color of their skin.
“Tensions come about when you ignore people’s differences and don’t acknowledge the individual,” said Samiza Palmer, a College freshman who grew up in the U.S. in a culturally Sierra Leonean household. “You have to celebrate the differences within the black community, but also not take away from the fact that there’s a unifying factor of taking on all the burdens of being seen as a black person in America when you step into the general space.”
A spectrum of experiences
On his 11th birthday, College junior Iyassu Berhanu awoke to the news that his dad had been arrested after winning the first mayoral election in Ethiopia in 2005. The standing government accused his dad, along with many civil rights activists and journalists, of committing treason and inciting the violent riots that followed the government’s decision to invalidate the election results.
Though Amnesty International and the European Union deemed them “political prisoners” and requested their immediate release, Iyassu’s dad remained in prison for over 20 months until he was finally released, and then returned to his former post in the Bucknell University economics department.
Since moving from Ethiopia to Pennsylvania six years ago, Iyassu feels that he experienced the “typical high school stuff” of other American teenagers and now considers himself fully invested in his work and commitments at Penn.
But as his dad has forged ahead with his Ethiopian political activism from abroad, and with recurrent news of family and friends back home receiving threats or being imprisoned, Iyassu has definitely not forgotten his connection to Ethiopia. For Iyassu, this connection largely drives his work ethic at Penn, as he views his life “in terms of what most people from Ethiopia don’t have the opportunity to get.”
“I don’t necessarily want to ‘other’ myself from the African-American community, but it’s strange that someone like me can be lumped into the same story as someone who was born and raised from somewhere like Tennessee just because, to the typical untrained American eye, black is black,” Iyassu said.
Opting to use a fake name to preserve her identity, Ginika, an African-born undergraduate who grew up in the U.S. from a young age, also highlights the cultural diversity within the black community. Rather than feeling only connected to other black students, as many would assume, she feels that many of her friendships have come out of shared personal experiences — such as those she has with first- or second-generation African or Hispanic immigrants who also grew up with immigrant parents and the related culture-specific norms.
“The black community at Penn is filled with many types of bonds and relationships that go beyond race,” she said. “We have a few ethnic or cultural differences, but we’re able to form bonds even with them.”
Since she spends a lot of time with other black friends, Ginika is often asked to explain “why she only hangs out with black people.”
“This question is very harmful as it homogenizes blackness. What people are really saying is that it’s wrong to only hang out with the same ‘types’ of people,” Ginika said. “It’s low-minded, just as it would be to question some white people on why they only hang out with each other.”
Recognizing this problematic perception of the black community, William Gipson, the associate vice provost for equity and access, stresses that Penn’s culture gets much of its richness from the unique subtleties that African immigrants bring to campus.
“The thing that makes Penn so impressive is not just the diversity, but the depth within that diversity,” Gipson said. “The people who most get this benefit are the ones who get to know these students individually — getting to really know their stories.”
Growing up with ‘micro-aggressions’
Coming from a predominately black and minority high school where “expressing blackness” did not feel as crucial, College sophomore and New Jersey native Raheem Veal felt it was difficult to adjust his sense of black identity at Penn.
“I felt I had to act a certain way to be sure not to reinforce certain stereotypes, but I’ve gained such a strong sense of self from feeling like I have a place where I belong and where I can decompress,” Raheem said, referencing the support he feels in the black community.
For many African-American students, being born and raised as a black person in America has deeply influenced the formation of their identities. For Raheem, racial biases tend to manifest in less explicit ways, through what he calls “micro-aggressions.”
“They’re told to you subconsciously through interactions, like lack of eye contact, the way people speak to you or you can tell they’re not taking your opinion seriously,” Raheem said. “It can almost feel like a wall between yourself and everyone you meet — a clear wall, but it’s still there — and you filter the way you are and feel more restrained, like you can’t push yourself forward.”
As a member of the Black Student League, Samiza — the Sierra Leonean student raised in the U.S. — also feels closer to her black identity, largely due to experiences with these implicit forms of racial biases.
“You have to sort of prove yourself and your intelligence, and then deal with noticing the surprise from people when you do so,” Samiza said, who was raised in the U.S. “I sort of identify more with the black community after finding people who have these common experiences with me.”
A Different Mindset
Many African immigrants, particularly those who had never been exposed to “micro-aggressions” before arriving on campus, feel overwhelmed by the assumption that everyone in the black community has a uniform understanding of race.
For Nigerian Wharton MBA students, Ikenna Ekeh and Tayo Obayelu, coming to the U.S. was the first time they even realized that blackness is a component of their identities worth mentioning.
“The biggest shock coming here was being identified firstly as a black person,” said Tayo, who had barely been exposed to American culture or history before coming to Penn last year. “Being black isn’t really an identity in Nigeria since basically everyone is black.”
After asking for some classmates’ thoughts on her paper about the African-American stereotype, Tayo was surprised by the emotional reactions that this subject triggered for some African Americans in the group. Because racial discrimination never grazed her consciousness growing up in Nigeria, sensitivity to the topic was completely foreign to her.
“It’s been confusing to come here and be expected to take on and feel these difficulties as if they were my own,” Tayo said.
Like Tayo, Ikenna noted that African Americans and African immigrants sometimes have different sensitivities to certain situations involving race.
“My African-American friends tend to call out and talk more about racial issues that I may not see at first, like if they ask if I realized what a person just did or said,” he said. “I guess it doesn’t affect us as much at times.”
When coming from Nigeria in 2001 to study as an undergraduate at Penn State, Ikenna was also taken aback by the loaded significance that his skin color suddenly possessed. But 14 years later, he has become relatively accustomed to balancing his internal sense of Nigerian identity with the external experience of being a black person in the U.S.
“It might just be someone seeing you, then crossing the street then crossing back, or holding their bags more tightly when you walk by,” Ikenna said. “But I’ve become more self-aware of how people might see me. I know not to spend too much time just hanging out on the street since I never know what will happen.”
While many immigrants like Ikenna have acclimated to the conflicting notion of both maintaining their African identity and sometimes adapting to the black American experience, others prefer to remain more detached from the implications of being a part of the black community in America.
After just moving to a U.S. elementary school from Africa, Ginika asked her parents if she could go to her classmate’s birthday party. But after inquiring about the girl’s race and finding out she was African-American, her mom did not let Ginika go to the party.
“When Africans first come to the U.S., they often only know the negative parts of the black identity, like crime and ghettos,” she said. “Blackness becomes linked to how being black is portrayed in the U.S. and the media, so immigrants often don’t want to be associated with these negative connotations.”
After coming to America for the first time last year, Chima — a Nigerian MBA student who wished to use a fake name to preserve her identity — has tried to differentiate herself from the African-American culture. She now regrets her decision to leave her home country in the first place.
“It’s a huge shock coming here and feeling like you’re not part of the human system because of your skin color,” Chima said. “My experience here has accelerated my plan to go back to my country, where I simply won’t feel the underlying fear of maybe getting shot just going to the grocery store.”
In addition to an incident when she and her group of mostly black friends were ignored to the point that they left the restaurant, Chima especially remembers her experience with one of her professors.
“Regardless of what I did or said, the professor basically thought I was always an angry black woman, even though I tried especially hard to be smiling,” she said. “I did all my assignments and came to all the classes, but when I asked why I didn’t get an A, he couldn’t explain why.”
In recognizing the potentially offensive implications of this dissociation, Chima emphasizes that, rather than expressing a sense of elitism or privilege, she simply wants to escape the “truly terrible reality” that she has taken away from living in America as a black person.
“African-Americans just have to carry so much psychological baggage,” she said, “and it has just made me appreciate my option to go home and have my freedom of thought back.”
Engaging in discussions of race
Despite their cultural nuances, African American and African students have said that race-based biases indiscriminately affect all people who are even perceived as being African-American.
“All black people are going to have an experience inherently different than others based on the shared experience of some systems being built against you when you’re seen as black first,” said Raheem, the African-American student from New Jersey.
Though this common experience derives from an imposition of how others decide to see and treat black people in the U.S., Samiza noted that it is nonetheless a “uniting factor” that gives all black people a practical stake in combatting racial injustice as long as they are living in America.
Even though Chima wants to separate herself from the African-American experience, she recognizes how all black people have reason to join in discussions and activism about racial inequities in America.
“The problem of race affects us all regardless of cultural backgrounds,” she said. “No matter how you want to differentiate yourself, it doesn’t mean anything in the face of outright prejudice.”
Having grown up in the U.S. but in African households, Ginika and Samiza both capture this sense of double identity: the impulse to preserve African cultural identity, alongside the growing sense of empathy and identification with being a black person in America.
“My culture and values are very ‘African,’”Ginika said. “But at the same time, I’ve also had the ‘African-American’ experience, which really just is what it means to be black in America.”
African and African-American students alike note the numerical strength from black unity in the face of the racial injustice that affects them all. But they add that this unity, while powerful, does not translate to the black community as a melting pot devoid of distinctive characteristics.
Earlier this month, students protested the University’s announcement of the Africa Center’s closure and the consequent merging of the African Studies department and the Center for Africana Studies.
“Dissolving a space for a specific culture within the greater black community further enhances and perpetuates the idea that we are all one monolithic race,” Samiza said. “What makes a unified race in the end is not just acknowledging the differentiations within the race, but celebrating these spectrums of cultures.”
For Samiza, change will only happen if more people start celebrating the distinct inflections within the black community.
“I don’t want to continue dealing with preconceived notions about who I am,” Samiza said. “It will take people getting to know individuals, and then having that individual change disseminate throughout groups.”
Extending this prediction to an international context, Ikenna believes that the U.S. will increasingly reflect the world’s inevitable transition to being a “global playground” of interconnected people — one that will potentially fade arbitrary racial divisions that have been constructed especially deeply within American society.
On a trip to Kenya with his Penn classmates, Ikenna noticed a subtle,but significant shift in the tone of the group.
“Everyone was generally more relaxed and felt safe, and I think it was because, when people are exposed to other places and cultures, they learn that others are doing well without all these issues of race or color that are much more built up in the U.S. than in many other places,” he said. “A lot of it comes down to education and people’s openness to better understanding one another on an individual level.”
*This story was first published on April 28, 2015. Copyright © 2015 The Daily Pennsylvanian