Thursday, May 26, 2005

Lack of Familiarity Breeds Contempt

Several years ago during a televised interview, a famous comic actress remarked that she had ceased using the term "African-American" to refer to her ethnic/racial identity after meeting people from Africa who found that hyphenated designation to be rather awkward. What do you have to do with Africa, they asked her, when your ancestors left the continent hundreds of years ago? You are an American, not an African, so you should concern yourself with your own country. She agreed with them. Her respect for her heritage was undiminished, but her focus was clear. She was not an "African-American", but an American whose ancestors lived in Africa long ago.

A similar take on the expression was made a few year ago by George Carlin, who pointed out that a white South African racist could come to the United States and quite properly call himself an African-American.

I thought about all of that while reading Mike Seate's column in this morning's Trib about the difficulties faced by Somali students at an inner city Pittsburgh high school:

About 50 African students studying at various city schools were greeted with anything but welcome mats by their fellow students, according to a complaint filed with the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education. The Somali kids say they have been physically assaulted, verbally harassed and made to feel as though they don't belong.
Seate goes on to discuss the feelings that many black Americans have towards Africa:

Some of the Somali students are enrolled at Schenley High, a school near the Hill District and Oakland, both neighborhoods with large black populations. Those are the kind of places you'd expect African students would be made to feel like brothers. Instead, local kids might be making the Somalis into outcasts.

This is unlikely to shock many black families in the area.

Lots of us pay lip service to an appreciation of all things African, even going so far as saddling our children with phony, African-sounding names. The truth is, there's long been tension between Africans and African-Americans.

It's a dirty little secret hidden from those outside of the black community, and for good reason. That black Americans tend to look down on people from the continent of our origin is a strain of insanity best kept in the family.

The cause of the animosity is tough to pin down. It can be partly blamed on cultural differences and the old bugaboo of economic competition. The foreign-ness of natives of Africa who dress and wear their hair differently can sometimes cause African-Americans to forget the shared ancestry.

"Cultural differences" hits the nail squarely on the head. An influx of students from another part of the world is as much of a culture shock to the kids who were born here as it is to the new arrivals, and a common skin coloring has little effect on the Somali kids' ability to adapt and relate. It doesn't work in Africa either; look around the continent and you will see conflicts between groups of black Africans based on nationality, religion, politics, and any number of issues that divide groups of people.

A few years ago, I tried to hook up with a U.S.-based German ethnic organization that had ties to the old country. I soon found that, other than a shared ethnicity, I had little in common with people in the group. Some independent study of German history revealed plenty of rivalries and occasionally wars between different groups of Germans, again for the usual reasons -- religion, politics, etc. Many of these conflicts continued to exist in a muted form even after German unification under Bismarck. Those of us descended from Germans who chose to come to America many, many years ago can no longer relate to our cousins back in Europe. Over 100 years in a new world have given us time to assimilate and adapt.

The relationship is even more strained for the Africans who have chosen to come over here recently and have tried to settle among those whose ancestors didn't have that chance 300 years ago. The best way that differing cultures get along can be summed up in one word: Respect. As Mike Seate concludes:

It's curable, I hope, and in time the students dishing out the disrespect can learn that black pride involves respecting all black people.

Even the ones from outside of their neighborhoods.

And all people of any skin color.

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