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Mistaken For Black

This material courtesy of J. LaVelle Ingram, Ph.D.

I once counseled a young man from England who was biracial; he looked like your average fair-skinned African-American. If he were sitting quietly you couldn’t distinguish him from any other 20 something “Black” man in America. The problem was that African-Americans also couldn’t distinguish him from one of their own, and often seemed to take offense when he spoke differently and behaved differently from them. He reported reactions ranging from amusement to hostility when he didn’t dance like African-Americans or listen to the kind of music they liked or eat the kind of food that they ate. The conflict was not a minimal one, especially when my client found himself ostracized by the larger black community because of his differences.

Since counseling that young man, I have encountered many other immigrants who encounter difficulties with Americans within their perceived racial or ethnic group. It is often the immigrant who is placed in the position of feeling coerced into associating with a group of people that may not feel like “kin”. Immigrants often report feeling put upon to behave like their resident counterparts, even if the noted behaviors do not fit their ethnic identities. The African-English man that I counseled so many years ago even asked if he should learn to hide his accent, to eat greens and chicken and to listen to rap music. The only appropriate answer was, and is, only if that is what you want to do.

More to the point, this young man needed to learn some clarifying statements that he could make to those who challenged him so that the encounters did not lead to conflict. So, for the observation that “you don’t sound like a Black man,” he learned first to change the conversation from race (which it is not about) to culture, which it is about. So he might respond, “You mean I don’t sound like an African-American, don’t you.” Next, he could make the clarification, “Well I don’t sound like one because I am not; I am an African-English immigrant to the U.S.” This statement is a simple statement of fact, and so would tend not to lead to an escalation of conflict. On the other hand, if he responded with, “I am not a Black man,” he would certainly be challenged because of his physical appearance. He would seem to be denying a heritage that was obviously his, and such an act would place him at odds with other African-Americans, who work so hard to maintain such a heritage. If he responded with “What is a Black man supposed to sound like?” or any other question, he opens the discourse to further alienation from the challenger.

Another point in the above noted scenario is the need to recognize that minority groups in America have generally had to work for positive recognition of their group, and they have faced the challenge of maintaining the group in the face of pressure to assimilate. Thus, minority people in America generally wish to acknowledge others of our group and to have them acknowledge us. We generally hold other group members who do so as fulfilling the challenge of maintaining the group’s identity. On the other hand, a perceived group member who avoids another member, who fails to acknowledge that shared membership, is viewed as somehow betraying the group and the heritage. Into this mix steps the innocent immigrant. While the immigrant may be accurately noting real ethnic differences, the minority group member may read these differences as somehow “trying to pass” as something other than African-American, Korean-American, Irish-American or Italian-American. It may thus be helpful to the immigrant person to realize that such questions about their membership are emotionally charged. Such an encounter is not the time to offer whatever helpful criticism you may have of the American group. Nor is it the time to voice the general opinions about the group that you may have heard back home. Rather, some statement of curiosity about the American group is helpful, as is some genuine statement of caring about that group. Then the statement of one’s own, factual status as an immigrant clarifies the situation.

In short, Israeli immigrants are culturally different from American Jews, Italian immigrants are culturally different from N.Y Italians, and African immigrants are culturally different from African-Americans. These differences have to do with a range of factors like the degree of assimilation over time of the long-term residents of America, the degree of exposure to American culture of the new immigrants and the extent to which these different ethnic groups have on-going contact with each other. Whatever factors make the difference, it exists and it is real. And just like American minorities typically have to educate the majority about our genuine selves, values and ways of being, the immigrants to America have to educate the American minorities. You do so to your own advantage.

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