This is a guest post by Doreen Yomoah. She is vagabond currently residing in Shanghai, and a founding mother of the Women’s Liberation Army, a motley crew of women scattered throughout the globe who are sick of injustice and planning to do something about it.
I am black.
I am not African-American.
I am Ghanaian.
These are three things that the white Americans I’ve known have trouble distinguishing from each other. I lived in America for a long time as a student, but only temporarily. I currently live in Shanghai. During my stay in America, I can’t count the number of times I was referred to as African-American, or sometimes African, but almost never my real nationality, even by people who knew it.
My problem isn’t necessarily with people thinking I was American; I do after all have an American accent (which I picked up at an international school in Tokyo, where I spent my childhood). While the assumption that I’m American didn’t necessarily bother me, my problem was that after finding out that I am Ghanaian-born, and a Ghanaian citizen, people would still refer to me as African-American, and constantly refer as well to “my” history (as in, the Atlantic slave trade and the black Americans who now populate America as a result).
One thing that irritated me to no end when I lived in America was the fact that all black people were referred to as “African American.” I believe that this idea of referring to blacks as African-American stems from the false idea that no black people know where their ancestry is from, as I have never heard a white American refer to him/herself or another white American as European-American. I have, however, heard them say things like “I’m French / German / Irish / Italian / Spanish / British,” even from people whose families haven’t seen those countries in generations. However, whether black people in America are the descendants of slaves; or those whose families immigrated from Africa, or the Caribbean, or Europe; or those who are in America temporarily for work or studying, all are grouped together under the inaccurate, blanket label of “African-American.”
Even my casual research (as in, Google) on the subject reveals a dearth of accurate available information about these differences among blacks in America. Perhaps the lack of statistics of this sort reflects the lack of interest on the part of the researchers. The only statistic that I’ve been able to find on non-slave descendant American blacks is the number of current immigrants, which is 1,035,253 (and growing). That means that any black descendant of anyone who immigrated after the late 19th century is not included in that statistic; they have instead been lumped into the category of African Americans, and thus are assumed to be descendants of slaves. I have American cousins, for instance, born to two Ghanaian parents in America, who aren’t included in that statistic. Their direct connection to a specific African country is overlooked, as is their distinct difference from most black Americans.
I heard this topic discussed a LOT during Barack Obama’s campaign. That is, whether or not Barack Obama is “black.” But the point of contention was not his biracial heritage. It was the African part of Obama’s heritage that cast doubt in the minds of journalists such as Stanley Crouch, who said in his op-ed “What Obama Isn’t: Black Like Me,” “when black Americans refer to Obama as ‘one of us,’ I do not know what they are talking about.” Similarly, columnist Debra Dickerson wrote, “black, in our political and social reality, means those descended from West African slaves,” and therefore Obama was "'black' but not black."
Um. What? Since when did being descended from slaves become a prerequisite to being black? Most black people in the world are not descendants of West African slaves. However, I heard this time and time again following the election campaign of Obama from afar. Is this really how black should be defined in America?
The number of black immigrants has more than tripled in the past few decades, and that number will only continue to grow. It is time for the definition of “black” to be widened to mean more than just “West African slave descendant,” because aside from being untrue, it also serves to reinforce the idea that black people are a monolith. Not only do African-Americans and black Africans completely differ from one another in many ways; within Africa there are myriad ethnic groups found throughout its 53 countries. To us, being black means customs as diverse as speaking Zulu or Shona, wearing kente or aso oke, or celebrating Farmer Day or Unification Day.
There are major statistical differences between African immigrants and slave-descendant African Americans, as well the rest of the American population. Africans are the most educated immigrant population in the United States, with 49% holding college degrees—a larger percentage than Asian immigrants, American-born whites, and American born blacks. 86.4% hold high school degrees or more, while only 78.9% of the “model minority” Asian immigrants do. Children of African immigrants also go on to achieve higher levels of education as compared with the rest of the population.
While reaching higher levels of education than most other groups in America and having lower unemployment and poverty rates, immigrant blacks still face discrimination in the workplace. Their employment does not generally reflect their education and experiences, as they are often underpaid and underemployed.
While living and traveling elsewhere, I still hear white Americans refer to any black person that they see as African-American, despite the fact that black Africans here greatly outnumber our African-American counterparts. A white American friend once referred to me as “African-American”, despite knowing that I’m Ghanaian. For some reason she still thought that that was an appropriate label for me. Another American woman I know told her (British) boyfriend that black is incorrect, and the correct term is African-American, despite the fact that in the majority of his life experience, the black people he has met are not American. Nevertheless, because in her mind black people are all African-American, she falsely assumed that was an accurate label for all of us.
Something I have heard white Americans say over and over when it comes to this subject is that “it’s just something you never think about.” The way they say it, it’s as though they are expecting some agreement from me, like I should say “Yeah, I know, the logical default is to assume that all black people on earth are American!” I think that embodies the very assumption that I find damaging. They don’t even think about it. They just assume we are all American. Just today, I told one American friend of mine I had just gotten my hair done. “Are there a lot of African American hair salons in Shanghai?” she asked.
Oh geez. I’ve known her for over five years and she is well aware that I’m not American. I replied with “it’s not African American hair.” Puzzled, she asked me what I meant. I replied “I’m not American. The girl who did my hair was not American. The girls who did my hair before are not American. It’s not ‘African-American’ hair.” She replied by telling me she didn’t even think about that. I find this “I didn’t even think about it” attitude incredibly common among white Americans. Even someone who is aware of me not being American still defaults to referring to my hair as “African American hair,” and then refuses to think any further about it.
I was in the History Association at my American university, and we hosted events at which professors of history would have open discussions with us. At one such event, we had the famed Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s daughter speak to us. One of my white classmates then asked her if she’d had the chance to research where her ancestors may have come from, to which she replied “I’m Nigerian…” Even with a last name like “Achebe”, a famous Nigerian author for a father, and a discussion about her experience in Africa, this classmate still assumed that as a black person, she clearly was born without the knowledge of her ancestry.
My problem with the common white assumption that all black people are descendants of slaves are that a) it’s simply not true and b) it helps to perpetuate this harmful, ignorant mentality that black people are a uniform group, a concept that is so rampant throughout America and the world at large.
Do I think that black America has a rich and complex history and culture? Yes, I do. I was able to witness it first-hand while living America, and it’s just as diverse and complex as anyone else’s history.
However, it’s not my history. My history is the history of a powerful trading empire, a people who were able to rebuild themselves after attacks from neighboring rivals, a people who came together to resist the colonial reign of the British empire, and the first African nation to reach independence in the 20th century. And that history is ignored by most white Americans, who refuse to see it.