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The Essence of Being Black By Cayla Clements

Since the 1980s, the black immigrant population has grown from 816,000 to 4.2 million, with 39 percent of the overall foreign-born black population being from the African continent. The black American population is shifting as 9 percent of black people living in the United States are foriegn-born.

For many students who have either immigrated themselves or have parents who immigrated to the United States, they are navigating the U.S. education system from the immense pressure of their families and communities. Additionally, they have had to adapt the United States’ construction of race and how they perceive their blackness in the U.S. context. Here are the stories of six Northwestern students:

Ezinna

Ezinna Adiele was born and raised in Maryland in a tight-knit Nigerian community, and for most of her life she was seen herself simply as Nigerian. When she arrived at Northwestern she realized that when people see her, they will see her merely as black and not Nigerian, her ethnicity. This has caused Adiele to feel like she had to choose between being black and being Nigerian, even though she identified as both. Her parents also pushed her away from her identity as a black American.

“My parents when I was really young did not want me to have black friends,” Adiele said. “They had a lot of biases and stuff and racial stereotypes of black Americans as many African immigrants do. They didn't really like want me to hang around black Americans. They thought they were a bad influence for me. They pressured me to have white friends all the time.”

Adiele grew up being taught that she had to be the best, and those pressures can weigh on you when you know the sacrifices your parents made, the family they haven’t seen in decades, and the life they’ve had to build from scratch in the United States.

“No one wants to really dig deeper to find out why so many Nigerian Americans are achieving so much as far as like college educations and wealth,” Adiele said. “There’s a lot of depression and pressure and anxiety because of their parents or other people within the Nigerian community.”

Adiele believes that comparison is a huge contributor to the pressure she feels to overachieve and extends to not only pressure from parents, but peers and others in Nigerian communities.

“Most people are really just living their parents' dreams,” Adiele said.

Shalan

Shalan Tekeste has an experience that is similar to Adiele. She was born and raised in the Chicago area, but her parents immigrated from Eritrea in the 1980s. She was told that she was going to be a doctor by her parents growing up.

“The reason is because we have these educational opportunities that our parents didn’t have,” Tekeste said. “So obviously you want to live up to that expectation that they’re setting up for you.”

Tekeste said that she thinks that this expectation goes beyond Eritrean culture, but extends to other people whose parents were born and raised outside of the U.S.

“They just have this expectation of excellence,” Tekeste said. “When you don’t reach that standard, it’s like ‘I’m disappointing them and I’m basically not fully taking advantage of this opportunity I have.’”

It wasn’t until college where Tekeste began thinking more about what she wanted to do instead of what her to do. She believed that she wanted to be a doctor growing up because her parents instilled that into her mind. She started at Northwestern as a Pre-Med student, but upon discovering that being a doctor wasn't something she wanted for herself, became a Legal Studies major.

Emma

Emma Evans was born in Cairo, Egypt while her mother was in school. Her family is from Juba, South Sudan and she moved to Kansas City, Missouri with her mother and older sister when she was three years old during South Sudan’s first civil war. Living in America is all that Evans remembers, but for most of her life Emma didn’t think of herself as black.

“I don't think when I was younger identified as black because like blackness in America is like centered around being black American,” Evans said. “And that's really the only type of blackness that is recognized usually. So I think it was probably not until maybe possibly middle school, probably high school that I was like, I mean black is a race, right?”

Since coming to Northwestern, Evans has been able to find comfort in her identity as both a black American and South Sudanese, but it was a complicated journey to that comfort. There’s a lot of black American culture that Evans will never understand. She said that her culture is South Sudanese and African - those are the traditions she practiced at home, the food she ate, the music she listened to - and that is the culture she relates to more. But in America, where blackness is constructed solely as a race, it is difficult to be seen any other way.

“We're so focused on race in America, it basically erases, ethnicity and other identities,” Evans said. “So when I meet people, like they will always assume that I'm like American, like black American. And so they look at me and they assume my culture. They assume basically everything about me, how I was raised, where I lived, you know, things like that.”

Evans sees herself going back to South Sudan, or even Uganda, and working there one day, when the second civil war is over. Her mother immigrated to the United States for the purpose of raising her children, but once her all of her four children graduate, she’s going back home.

“The pressure that I face in school is so I can do what I can to succeed because she made all those sacrifices and then do what I can to help those who weren't able to come,” Evans said.

Evans sees herself going back to South Sudan, or even Uganda, and working there one day, when the second civil war is over. Her mother immigrated to the United States for the purpose of raising her children, but once her all of her four children graduate, she’s going back home.

“The pressure that I face in school is so I can do what I can to succeed because she made all those sacrifices and then do what I can to help those who weren't able to come,” Evans said.

Evans believes that the belief that “it's going to be the youth that did immigrant to America that go back with the knowledge that we have and the education that we got in America to go back and be the change for the country” can be problematic and ignite a “savior complex.”

Rory

Rory Tsapayi is an international student from Zimbabwe and he decided to come to school in the United States because of the educational opportunities. Tsapayi wants to get a masters and PhD in Art History, and sees himself staying in the United States for a long time for the opportunities he wants for his career. Like Evans, he understands the difficulty between choosing to stay in your home country or the United States.

“There's a lot of complicated conversations like, ‘But if you're not going back then you're contributing to that lack of opportunity,’” Tsapayi said.

Tsapayi has considered moving to South Africa for that reason, but as of right now is comfortable with staying put in the United States, especially because, as a gay man, he considers Zimbabwe to be a pretty homphobic country.

Like many African students, Tsapayi did not have a racialized community that he felt he belonged to in Zimbabwe, and it wasn’t until coming to Northwestern that he realized that blackness is a community marker. Tsapayi’s father is African, but his mother is Irish. In Zimbabwe, he does not identify as black, but mixed-race. However, because of his knowledge of former United States President Barack Obama, who was born to a white mother and Kenyan father and considered the first black president, Tsapayi knew that in the United States he would be identified as black.

“I definitely do feel differently about my racial identity now,” Tsapayi said. “I feel like I am a part of blackness and align myself with blackness. Academically I'm interested in African and African American art. It's become a thing for me to identify with and to invest myself in, but I didn't really have before.”

Tsapayi also feels like being mixed-race and African has made him feel “less African” in the Northwestern African student community due to his less traditional upbringing, with schooling based on the British education system. The environment he grew up in was less indigenously Zimbabwean.

Fredrick

Likewise, Fredrick Bugyei immigrated to the United States from Denmark in 2004 with his mother, father, and brother. His family is originally from Ghana. Spending his childhood as an immigrant adjusting to the culture in the United States, Bugyei rejected a lot of his Ghanaian heritage, like Twi, a Ghanaian dialect, growing up because he was ostracized for being different.

"There was definitely this internalized anti-blackness because I didn't know how to be comfortable in my own skin,” Bugyei said. “But at the same time feeling like there was something about me that was better than other black people just because my parents were Ghanaian and I could say that I am Ghanaian and my dad specifically saying that there are the things that make you better.”

Bugyei had to challenge these thoughts once entering high school and college. At Northwestern, seeing how proud African students were of their identities empowered his own heritage and roots. He also became empowered by the rich culture, history, and strength of black Americans. He didn’t have his parents to fill the gaps on what it means to be black in America, so it was something he had to learn on his own and through others.

“I had to challenge my dad in terms of what he thought about other black people in the US,” Bugyei said. “I think that now I’m in a good spot where I can recognize that there is a specific culture that I have the privilege to be a part of but also understanding that once someone sees me on the street they are going to view me as black."

Arudi

Arudi Masinjila is an international student from Kenya, but coming to Northwestern was her second time coming to America. Her first time in the United States was coming to high school in New York City, and she became disillusioned by what America perceives itself to be versus what it really is.

“I think the U.S. is good at exploiting its own cultural production to the rest of the world that makes it seem more grandiose than it actually is and better than it actually is,” Masinjila said. “So my idea of American was very much an illusion - a very singular thing of it being this great country of all these opportunities and lights, action, Hollywood.”

Before coming to the United States, Masinjila did not have a perception of being black and she didn’t actively think of herself being black because Kenya is a majority black country where “blackness was the default.” Coming to the United States, Masinjila had to realize how big of an organizational social category race is, and that was jarring and confusing for her.

“It was challenging because I got the sense that being black in America wasn't a good thing and that also probably contributed to me not necessarily wanting to identify as black,” Masinjila said. “Now I identify as black but to get to that point it took me having to educate myself on the history of this country."

On the overall African identity - expected to achieve above and beyond and be a “model minority” for the rest of the United States population. Masinjila, as well as others interviewed find the problematic nature of that sentiment.

“I know that it's good to celebrate the achievements of other people and racial minorities but at the same time I know that that narrative is then used to vindicate other minority groups,” Masinjila said. “I just try to do my best for my own sake as opposed to trying to do it to uphold a myth of a model minority that can also be quite hurtful. It is worth celebrating and worth noting people who are doing great things but the odds shouldn't exist in the first place."

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Cayla Clements
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Cayla Clements

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