Last week, the spate of police brutality, gun violence and racial profiling against America’s black community came to a head with the deaths of 37-year old father of five Alton Sterling and 32-year old school cafeteria worker Philando Castile, resurfacing the debate on racism in America. Two men, going about their day until they were violently taken from the world, falling into the ever growing abyss of names, of people that have become victim to the systemic prejudices and racism that remain entrenched in American society. Like those of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Mike Brown, and so many others, their deaths have fueled the increasingly global rallying cry and gut-wrenching reminder: “Black Lives Matter!” And yet, once again, African leaders and citizens remain largely silent on racism in American; an issue that should, for all intents and purposes, concern us.
Addressing Racial Profiling on an American Campus
In 2005, when I found out that I got into premier women’s liberal arts college Mount Holyoke College (MHC), I was elated. Not just at the thought of moving to the United States to study whatever I wanted, but also at the idea that I would finally have long-flowing, glowing luscious hair like the African-American women I had seen on TV. Despite the many things I could have identified with, I identified first and foremost with America’s black community.
My kinky curls never quite got to be long and flowing and I eventually discovered I didn’t have as much in common with African-Americans as I initially thought. Not because I didn’t try or want to, but rather because we spoke different languages: we had vastly different lives in the United States, rooted largely in our different experiences of racism. That said, I did gain insights into what being black in America means, the struggle many people of color go through to prove themselves in a society that places more value on Caucasians. While the few African-American friends I had grew up learning street-etiquette in order to avoid racism, I was still very ignorant of it and would remain largely aloof until racism stared defiantly at me at an Italian restaurant in Paris in 2008, New Year’s Day. After that, boy, did I identify. I could be a mile away, witness an incident and know without a shred of doubt that the outcome would be determined largely by the percentage of melanin involved.
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” – Desmond Tutu
While I was studying abroad in France that year, there were numerous cases of theft, break-in, assault and rape on campus, the majority captured in the campus police’s weekly email on security. Over time, members of MHC’s African and Caribbean Students Association (MHACASA) noticed a glaring disparity in how cases involving black suspects were reported in comparison to those of their Caucasian counterparts. For black suspects, for instance, a full description including the words “black male” were often highlighted, accompanied by a photo or sketch. In the latter, no mention was made of “race” and rarely was there a photo or sketch. Today, we see this same disparity, this same racial profiling and prejudice play out at the global level with media reports by agencies like CNN and FOX showing a bias against suspects who are people of color or Muslim.
Don’t get me wrong, MHC has a very welcoming and open community – compared to what I heard from friends at other campuses – and has received commendation especially for it’s international student experience. However it’s liberalism could not counter the systemic prejudices and stereotypes that remain in America. It could not protect blacks – Africans included – from centuries of conditioning and learned prejudice.
Imagine your father or brother being questioned by a campus policeman because you stepped into the dormitory for a second to drop off some things they brought you. How would that make you feel? It was not uncommon for a black student to have a friend or family member visit them and see one of the campus police cars lurking nearby. Oftentimes, it turned out that a (non-black) student had actually called the campus police to express their discomfort at the presence of so many black people. Who made up the majority of MHC’s black community? African students. Besides myself, I know a good number of African women who felt similar.
Taking all these into consideration, MHACASA decided to act. Together with my Jamaican co-chair Nicky Hylton, we launched a series of ‘safe space’ discussions to explore the question of racial profiling, particularly in the reportage of crimes on campus. The discussions confirmed that there was a real issue. What was very telling however was that while many African and Caribbean students were very alarmed by the incidents, many African-American members were not particularly surprised – for many, it was just another day in their life. Like myself prior to 2008, many Africans tend to be ignorant of racism; first as a concept, then as an experience.
Our discussions also touched on the overall concerns of MHACASA members. Here too, another dichotomy presented itself: while many African and Caribbean students were exploring avenues for securing internships, campus or summer jobs, our African-American counterparts were largely concerned with how to finance their education. As we came to discover, there are of different pools of resources (and by extension, opportunities) for Africans and Caribbeans versus African-Americans; something I hadn’t really considered until then. Why the difference? The former were regarded as “internationals or immigrants” while the latter group was considered “domestic residents”. Despite appearances and the fact that we shared similar spaces, our experiences were vastly different and generally drawn along those lines.
Following our discussions on racial profiling at Mount Holyoke, the MHACASA executives had a meeting with the college’s public safety department about our concerns. The meeting resulted in a collaboration to address racial profiling on campus and thereafter an “adopt a cop” initiative which saw some of them sitting in on our meetings to hear and see first-hand how students they had promised to protect felt about the procedures being employed. Ultimately, it resulted in closer relations between MHACASA and the campus police department. Many students admitted to feeling more secure and at ease now that they had had an encounter with the campus police on a person-to-person level, devoid of stress and suspicion. We became partners working for a common goal: to keep our campus safe for all students.
Being Black and Dealing With Racism In America
Fast-forward to 2013. I was sitting in a soul food restaurant in Washington, DC with some of my black classmates from Johns Hopkins SAIS. We were African-American, we were Caribbean, we were African. It was my first real soul food experience despite having lived in the US for a total of six years by then and watching numerous movies with the collard greens, corn knobs, and friend chicken America’s south is known for. After exhausting ourselves on the topics of exams, job search, and graduation, we eventually touched on being black in America and the dichotomy between being African or Caribbean in America and being African-American. My classmates explained that many African-Americans harbor resentments against Africans because they believe that Africans sold off their own to slave masters. That Africans played a big role in landing their ancestors in centuries of turmoil and subjugation in a land foreign to them, essentially ridding them of a sense of belonging. That Africans, particularly large African immigrant communities, continue to foster the second-class treatment of America’s ‘native’ black community in modern times by virtue of the opportunities they receive (which are then no longer available to African-Americans). That many Africans stay silent and under the fray on the injustices committed against African-Americans, even today. I listened. These were truths, uncomfortable truths at that. They might not have captured the entirety of my experience vis-à-vis African-Americans, but they were truths nonetheless.
What was also true? That these distinctions are largely made by and between black people. We meet each other, see one another with the same percentage of melanin as ours, and then we step back because I’m X and you’re not. Because we have swept the psychological turmoil and effects of colonization under the rug, refusing to address the fact that we still have a big inferiority complex when it comes to dealing with persons with fairer complexions than ours. Because even now, when access to information is at its peak, many of us still choose to put our bodies through physical abuse, bleaching in order to fit the ideals of perfection we have lapped up.
Over and over, time and again, the same lessons unfold: we’re connected, we share a common history, common destiny. Yet in fear, in ignorance, we deny this simple fact.
We try to distinguish ourselves from one another, yet the truth is that for many non-blacks, Caucasians especially, we all look the same. They see us and they see black. They don’t see our history, our competence, our experience, our potential. They see black. This is precisely why my classmates and I had the shared experience of racial profiling and racism while riding on buses in Bologna, Italy: the bus conductors never gave us that luxury, to classify ourselves, to point out that some of us had American passports while others had Ghanaian or Bahamian documents. They profiled us all the same. All they saw was black.
The Importance of An African Voice on Black Lives Matter
I’ve been observing the lack of dialogue on the Black Lives Matter cause and racism in America among Africans, particularly on the continent, with great trepidation. Sure, some of us are sharing one or two articles, but we are largely silent on the issue, not uttering a word. Not to mention the fact that there hasn’t so much as been a beep from our so-called leaders either. That’s why I’m writing this. To appeal to your conscious, to plead with you to wake up.
Why should you be concerned with racism in America or lend your voice to the Black Lives Matter movement as an African? Because there’s history: African-Americans like W.E. Dubois rallied for various African causes and many of our own were galvanized into Pan-Africanism because of their experiences with racism in the West. There’s the economics – the millions of dollars our brothers and sisters in America and the Diaspora contribute to African families and economies through remittances, consumption and investments. There are the human relations – the fact that many Africans are discriminated against in America (and beyond) because of their skin color.
And of course, there is the question of our common future – of what will happen not just to human relations in specific countries, but also to foreign relations if these prejudices remain unchecked and racists are equipped with the power to decide on the livelihoods of entire populations of people in Africa. I can assure you, there are already many diplomats, professionals, business folk with questionable tendencies where racism is concerned. Some are working and/or living in African countries, and deciding on people’s fates every single day. The main thing keeping them in check? Political correctness. Stay silent about the blatant recent murders, racism and discriminatory treatment in America and I tremble at the thought of what may come, particularly where this last point is concerned.
So whether you took your first breath in America or on the soils of some African country, the fact remains that today, if you happen to have a considerable amount of melanin, find yourself in a car on some highway in America, at a bus stop or neighborhood party, and get stopped by those blinking blues, you better brush up on the street etiquette many African-Americans have had to learn from an early age; it could be the difference between waking up at home or lying dead still in a morgue.
As eloquently put by Professor and anti-racism activist Jane Elliot in an interview with Al-Jazeera, racism is very much a human invention. It’s a learned phenomenon that seeks to separate the “superior” from the seemingly “inferior,” all by virtue of the color of one’s skin, or more appropriately, the amount of melanin in one’s skin. At the end of the day, there is only one race – the human race – and so through our learned prejudices what we actually do when we demean each other is dehumanization, the refusal or resistance to see what is very clearly a natural truth: “I am, as you are”.
Having a black president doesn’t automatically cure a country of centuries of learned and systematized racism. The trend of police brutality against blacks in America is heartbreaking as is the recent retaliation and killing of police during a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, Texas, but until we – all of us, police included – acknowledge that there is an issue, I’m afraid we are only seeing a tip of the iceberg where violence and deaths are concerned.
Perhaps it’s time for the US to step back from policing others and to take a real hard look at its backyard. It’s time for all of us to say the names of those that have fallen, to be honest with ourselves, and then to choose: do we stand for the human race or do we stand against it? Why? Because all lives matter, and in order for that to be true, Black lives must matter.
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Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.