Derek Chauvin is likely the most popular cop in the world. He will consider himself unlucky. He was not the first white cop to kill an unarmed black man. Yet his name is the one on everyone’s lips. The reason why the country is ablaze. He will curse Gregory and Travis McMichael for killing Ahmaud Arbery. He will swear at Amy Cooper for lying and threatening to call the cops on an innocent black man. He will curse the Corona virus that has everyone strung out and killed more African Americans than any other ethnic group. These four incidences formed a perfect storm that conspired to ruin his life. You could feel some sympathy for the man. No one man deserves to be hated by all the black people in the world.
The emotion African immigrants in the US feel on police brutality range from indignation to apathy. I have many Nigerian American friends who are baying for blood. While they have not experienced police harassment or brutality, they claim to be acquainted with discrimination in the US. Thus they support the protests and do not mind the violence.
“What has peaceful protests achieved? Nothing!” said a Nigerian American on a WhatsApp group.
“When white people suffer economic loss in the riot, then they’ll know this shit is real. They will hold their white racist friends to account,” said another.
But there are many Nigerian Americans who believe African immigrants don’t have skin in the game.
“Dude, how many Nigerian Americans have you heard killed as a result of police brutality? Zero,” said a friend. “How many Nigerian Americans will get involved in incidences with white people that could go pear-shaped? None,” he continued.
“That is because we never ever get ourselves in such situations. We are never confrontational. Either in mindset or body language. True, America is a racist society. There is a limit to the height a black man can attain. But I have the best chances of success here than in my native country. I never take that for granted. Call me a coward or an Uncle Tom. It just isn’t my fight. I accept the benefit with the burden as a black immigrant living in America.”
Such sentiments abound among African immigrants in the US. An understanding of the mindset may be helpful. Take the Nigerian American.
The Nigerian American is an economic migrant. He left Nigeriana for Americano in search of the bounteous honeycombs thither. Of course, there is honey in his native homeland. But he must have cojones the size of the moon and the perseverance of Job to dip his finger into that goody. As he has neither, he takes his fate in his hands and journey to the Land of the Free. He does not ask for favours and privileges. Oh no, he is ready to ride the rodeo. He is not lazy. He will start all over if necessary. So he finds a job — or jobs. He studies hard. He puts in the hard work. Soon he begins to see that the Lord is good. He begins to make sense of his life. Years later, he professes love for the Founding Fathers. He takes the Oath of Allegiance. His route to this citizenship does not matter. If he chooses to fall in love and marry Kayla from Eureka, Nevada, who are we to question true love?
Yet, let’s remember that our good man has a second country he can call home. In the improbable situation that America becomes unlivable, he can, in theory, pack his bags and come back to Nigeria. He maintains close ties to the irksome land. He has family and friends in Nigeriana. He sends money home. Acculturated though he is, his Nigerian upbringing still bobs to the surface. But he is comfortable with this pluralism. He inhabits and enjoys the two worlds.
DeAndre and Kiara have no such luxury. Though descendants of black slaves, they are about as African as Kenny Rogers is Sudanese. They know next to nothing about Africa. They were born in America and drink of its water. The backs of their ancestors built the land. They have no other country. Know no other way of life. That is why they will fight for their rights and place in the land. They are as American as any white American.
This lack of shared history is at the heart of the difference and friction between African immigrants and African Americans. But, there are important differences in psychographics too.
Many Nigerian Americans accuse most African Americans or “akata” of living for the moment. Of loving the fast life. The ‘cool factor’ of African Americans make them spend big on fashion brands, high-end electronics and automobiles. They buy too many stuff with little regard for the future. “Picture me rollin’ in my 500 Benz” sang Tupac Shakur. And Chamillionaire crooned: “They see me rollin’ they hatin’…my music so loud I’m swangin’”. For the Nigerian American who subscribe to this stereotype, art imitates life. And the music of African Americans imitate their life.
In turn, many African Americans regard African immigrants with contempt. They have a funny accent. They come from the backwaters of the world. They are black-ass leeches enjoying the benefits of the civil right movement yet disdainful of the African Americans who fought for it with their blood. Stupid “house niggers,” eager to please white people even if it means disowning their black identity. They are just as loathsome as the whites and best get their black asses back to Africa.
The fact that African immigrants, especially Nigerian Americans, are likely to be more educated and more respected lend to the beef.
This beef runs deep and rampant. Last year in New Orleans, on my visit to the Oak Alley Plantation, I met two African American ladies. It was the Essence Fest weekend. They’d come in from California. They were friendly and well educated. I invited them to lunch.
At lunch, I made some jocular, off-handed remark about many African Americans wanting to be like Cardi B. Rappers, basketballers and overnight successes. It was a remark in poor taste. And the ladies were quick to register their displeasure.
“You are just typical of most Nigerians in the US,” spat one of the friends. “Arrogant and disrespectful of the challenges of African Americans. You think we are nuisances and lazy.”
The other friend asked me how Idris Elba identified himself, to which I replied “British.”
“Exactly,” she retorted. “Everybody knows he’s of African descent but you’d never hear him identify himself as Sierra Leonean. He identifies as British. But not you, Nigerians. Even when you have American citizenship, you still identify as Nigerian. Because you just don’t want to be mistaken for an African American, an ‘akata’ who obviously must be such terrible people.”
We were both wrong and unwittingly exhibited the stereotypes that characterised our views of each other.
The irony is that racist white people do not distinguish between African immigrants and African Americans. All they see when they see a black person is a parasite and a criminal.
In May, a Canadian of Nigerian descent, a Jamaican and a black London native were checking out of their Airbnb in Rialto, California. Seven police cars swarmed upon them. The friends were ordered to put their hands in the air. Turns out a white neighbour had called the police alleging that a burglary was in progress.
The white neighbour didn’t care if the friends were African American or African immigrants. She didn’t try to find out. All she saw were three black people lugging luggage. And that couldn’t be good news.
When Amy Cooper threatened Christian Cooper (no relation) that she would phone the police and tell them “there’s an African-American man threatening my life,” she likely didn’t care the nationality of Mr Cooper. For all the McMichaels cared, Ahmaud Arbery could have been from Ivory Coast or Podunk.
It is time African immigrants, especially Nigerian Americans, realise that they do in fact have skin in the game. Discrimination to any black man is discrimination to every black man. Neither side have to agree with the values and lifestyle of each other, but persecution and discrimination makes us brothers in arm.
There’s a Yoruba saying African immigrants best heed: “The cane used in flogging the first wife is in safe keeping for the second wife who errs.”
Racists don’t see hues. They see in broad strokes.