“You do not know what it means to be Black in this country,” an American-born son told his African father. He was right. White America differentiates between Africans and African-Americans, and Africans in the United States have generally accepted this differentiation. This differentiation, in turn, creates a divide between Africans and African-Americans, with Africans acting as a buffer between Black and White America.
I have lived somewhere between being Black and African. But what is the difference between being Black and African? And what does it mean to be one or the other in the US?
I was born in Evanston, Illinois to Kenyan parents. We returned to Kenya when I was a few months old. I grew up in a small rural town outside of Nairobi, and attended primary and secondary school in Kenya before returning to the United States in 1990 for college. I have now lived in America over half my life. What I’ve come learn is that being African can get you into places that being African-American will not, through “foreigner privilege.”
Foreigner privilege rests on the premise that the Africans with the funny accent and names are not here to stay. They’re guests; treat them well. So Africans seen as hardworking, clean and grateful become junior Whites.
The end result of the African foreigner privilege (usually dispensed with condescension) is that Africans are becoming buffers between White and Black America. There is now a plethora of reports comparing African students to African-American students. Their conclusion is, if Africans fresh off the boat are doing better than African-Americans who have been here for centuries, then racism can no longer be blamed.
But the reports don’t consider that, just maybe, whether at Harvard or a community college, Africans experience race differently from African-Americans. Africans experience a patronizing but helpful racism, as opposed to the hostile, threatened and defensive kind that African-Americans grow up with. Racism wears a smile when meeting an African; it glares with hostility when meeting an African-American.
Africans in the US can end up becoming foils to continuing African-American struggles, because they buy into the stereotypes. They end up seeing African-Americans through a racist lens. This is not to say that African-Americans haven’t themselves bought into racist stereotypes of Africans (straight out of a Tarzan or Cleopatra movie). But to the credit of African-Americans, they have actively, through organizations like Africa Action and Trans-Africa Forum, often agitated on Africa’s behalf.
Indeed, Nelson Mandela once said that without African-American support, ending apartheid would have taken much longer. But you won’t find organizations in African countries that reciprocate—for example, seeking to end the racialized judicial system in the US that sees nearly as many Black men in prison as college. And Africans in the United States tend to stay away from protests against police brutality and racial profiling. True, the fear of immigration police and offending the host country play a part, but I think there are ways in which Africans do not see the African-American struggle against racism as their fight, too.
Twenty years and counting in the US, I no longer feel a conflicted identity, one torn between being Black in the United States and African. I see no contradiction between going home to Kenya and returning home to America. I don’t fully comprehend terms like “cosmopolitan.” But it makes sense to me that one can have two homes at the same time. Not just in the physical sense, but in the deepest sense of the word: to be rooted, and to have roots growing, in two different places.
And as a writer and citizen, I have duties to each. I want to open up the contradictions that, in Kenya, keep the majority in oppressive ethnicized poverty and violence and, in the United States, racialized violence and poverty.
As an African and a Black person, I feel, rightly or wrongly, that I have a duty to love both homes. And love need not always be pleasant—it can be demanding, defensive, angry and wrong. But it always wants to build, not destroy.
Mukoma Wa Ngugi is an Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University, the author of Nairobi Heat and the forthcoming Black Star Nairobi. You can follow him on Twitter @mukomawangugi, and visit MukomaWaNgugi.com.