An African Immigrant’s Experiences Learning What It Means to be Black in America

By Trhas Tafere | The Utah Statesman

In light of the civil unrest that is going on in this country, I want to focus on the unique experience of many African immigrants, like myself, who had no prior understanding of the history of racism and the seriousness of the issue in this nation. Many African immigrants have had to face some kind of discrimination to realize the complex nature of race relations in the United States, and to identify themselves as “Black.”

African immigrants, like myself, go through a series of identity crises as we make the shift from being “proudly African” to a stage where the only way to navigate the system is by embracing “blackness” from the American point of view and accepting all of the negative consequences that come with it. This strategy requires being extremely cautious while also trying to prove the negative stereotypes wrong. There is a constant struggle– not to avoid being judged by the way we look, because we can’t escape from being judged any way — but to prove that such misconceptions are wrong, and it is exhausting.

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Race is a purely social construction, meaning that there is nothing biological or genetic to the social categories that have been created. We know this because the categories and what they mean change over time, and they are different in different places. In Brazil, for instance, they have dozens of “racial” categories, and sometimes I wish there were “intermediate” categories in the US, that would take into consideration the diversity of what it is to be “Black.” Being Black in America, regardless of where you are from, means all of the stress ascribed to race, all of the stereotypes, stigma, and experiences that are related to what it is to be seen as Black by others, including the legacy of racism, even when my ancestors (who were never enslaved nor colonized) never experienced them.  Aster Osburn, an Ethiopian immigrant like myself, recently talked about a painful and confusing transition of her identity in a public Facebook post. She says that

“The raw truth is, I went through a phase where I denied my ‘blackness’ and uttered the words “I’m not black, I’m Ethiopian” … A few years of living here quickly taught me that being black was going to be a struggle. It meant now I would have to live a life not celebrating it but defending it. Oh, the identity after identity crisis I’ve gone through to tear down my mindset from celebrating blackness to learning its new meaning for my life.”

Such encounters might seem petty, but it has a big psychological impact when you have to deal with it daily. 

My first encounter with this stigma was while I was still in my “proud African” phase, before I embraced my “blackness.” My 4-year-old daughter was told by a neighbor girl that she could not play with her due to her skin color. I didn’t take it seriously. I just told my daughter, “maybe the little girl has never seen Queen of Sheba, a beautiful African queen who looks like you before.” My daughter will never forget what this little girl told her, though. Such encounters might seem petty, but it has a big psychological impact when you have to deal with it daily. I am very glad that other mothers, who do not have Black children, will not have to go through this painful reality and I regret that my children will.

As a Black person, I experience racially insensitive encounters every single day. From being asked at a grocery store recently if I am using an EBT card, simply because I look like people who presumably rely on government welfare, to a coworker who once asked me to hook him up with drugs, for no other reason than an assumption he clearly had about Black people. A woman told my son once that he should be very grateful that he is in “the greatest country on earth not in a village in Africa,” and that now he could be anything he wants to be. This seems to be a positive, empowering remark, but I know in my heart that it is not going to be easy for my Black son who also struggles with ADHD. One day I will have to sit down with him and deal with the painful and uncomfortable talk about what people who look like him experience, and guide him in how to navigate a system that is not really designed to treat him equally. But he is learning on his own, as well.

In 2017, my son worked on a history fair project focused on historically significant Americans. My son chose Jessie Owens and was very proud to represent the first Black man in the Olympics, who because of extreme racism had to fight against immeasurable odds despite being a highly skilled athlete. At this history fair, I saw the unresponsive and undisturbed reaction of the many parents, grandparents, and teachers when a grandfather of a student was literally parading around in front of my son holding the Confederate flag. I was disgusted and offended by the man’s action of proudly holding a symbol that celebrates the enslavement of people who look like my son inside a public school. What made me especially angry was the silence and ignorance of how racially insensitive this was by the school and those in attendance. This might be because most people in my son’s school have never experienced racial profiling, systemic racism, mass incarceration, or any other offense, just because of the color of their skin. People who have not had that flag flown to terrorize them, can simply pretend it is just about Southern pride. But it is terrifying to a Black person, because you don’t know the intent behind it, only the history of the Confederacy that wanted to continue to enslave and dehumanize Black people.

A few weeks ago, I could not believe my eyes when my coworker (a very devoted LDS man who has served a mission) started wearing a Confederate flag bandana as a mask to work every single day. I was disgusted, but I did not speak up. I thought someone will stand up against this racially insensitive symbol at a time of social unrest like this and report this disturbing and offensive symbol to HR. I also tried to remind myself of the fact that my ancestors were never enslaved, not even colonized. But my new “Black” identity keeps telling me that it doesn’t matter, this is a symbol of oppression that stood for the enslavement of people who look like me and it was painful. Finally, a coworker who had been on vacation, and happens to be an openly gay Mexican American, saw the symbol from far away and it didn’t take him one minute to report it. I started asking myself why it somehow had to be another minority, who might have experienced some sort of discrimination, to notice, understand, and stand against racial insensitivity? I think this resonates with what Tim Wise, in “White Like Me,” has said white privilege is. It involves a lack of understanding of the complicated structural and systemic racism that Blacks experience daily. That privilege kind of covers many people’s eyes.

The irony is, many of my white friends claim to be color blind, which really just makes them blind to the daily life experiences of Black people like me, which is too often full of unconscious racial stereotyping with grave social, economic, and psychological impact.

Last year my mother in-law invited me to her church for a women’s training session where a high-profile, respected Logan city police officer was teaching parents about internet safety. I loved most of his message, but I found the officer’s approach very insensitive, inconsiderate, and completely “color blind” to the fact that I am Black and the words he was using were disturbingly racist to me. For instance, at one point he was telling the women in the meeting not to be so nice to people who look strange, who maybe have dreadlocks, etc. and then says, “don’t be afraid of being called racist to protect yourself from strangers.” Intentionally or unintentionally, this officer was using a Black person’s profile as a symbol of threat to teach these women about safety. I wonder what kinds of perceptions these women will have about dreadlocks who are mostly worn by black men. The women in the meeting were mostly my neighbors and I keep wondering how this session will impact the way they see my own husband, his siblings and my children. What bothered me so much was that this respected officer might be the law enforcement agent whom my children, who perfectly fit into the very profile and symbol of what he labeled as “strange,” may encounter. Will they not be seen as ‘normal’ and nonthreatening?  I felt certain that just like this (implicitly-biased) police officer, others will definitely view my children as a threat and their actions will not matter at all. And what bothers me most was that these loving, caring and compassionate white mothers did not even bother to question his approach, let alone to confront his racially insensitive description. They were in fact applauding and cheering.  I know my mother in-law felt awful, but she didn’t speak up at the time. This is one of the moments that I felt that this is not the community where I want to raise my kids.

After the events surrounding the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota, I asked my mother-in-law to write about her experiences of raising six (adopted) Ethiopian children after she and her husband raised their six (white) children here in Cache Valley. She remembers that when they first moved here to Utah they weren’t expecting the prejudices that they faced on a daily basis. As she remembers at the children’s school, “Some students would ask them if they could touch their hair. Many students would ask them if they grew up in a jungle in Africa, or if they had ever seen a TV before. They grew up in Addis Ababa, the capitol city of Ethiopia, which is a modern city. These comments were innocent, but hurtful at the same time,” she points out. “As my children learned to drive and got their drivers licenses,” she writes, “they began to have more serious problems than hurtful innocent comments at school. Since I am white I didn’t even have a clue that I was supposed to talk to them about how to act when you are stopped by the police because it might be dangerous for them because of the color of their skin. None of my white children had ever been pulled over on a regular basis for petty things while they were driving. My Ethiopian family members many times have been tailed for fifteen minutes by police officers before they finally pull them over to say that the light over their license plate is out, just so they can check out their car. (You can’t legally pull someone over unless there is something wrong). When they would get home and check the light there would be nothing wrong with it.”

She goes on to recall, “One experience was for driving too slow, and they were pulled from their car, searched and frisked, put in the back of the police car to wait while the officers called in the drug sniffing dogs to check out their car for possible drugs. Of course the police car’s lights were going while they waited for backup to bring the drug dogs, so everyone passing by would look to see what was going on. No drugs were found, and no ticket was issued, but what a devastating dehumanizing experience. I do believe people of color are often profiled because of the color of their skin, none of my white children have ever had any experiences while driving like their Ethiopian siblings have had.” These are examples of “white privilege,” which gives white people immunity from certain kinds of negative experiences. It allows white people to avoid what my mother-in-law sees as “the deep and soulful hurt” of being dehumanized.

Tim Wise points out that white folks’ racial fears, resentments, and anxiety are also used to undermine their own wellbeing, making them numb to the pain and experience of others. The irony is, many of my white friends claim to be color blind, which really just makes them blind to the daily life experiences of Black people like me, which is too often full of unconscious racial stereotyping with grave social, economic, and psychological impact. Colorblindness is neglecting the truth of white privilege and keeping matters of racism “under the rug,” closing one’s eyes to the reality of institutional racism and shifting the focus to less urgent issues. I think awareness about how race affects everybody is key. It is important to be color conscious in order to help racial minorities, walk with them in the journey for equality. Instead of color-blindness, we need to work on “anti-racism,” instead of avoiding discussing race and racism or claiming you are “not racist” while doing nothing to change a system that unfairly disadvantages people of color.

But I also want to say how being a student of anthropology and sociology has helped me in this painful journey. Where would I be without a “sociological imagination” and “cultural relativism” to help me to look at historical and cultural contexts and see the big picture?

Ta-Nehisi-Coates wrote in “Between the World and Me,” that black boys and girls are always told to work twice as hard, to be twice as good, but to be happy with half as much. In the 1937 essay “Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” Richard Wright talks about the numerous “yes sirs” and “no sirs” in his conversation with white people in his quest to please white folks at all times.  I always ask myself why certain words are commonly used by African Americans in their day to day interaction with non-blacks. There are times I get mad at my African husband for overusing these extremely polite and seemingly subordinate words in his interactions with white people. What makes me mad is the fact that whether my husband uses such polite words or not, it is not going to prevent the presumed judgment and implicit biases he will encounter regardless in a racially divided country like the U.S.  He still has to work extra hard to prove people’s misconceptions about him. To this day, he takes his (white) parents to the bank if he is making a big transaction just to avoid possible problems. And it always works, but it is infuriating. It is tragic to watch some of these videos of young black boys assaulted by police officers, while they responded to orders in an extremely polite way. It seems to me such kind of “Jim Crow wisdom” does not guarantee a black person the right to simply live a regular life.

I could go on and on talking about my experience as an African immigrant. But I also want to say how being a student of anthropology and sociology has helped me in this painful journey. Where would I be without a “sociological imagination” and “cultural relativism” to help me to look at historical and cultural contexts and see the big picture? But I am not going to lie, it is tiring to justify every petty ignorance and racial insensitivity when you face it on a daily basis and know that your children are more likely to pass through the same painful journey because we definitely have a long way to go to be a “post-racial” country. I do not want to pass on what Wright calls “the Jim Crow wisdom” to help my children navigate and survive a racist system.  I want them to change the system! I do not want them to waste every single moment of their life trying to strategize their own mechanism to defend their blackness and prove people’s misconceptions wrong. Because I know it is not going to change until we all work together, and especially until white people choose to speak up against racism and racial insensitivity.

As my mother-in-law points out: “Of course not all of my Ethiopian children’s experiences here have been negative. Many people have been kind and have helped them, but it would go a long way if white people around them would have the courage to speak up if they see someone doing something racist, and try to stop it. We can all make a difference to help our country change so that everyone is treated equally and fairly. I have hope that the country I love will be able to find the courage to face the things that need to be changed and go forward to make it a better place to live, no matter what color your skin is.”

Referenced Sources:

Coates, T. (2015). Between the world and me (First edition.). New York: Spiegel & Grau.

Wise, T. J. (2005). White like me. Brooklyn, NY: Soft Skull Press.

Wright, R. (1993 [1937]) The Ethics of living Jim Crow, An Autobiographic sketch. Harper-perennial Publishers page 1-18.

Recommended resources:

Kendi, I. X. (2019). How to be an antiracist. First Edition. New York: One World.

An Antiracist Reading List curated by Ibram X. Kendi:

About the Author:

Trhas Tafere graduated in Spring 2020 from Utah State University with a degree in both anthropology and sociology and was the Anthropology Program’s Undergraduate of the Year. She was born in Eritrea and moved to the U.S. from Ethiopia in 2013.

Read from source The Statesman