By Fope Adesina
As a Nigerian whose parents migrated to Australia, my experience as a black child, then woman, meant that my family and I had to create spaces for our voices to be heard. This was despite the nation’s vocal lip-service to multiculturalism. I vaguely remember this ideal at loggerheads with the truth when my dad, a university professor, wanted enroll me in the institution-owned daycare. He objected to the black-and-white image of a black child who was downcast with a hunger-affected protruding belly on a play area’s wall. Adjacent to this, white children were shown in technicolor as playful and healthy – this portrayal could not be more on the nose if it tried. The daycare’s director took the image down after being suddenly illuminated by my father; this was my introduction to Australia.
I grew into being proud of my heritage, thanks to my parents. But it required work on my part and theirs, given the predominately white area I lived in (from being giddily taunted with the n-word at a Christian elementary school to explosive race riots). As such, I voraciously consumed American media and academic resources that idealized the relationship between black and white people. In many ways, it was my personal Promised Land – an escape from the more obvious ills in Australia.
When I immigrated again as an adult with my family to a post-Obama-elected America, I thought I’d hit the jackpot. Now with duality in my identity, I was more often perceived as Australian than Nigerian, convenient in a city like Los Angeles with its Hemsworth adoration in full swing. This was a new, sometimes uncomfortable but privileged space I had to occupy. It was also much easier to be Nigerian, even with LA’s relatively low population, there were still more of us here than even Africans I would have encountered in Sydney in same discrete period.
In this new realm, I found that Nigerians, who had often come to America as highly-skilled professionals, had given into the lies of white supremacy – African-Americans need only pull themselves up by their aphoric bootstraps to succeed. This is because Nigerians occupy a special place in America’s egalitarian mythology. We have at least three generations of doctors, lawyers, engineers and other professionals here. Nigerians often fail to see that it was the insidious creativity of racist educational and employment structures that left room for them to succeed. Their success came at the cost of their de-Africanized brethren. Yes, black immigrants (from Africa, South America, the Caribbean and elsewhere), you are beneficiaries of white supremacy too.
Now enlightened and witness to the deliberately-engendered and well-documented oppression of African-Americans by racialized and even neo-liberal structures and policies, I found there was a new population subset to contend with. Some Nigerians failed to see that the subjugation of our ancestor’s relatives was their subjugation too! The populist messaging of (especially) white evangelicals had worked wonders in the past fifty years in Nigeria, to the detriment of our collective psyche. Most specifically, Nigerians in America wholesale bought in to the ideals of the Protestant work ethic, yet even with our self-flagellation, the systems did not reward us by any means (e.g. significant rates of underemployment and higher rates deportations). The oft-quoted “liberty and justice for all” was a hazy pipe dream.
Simultaneously, I noticed the simmering resentment that some African-Americans had towards black immigrants. In part, I understand, and for the parts that I do not, I am still leaning in and learning. While I could opine about the common and painful past we both share, there is more beyond this to unite us, than to divide us. Black immigrants, it is our duty to actively call out and undo the unjust systems we see. We need to move with our American brothers and sisters, because their pain is our own. For at least 400 years both our bodies have been plundered by the colossus of colonization and the hydra-headed snake of slavery. It is high time that we demolished these systems both here and abroad. And we can only do it arm-in-arm, where decidedly all skinfolk are kinfolk.