When I was ten years old I attended a sleepaway camp outside of Nacogdoches, Texas, where I told a few hundred people, with great pleasure, that my name was Bernice, not Wayétu. My family had only emigrated from Liberia five years prior, and for two weeks I basked in the glorious trope of American normalcy; a name like Bernice was proper, distinct, pronounceable.
When I arrived home my father probed about my time away. After some banter he asked me: “What is your name?” I was caught. When he was finally content with my repetitions, he said “You must always be proud of who you are. Be proud of Africa.”
Before I knew that I was black, I knew that I was African—an immigrant—so conversations in my house about how to deal with difference usually placed our race second to our being foreign. In Liberia, forms of racism exist, but black people are in the vast majority; black people, exclusively, are the leaders, and black people make the laws that govern them.
Like many other immigrant families, mine believed the American dream was attainable by all who worked hard and valued education. I was told to listen to authority and to do my very best at all times. Not because of a white, ill-meaning American system that did not expect me to, but because if I did not, my mother and father’s efforts to give us a good life here would be in vain. We were spared in Liberia’s 1990 civil war, and with that second chance, that resurrection, America and her exalted possibilities became my parents’ answer to our displacement. So, in the land of the free, it made no sense to them for me to receive a grade of 93 when 100 was so close. I needed to try harder. In the land of the free, anybody could win, and there was no excuse for failure.
But something has happened over the years, culminating in November when a grand jury in Missouri decided not to indict a Ferguson police officer for killing unarmed, eighteen-year-old Michael Brown. My race upstaged my nationality, and I was awakened to the crippling psychological burden resulting from the injustice against people of color in the United States. My upbringing certainly contributed to my naïveté, and the tardiness in my understanding of the rage that stems from black erasure in the United States. There is a silent, irreconcilable agony caused by living in a country that mostly functions as though you do not exist, or that sees you as a caricature representing all that is backward, criminal, and unpleasant in it. This consciousness is acquired gradually through experience, and eventually eclipses the immigrant’s perception of America as the world’s Emerald City. In recent months I reconsidered instances like my childhood decision to change my name. At the welcoming ceremony, the campers ran to those they knew would be their quick friends—Ashley, Emily, Becky. Lately I’ve realized that what I thought was an effort to temper my foreignness was more likely a peer response to a more glaring difference—my being black.
There are many complexities in the larger conversation of what it means to be an immigrant in America. Still, one thing remains true: Americans engage with one another differently based on skin color. This tendency psychologically empowers immigrants who are white and disempowers immigrants of color. As a result, there is no escaping the psychological toll being black will eventually take—no matter where you are from, no matter what previous views you held on race—in a country that has yet to negotiate the realities of the depth and scope of its racism.
Dialogue that has stemmed from America’s recent racial tragedies has differed across black and white communities in America.
The progressive white conversation: “We need to recognize our privilege to achieve a truly post-racial America.” White privilege, a term that has taken center stage in the national conversation, describes systemic, unearned societal privileges that benefit whites in America.
Rather than addressing the history of imperialism and brutal oppression by whites that is at the root of such privilege, this conversation affirms existing inferiority and superiority complexes by emphasizing both the ceiling of black progress and the systemic structures that exist to ensure that whites will, without effort, have more peaceful, happier, and more successful lives. If even the most forward-thinking dialogue still inherently affirms the American majority’s superiority, then interactions with even the most well-meaning white person will, over time, make any person of color susceptible to the consequences of psychological inferiority—including self-doubt and anger.
This self-examination of “white privilege,” then, is insufficient. A full conversation requires historical context—the difficult confrontation with the extent of oppression and the many severe economic and psychological ramifications that have resulted. Without this, a white person is presented with a call to be aware of his privilege and of a need to be kind to those who are not white, without knowing why it is that such a person has privileges that non-whites do not.
Over decades, omission of this detail keeps the white psychological slate clean, and therefore less likely to understand the layers of economic disenfranchisement of blacks in America. This omission is also why poor whites may condemn the conversation on race when the topic of privilege comes up, citing wealthy and upwardly mobile blacks as examples of racial progress.
Yet slavery—the origin of African-American disenfranchisement—is not ancient history: historical racism is not irrelevant to contemporary black life. A “post-racial” America is idealized because it implies that black people have the same opportunity for advancement as whites, and thus have no excuse for economic or social ills. Yet in criticisms of the socio-economic status of blacks, there is no mention of the many times in the post-slavery era when black progress has been repressed and black communities terrorized when they dared to be economically self-sufficient. For instance, in the summer of 1921 the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, a mostly affluent all-black community nicknamed “Black Wall Street,” was destroyed by a mob of angry whites. Six biplane two-seater trainers left over from World War I carried white rioters who fired rifles and dropped firebombs on buildings, homes, and fleeing families. In a community where black attorneys and doctors had finally realized their American dream, poor and envious whites literally incinerated those achievements with impunity. The commercial section of Greenwood was completely destroyed. More than 600 businesses were burned and thousands died. Only one example of many, this instance of repression perpetuated a culture of fear among African-Americans, sending a message that black progress was unreliable, black lives worth nothing. Contemporary black culture experiences such economic undermining on a lesser scale through urban gentrification, a process that results in the displacement of black and minority business owners.
Ten Times Harder
The most popular black conversation: “You must work ten times harder and be twice as good to get half as far as a white person.” In college, my friends who were black would say this was something they heard from their parents all the time: they would have to work much harder than their white American peers if they expected to compete. My father never told me that I would have to work ten times harder than my peers to even approach their successes. If he had spoken to me this way, there are many things in my life I would not have attempted. Such a fear of failure is a natural human response.
This parental dialogue is not exclusive to African-Americans. Although my father never had such a conversation with me, Haitian-American writer Roxane Gay, in her recent book of essays, Bad Feminist, writes: “When I worked with those kids [African-American students] in graduate school, I understood why my parents showed us how we had to work three times harder than white kids to get half the consideration. They did not impart this reality with bitterness. They were protecting us.” This conversation is no doubt not limited merely to African-Americans, but to women and other oppressed groups.
At its best, the conversation creates early awareness of one’s place as motivation to excel. But because it finds its roots in forces outside of oneself, because its rhythm depends on the rhythm of others, that motivation is also pathological in nature.
If the two most progressive conversations about race still indirectly cleave to the ideas of white supremacy and black defeat, then we are a long way from substantive, lasting change. In its present form, American society ensures not only that black Americans remain exhausted from having to subsume and internalize white American culture, standards, and values as a means of survival, but that all black immigrants become exhausted as well. Racism is tragic in its power to deconstruct an individual’s sense of confidence and self, or to violently enforce another individual’s superiority—or both. Racism exists everywhere, but it seems most tragic in America, because this deconstruction comes as a disappointing surprise among some immigrant groups, many of whom arrive here believing they are finally in a country where equality is practiced, not just idealized.
The omission of—or obliviousness to—the historical roots of racial inequity in the white privilege conversation is one of the reasons why immigrant groups may have a negative response to the socio-economic status of blacks in America. An immigrant family that is able to progress within American society may question what seems like a lack of progress among African-Americans, crediting this to laziness or general lack of work ethic. The newly arrived immigrant has not yet reached the state of black American consciousness. Like whites, the immigrant’s criticism of African-Americans usually does not take the role of slavery and its legacy into consideration. This criticism also unfairly withholds credit from the primary reason such an immigrant is able to excel, namely the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century, led and executed mainly by African-Americans.
In 2000, sociologist John R. Logan at the Mumford Center at the State University of New York at Albany did a side-by-side comparison of census data, which concluded that black immigrants from Africa averaged the highest educational attainment of any population group in the country. Among African immigrants, 43.8 percent had achieved a college degree, compared to 42.5 percent of Asian Americans or 28.9 percent of immigrants from Europe, Russia, and Canada. Considering these numbers, an African immigrant child is more likely to have parents who have earned college degrees, and is therefore more likely to attend college herself. As a result, the black immigrant does not always easily understand or relate to criticisms of the American educational system’s inequities and the racist educational policies that affect inner-city school districts. According to the US Department of Education’s 2011-2012 Civil Rights Data Collection, black students are more likely to attend schools where teachers fail to meet license and certification requirements. Teachers in less-diverse schools make, on average, $5,000 more per year than teachers in schools with majority black and Latino enrollment, a practice that ultimately affects the academic performance of minority students. At all levels of education, from pre-school to college, public resources disproportionately benefit wealthier students.
I grew up in a middle-class suburb, yet subtle racism was still very present at my public school. Things as simple as the surprise my teachers showed in class at how much I knew, as simple as being cast as a maid or a devil in school plays, as simple as getting followed around by a store clerk when shopping with teammates from my track team, who were also black, but not being given a second look when I visited stores with drama club members, who were white—those micro-aggressions played a role in my gradual understanding of what America thought and expected of me, versus what I thought of myself.
While my blackness is an indelible part of who I am, I never considered it something by which others would judge me. After November, I could not help but consider the fact that if the sight of a black man stirs emotions of fear and distrust in the average American—enough, in the case of Ferguson, to warrant that man’s death—then who am I to assume that, as a black woman, the same average American will not have such stereotypes of me? What is my worth in the land where my parents said I would be free?
I have been trying to reason to the contrary, to pull from experiences that may prove otherwise. But. I am bombarded with memories of the lurking eyes of cashiers, the cab driver who did not stop for me, a high school friend asking if I would walk with her while passing a certain group of seniors so that they’d be scared and leave her alone. The black girl, in her mind, could metamorphose from a friend to an object of violence and aggression for threatening her teenage adversaries. Perhaps the most gnawing memory was in graduate school, when a professor began a critique of my short story by writing: “Did you get any help with this? Is this yours or was it translated from another language? How long did it take you to write this? Should anyone else receive credit for this piece?” That allegation, the assumption that somehow there was something so mediocre in me that I could not produce work that impressed him, or dared to step outside of what he assumed I should be writing, was deeply affecting.
They see a black woman, and many, even the most well meaning, have made up their minds, before I speak, about who I am. I’ve slept through this before. But in November I came to my senses. I am finally awake.
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