03/27/2013 11:36 am ET Updated May 27, 2013

African in America

This piece is inspired by CNN's Soledad Obrien's documentary series, 'Black in America.'

What does it mean to be black in America?

I faced this question early in life as a child of African immigrants. First days of school were the worst days. As teachers and peers faced difficulty pronouncing my long West African name, I struggled to understand who I was. Eventually, I became accustomed to receiving questions including:

  • How do you pronounce that?
  • Do you speak African? (After all, Africa isn't a continent and we all speak the same dialect)
  • When did you immigrate to the United States? Your English is great, when did you move here from Africa?
  • So is that name Swahili for something?
  • You're not really black/Do you consider your black?

My broad Nigerian cheekbones combined with my sun-kissed dark complexion set me apartment from my black American peers. Though I was born in the United States, I was constantly treated as though I was a foreigner in my own country. My story isn't unique. Barack Obama, the first African-American president, is the first president in American history that has had to present his papers years after being elected to the highest office in the land.

Regardless of racial progress, first-generation African Americans (those with at least one African-born parent) are constantly reminded that we are disjoined from the greater African Diaspora in the United States. The individuality of being black in America is not an all-encompassing identity. CNN's Black in America, serves as a documentary series that illustrations a portrait of the obstacles black Americans encounter, which all but excludes the stories of Africans living in the America. We share the same skin color and the same story, yet, we are not considered black.

Though the experiences of first-generation African Americans minutely differ from these descended from slavery, we encounter universal forms of discrimination. This racism is often heightened due to xenophobia and hostility towards immigrants. Carnegie Mellon University sophomore Angelina Nonye-John, discussed negative stereotypes facing first-generation African Americans: "For the children of African Immigrants, it can be difficult. We have societal pressures from Americans, African Americans, and Africans telling us who we are, how we should act, how we should talk, even what we should eat. And I think we all at least one moment draw from all these forces and decided for ourselves."

Often times, these forms of prejudice towards Africans are felt within the black community. As a child, peers who shared my same skin color criticized my dark skin and heritage. These insults ranged from, "You, Africans look like a baboons, you're as dark as charcoal" to "you're an African booty scratcher." This cultural resistance to the label of being African persisted into my young adulthood. In college, confusing an black American peer of being African was viewed as an insult to one's beauty. The prejudices stem from stereotypes that all Africans are impoverished, reside in poor villages, victims of immense starvation, and remain severely uneducated.

Additionally, I also encountered resistance to the term "African American" due to alienation from the continent stemming from the transatlantic slave trade. The truth remains that Africans and black Americans do not share the same legacy of slavery or battle for equal rights. The slave trade separated us and this division persists as a product of institutionalized racism.

This racism also creates a separation in the way in which Africans are treated as opposed to black Americans. I was once told "you just don't look [black] American." Often, first-generation African Americans and Africans are not exposed to the harshness of institutionalized racism because we do not share the same history that has hindered the socioeconomic progress of black Americans. Africans immigrants are praised for achieving greater educational attainment and economic status in comparison to a black American populace that continues to embattle the after-effects of disenfranchisement and inequality.

There is a certain privilege Africans receive through the transient ability to separate themselves from the greater black population due to economic success. Tragically, black Americans are stereotyped as criminals who are unable to achieve the American dream while Africans are actively living it. This privilege is exemplified through studies comparing the performance of black students and African students. Nearly 43.8 percent of Africans living in the United States possess college degrees, which is four times greater than black Americans. This is attributed to a longstanding history of socioeconomic inequalities black Americans have encountered, though many view it as African cultural exceptionalism.

Like many first-generation African Americans, I remain caught between two worlds amid owning my African heritage and recognizing my blackness. History has caused a division amongst us and we can chose to remain divided or be united. I choose the latter.