Recognizing differences can foster understanding

This week, TWESE, The Organization for African Students and Friends of Africa, in Rutgers university, is hosting a meeting entitled “Who Am I.”

A few days ago, my friend, a member of the TWESE e-board, posed the question: “What do you feel is the difference between people who were born and raised in our countries, people like us, and Black Americans?”

By Yvonne Olayemi

It is not news that Rutgers is divided into numerous sub-sects of social and ethnic groups. We are comprised of a student body from all over the world.

What I feel unifies many of us as students at Rutgers is that despite the overwhelming population here, we are able to create bonds based on ethnic backgrounds, shared culture and/or upbringing.

All over this University are culturally-based organizations and programs geared toward the networking, collaborating and uplifting of individuals who identify with certain groups. This is especially seen among ethnic minorities. Among these seemingly unified groups, there are divisions based on what can be internally perceived as disparities regarding how one is able to relate. I believe these classifying disparities can present themselves in virtually any ethnic group.

This week, TWESE, The Organization for African Students and Friends of Africa, is hosting a meeting entitled “Who Am I.”

A few days ago, my friend, a member of the TWESE e-board, posed the question: “What do you feel is the difference between people who were born and raised in our countries, people like us, and Black Americans?”

By “people like us,” my friend meant individuals who identify as some form of African, with parents who were brought up in Africa, but were themselves born and raised in America.

When he asked the question, I immediately understood my position on our differences. It is funny because, from the outside perspective, Black Rutgers is a unit all on its own. But the truth is that although we are one unit, we are nonetheless subdivided into African Rutgers, Caribbean Rutgers and so forth. We are then further segmented into Nigerian Rutgers, Ghanaian Rutgers, Haitian Rutgers, Jamaican Rutgers, etc.

Among these segments, we are classified even further by who has lived and schooled in their native country, who can speak the language of their people, who demonstrates greater understanding of and comfort with their culture and the list goes on. In my response to my friend, I stayed within the parameters of his question, and framed my response around the three examples he provided, the first two of which I believe can apply to any ethnic group found at Rutgers.

The first category of individuals is who I like to call “the natives.” The natives are the ones who were born and/or at least partially raised in the country in which they identify. I will use observations based on my knowledge of the Nigerian community at this school to illustrate this class of individuals. From my perspective, the natives are often low-key about being from their respective countries. It is not at all that they hide it, but rather that they seldom go out of their way to present themselves in a way that flaunts their ethnicity. I view this casual indifference as a demonstration of sureness, a sureness in their cultural identity.

The second category of individuals is what I call “the first-gens.” The first-gens were either born in America, or born in their family’s native country, but did not live there long enough to be substantially shaped by its culture and customs. I identify with this category. At Rutgers, among first-gens, I notice a more fervent display of culture as they are often seen parading their cultural identity and going out of their way to assure that others see who they are and where they are from.

First-gens are the more zealous of ethnic sub-sects. I view this zeal as a well-intended overcompensation for the fact that they feel an inherent sense of otherness when it comes to their cultural identity. The concept of othering isolates people who do not fit the social norm of a group and puts them in a category of “other.” The common issue among first-gens is being “too ethnic” for Americans and “too American” for the natives. From what I have seen and experienced, there is always an underlying desire to prove oneself and assert one’s belonging among individuals in this group.

The third category, which I feel mostly applies to the Black population, is simply “Black Americans.” The Black Americans category is comprised of Black individuals who, as far as they know, have the most notable portions of their lineage set in America. At Rutgers, I notice the many ways in which this category experiences othering from the rest of the ethnic sub-sects. I believe the general evolution of pop-culture has made it so that being from somewhere other than America has become “cool,” for lack of a better term. There is a sense of pride associated with being of a different set of traditions, influences and customs.

This revival of pride and honor has resulted in a beautifully obnoxious display of patriotism that, while necessary for the societal shift toward understanding and accepting other cultures, can sometimes be isolating as well. Their over-compensatory efforts are an attempt to reconnect with roots that they often have no knowledge of. Due to that lack of knowledge, the only feasible method of making the desired association seems to be to try to connect to every sub-sect in some way, which is an endeavor that I believe only breeds a greater sense of otherness.

I want to assure anyone reading this that my goal is not at all to generalize or pick at any group, nor do I desire to question anyone’s cultural or ethnic identity. But we do very much exist in an environment that is lined by all of these separations and classifications. The question is whether we allow our knowledge of these differences to fuel an attempt at increased understanding or use it as a tool for further division and destruction within our communities, whether it be school communities, home communities or communities within our society at large.

Yvonne Olayemi is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in biological sciences. Her column “Life At RU,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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