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A reflection on African ‘apathy’ and #Blacklivesmatter

Black people simply have not learned enough about each other’s struggles. Most of what we know of each other has been filtered through mainstream white media images that have never depicted us with any real agency or nuance. While Black History Month has come to a close, we must continue to take time to reflect, learn, share and teach each other and the larger society about who we are and who we have been.

So, another Black kid has been shot dead by racist police in America. And as Black communities struggle to find answers there is another pertinent conversation that is taking place around the apathy of Black African communities living in the United States; about our slow (read: non-existent) response to the relentless killings.

Over the past few months, I have read a few think pieces condemning African indifference. What many of these writers fairly point to is the well-known apathy amongst (mostly older generations of) Africans towards the historical and contemporary oppression of African-Americans. Many of us first and second-generation immigrants can recall at least one conversation with a family member who was quick to dismiss the struggle of African-Americans against racism. It’s true, too many of our elders (and some young Africans) see themselves as being the “good kind of Black”, the ones who are not hung up on some historical baggage. The respectability politics that many Africans carry with them across borders is a sad reality that we need to begin unpacking at our dinner tables.

I want to say from the onset that I enter the conversation as an African immigrant kid who is fully aware of the volatile times we live in as Black people. I know that many of us are hurting right now, and that some may feel this is not the right time for this conversation. To be sure, I have sat on this piece for months. And countless times I have said to myself, “Maybe I should wait for the ‘right time.’” But that ‘the right time’ may never come when state violence towards Black people shows no signs of letting up.

A meeting at the mosque between the West African Muslim community and investigators for the Police Department's hate crime division. Photo: Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times
A meeting at the mosque between the West African Muslim community and investigators for the Police Department’s hate crime division.
Photo: Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

In a recent interview with NPR, Chimamanda Adichie says that some of her main character’s prejudices towards African-Americans in her latest novel, Americanah, mirrored some of her own when she moved to the US. She goes on to argue that there is a certain privilege that Africans have in America which tends to disassociate them from the Black American experience. This really needs to be teased apart. Certainly, as people who came after the immigration reform of the 1960s, we are not seen with the same disdain and aberration that white America views the descendants of formerly enslaved African people. We also benefit from many of the hard-won affirmative action policies aimed at redressing slavery. However, as immigrants from Africa, we can’t escape the structural violence of white America. We also face our own set of challenges that is the reality of being foreigners.

We are immigrants and at times, we’re not considered Black enough or the wrong kind of Black. Some of us may even be lucky enough to be considered immigrant model minorities, but for most of us, we are perceived as dirty immigrants who have come to take the good jobs, all while living in a shoebox. We are called “African booty-scratchers” and told to “go back from whence we came” if living conditions in North America become unbearable.

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In the context of state violence we are all Black. But outside of that, can we say with intellectual and emotional honesty that we identify with each other all the time and in all ways? Can we honestly say that Africans don’t face any kind of xenophobia in America or Canada (from other Black people)? Flash back to late last year when two Senegalese brothers (aged 11 and 13) were bullied in the Bronx (a highly racialized borough in New York) during the Ebola outbreak. Certainly, in this moment, shared Blackness did not actually prevent African kids from being marginalized and targeted – by other racialised children. The examples of this type of bullying and marginalization across the Black communities are too many to name here. But ultimately, this is a conversation about how we see each other in the face of white supremacy and history.

In my own journey to racial consciousness, much of the literature, social movements and resistance that has informed my growth have been gleaned from the African-American experiences. Figures such as Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, Angela Davis and bell hooks have all been instrumental in shaping how I have come to understand and appreciate racial struggle. Unfortunately, this admiration for Black American struggle is not always reciprocated. Americans rarely have an understanding of anti-Black racial injustice that happens outside of their borders. Nor are they always honest about the ways in which they romanticise African identity.

A shop owner serves takeout to West African customers who are dressed as New Yorkers rather than in traditional West African attire in their effort to blend in with their neighbors rather than stand out. Photo: Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times
A shop owner serves takeout to West African customers who are dressed as New Yorkers rather than in traditional West African attire in their effort to blend in with their neighbors rather than stand out.
Photo: Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

The “we are all Black in the face of white supremacy” argument cannot become the red herring through which we can no longer talk about cultural difference or specificity or American exceptionalism. Hear me clearly: while we may be all Black in the face of white supremacy that is not all we are. Part of white supremacy’s power is that it gets to squish us. I am not African-American, nor African-Canadian. I respect that those identities come out of very particular histories, of which I sit on the periphery of. There must be a space within the #Blacklivesmatter campaign to talk about this, as well.

Black people simply have not learned enough about each other’s struggles. Most of what we know of each other has been filtered through mainstream white media images that have never depicted us with any real agency or nuance. So, while Tunde observes African-Americans as gun-toting, rock-slanging vagabonds, Tyrone is inundated with World Vision narratives of a poor and destitute, undifferentiated mass of darkness we call Africa. We need to deepen our understanding of each other. While Black History Month has come to a close, we must continue to take time to reflect, learn, share and teach each other and the larger society about who we are and who we have been. This is how we build strong radical movements.

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