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Shades of Gray in Black Communities

Image by WJ Gomes via Pixabay. Image by WJ Gomes via Pixabay.

Racial debate in America tends to paint with a broad brush. We speak of “Blacks” and “Whites” as if cultural traits within those communities are entirely or even largely the same. Is a Nigerian American “Black” in the same sense that an African American (i.e. a descendant of slaves brought to the New World against their will) is “Black?” What relationship does a Haitian American have to issues of “structural racism?” It seems to me that further investigation is required to make the debate a bit more robust.

For example, where I come from there are many Nigerian Americans, who are often quite proud of their cultural heritage. Many are first-generation Americans with an interest in preservation of tradition and integration into greater American society. Yet, because many are such recent immigrants, they cannot be said to have experienced the same “ingrained” racism cited as a part of American structural injustice. This is not to say that such people have never felt discriminated against or that they do not face prejudices; rather, it emphasizes that any experience of discrimination is necessarily a different one, rooted in the experience of the immigrant as much as the experience of skin color.

To take another example, Haitian Americans are more-often-than-not black, yet culturally Franco-Caribbean. Their accents, modes of dress, even religious formations, are totally distinct from that of “mainstream” African-American culture (another nebulous term). Again, the issue of recent immigration comes into play as does ingrained social stigma. African Americans and White Americans (of all stripes) are often stymied by deeply-held prejudices about one another. And while any recent immigrant group brings its own prejudices from its old home to its new one, those prejudices do not necessarily weigh on the direct issue of “racism” in America.

The reality, then, is that any real analysis of racial issues in America must take into account not only the variety of experiences of “Blacks” in America, but also must examine the various social cues and factors that play into our developing and developed prejudices. Human nature means prejudice in some sense: we will always have cues, whether clothing, speech, or gait, that will color how we perceive others. A “valley girl” accent means one thing, a Staten Island accent another. These symbols vary from “Black” community to “Black” community, and across the various white communities that interpret and formulate them. A hoodie and a dashiki are very different items, which have vastly different associations in the “American community” as a whole. If we’re to have honest racial dialogue, it has to start with a recognition of the differences within our labels. Monolithic arguments are never enough.

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