Though America was built on the forced labor of millions of people who were ripped from their homes and brought to the then-foreign land to make it something great, the immigrant experience is a challenging one in the U.S., particularly for immigrants of color.
When my parents moved stateside from Kenya in the mid-1980s, they were not welcomed, and they both had to fight for every opportunity they acquired. Unfortunately, things aren’t much different today. America’s hostility toward those not from the country who dare to build a life for themselves in the U.S. is just as palpable today as it was generations ago. However, the Black immigrant experience has become more nuanced since the racial reckoning that erupted following the murder of George Floyd. Blavity spoke to three Black immigrants about their experiences and relationships with their Black identity to unpack that shift.
“Prior to coming to America, the only experience of Blackness I had was what was portrayed by Hollywood, and it’s far-fetched from the true nature of being Black in America. Experiencing it firsthand made me garner a newfound respect for the struggles and triumphs of Black America and also made me appreciate hard work and diligence that goes into building Black culture and success,” 42-year-old Tolu Adesina explained of how immigrating to the U.S. has changed his perception of his Black identity.
Adesina shared that Floyd’s murder only made him more aware of the realities of being Black in America, and it’s been a hard pill to swallow.
“It unfortunately made me more guarded, just from the fact that in the narrative, you could get in trouble even if you’re not doing anything wrong,” he said. “There’s a constant looking over your shoulder even if you’re an upstanding citizen; it’s created an enormous amount of anxiety for me.”
Eyvonne Eleko, 35, who, like Adesina, immigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria, was similarly affected by Floyd’s death.
“I became more aware and empathetic to the maltreatment of people of color by authorities who are meant to protect them. George Floyd’s death was a very sensitive issue and, as with millions around the country, it was deeply hurting to witness that happened right in front of our eyes,” she shared.
The mentality shift was significant for Eleko. She had a different awareness when she first moved to the U.S.
“As an African immigrant, you’re never really faced with the whole concept of “diversity” because all you’re used to is different tribes; however, everyone else is on the same wave, unlike when you move to what we refer to as the Western world,” she said.
Though Floyd’s death did open her eyes to the depths of racism in America, Eleko has learned that African and Black American cultures are more similar than advertised.
“While our struggles may not be exactly the same, I do believe that at our very core, both identities’ values are the same, which are family, rich history and culture; maybe throw in religion/spirituality for good measure, but the two driving values remain family and hustle,” she explained, adding that moving to the U.S. has given her “a new sense of pride in my identity as a Black woman.”
For Wanjira Jama, who immigrated to the U.S. from Kenya, embracing her identity as a Black woman has been more complicated.
“Coming from Kenya by way of South Africa (I completed high school in Johannesburg), where being Black is celebrated due to being a majority and our nation’s journey with colonialism, I knew myself and came in carrying a lot of pride in my identity as a Black, African, Kenyan, Kikuyu woman,” she wrote via email to Blavity. “Living here, I soon realized that my individual cultural identity, as it pertained to being Kenyan or Kikuyu, didn’t matter as much, if at all, because when people first see me, they see a Black woman.”
That reality has started altering Jama’s expectations and how she identifies herself.
“I also carry less expectation of people to care or accommodate my cultural background,” she confessed. “That sounds a little brash, and it doesn’t mean that I tolerate disrespect or ignorance, but I think there’s less of an emotional tie now between my Blackness and my Kenyan heritage, at least in America.”
Floyd’s passing and others were pivotal moments for Jama and how she understands her cultural identity.
“Less than a year before his [Floyd’s] passing, I was racially profiled for the first time in what I initially considered to be a safe space (my university campus),” she shared. “Whilst these two events may seem unrelated, they further emphasized how my cultural heritage was dissociated from my Blackness, and how America’s perceptions of Black people could actively harm innocent Black people. For me, it being my first time experiencing this, made his passing hurt more, but even more so with what felt like the back to back passings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and then George Floyd.”
Jama added that she was living in a predominantly white area at the time, which only exasperated her inner turmoil.
“It made me feel helpless and contemplate how my life could be so easily reduced to nothing but a name, another number added to the death toll,” she said. “I don’t think there are words that can quantify the fear that one feels even despite being in positions of privilege — at the time, living with some family friends due to the pandemic, but similarly, fearing for my life because it was a predominantly white neighborhood, that anything could happen because of someone’s implicit biases.”
Cam Dee, whose parents immigrated to New York from Grenada, told Blavity that while Floyd’s death “saddened me,” she wasn’t “completely shocked about what happened to him.” It was moving to the South that had more of an impact on how she sees her Black identity and her Caribbean one.
“I learned recently though, that many Black people in America who are direct descendants of American chattel slaves do not see people like me as ‘Black American’ because my roots are in the Caribbean,” she shared. “It’s made me think more deeply about the nuances of language when talking about Black people ethnically and historically.”
Like many second-generation immigrants, Dee grew up “highly conscious of our Caribbean roots.” She also noted being very aware of her parents’ sacrifices to give her a new life stateside.
“I’ve always felt like my parents were fearful that if they weren’t hard on us, their journey to the States would be for naught,” Dee confessed. “Things that they said and did always made us understand that they saw us and themselves as different from [foundational] Black Americans.”
Because of her experiences, Dee looks at Blackness as a kaleidoscopic existence.
“Blackness is nuanced and sensitive in every corner of the world where it exists,” she explained. “Sometimes, I forget that certain things I say and feel might be very different in the eyes of another Black person from London, for example, versus a Black person from Kenya, a Black person from Honduras, etc. Our distinct histories and regions also impact our world view and although we have a shared race, there are so many different histories and perspectives present.”
That reality is unifying. Blackness can look like and be so many different things and is often under attack because of its vastness. Eleko believes that our vastness is mighty and, if harnessed, could improve the lives of Black people everywhere.