“Don’t Call Me Black”: Black Identity, Diaspora, and American Dreaming in College

by Zahida Sherman Ewoodzie

Let’s be honest. Black people have asserted that they aren’t “Black” long before Raven Symone’s sit-down with Oprah. Issues of racial identity often come to the fore in environments where Black folks from all over the world meet. Places like college.

In a 2007 sociological study in the American Journal of Education, first and second-generation Black immigrants constituted just 13% of the overall Black population, yet represented 41% of Black first-year students in the Ivy League. While this raises questions of who should actually benefit from Affirmative Action (that’s another article!), this overrepresentation also means that for Black students at private colleges, racial identity is heavily under construction.

When I entered college, I quickly noticed that many Black students held troubling views about Blackness and each other. Though I wanted to reject the idea that we all had to stay in our respective cliques—Black American, Caribbean, and African students interacted in class and mingled at the occasional party— I had to admit that my own Black folks (the up-from-slavery kind) weren’t exempt from thinking we were too good for other Black people.

As a child, my culture taught me that African and Caribbean people were poor, disease-infested, out of control, and to be kept at a distance. It was okay to socialize with them from time to time, but don’t get too close, as they might try to use you for a green card. The first time I introduced a relative to my Ghanaian-American boyfriend (and now husband), she actually asked him if he had one. I was ashamed and apologetic, but knew I couldn’t erase this part of my culture. My Black folks were invested—through our movies, jokes, and private conversations—in the belief that Caribbean and African people would contaminate our personal and financial success.

And it goes both ways. Shortly after I met my boyfriend, he told me that one of his relatives cautioned him against dating Black American women: “They told me Black American women are too superficial. Too materialistic.” Clearly this was something he didn’t believe, but I soon discovered that many of my African and Caribbean classmates held other stereotypical views of Black Americans: we’re violent, loud, uneducated, lascivious, and under-achieving. As I formed friendships with Black immigrants, they confessed to me that their parents forbid them from identifying as “Black.” And as I saw, they would repeatedly identify by their family’s national origin instead.

Research is showing that there are very real motivations not to identify as “Black.” An upcoming study from the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology reveals that Americans perceive differences in Black people’s social status, education level, and salary based on whether we identify as “Black” vs. “African American.” A 2011 sociological study from Georgia State University supports that many African and Caribbean college students operate from this standpoint and identify accordingly. I’d wager that many Black Americans do the same. In our own efforts to achieve success—from the plantation to the boardroom—we have all learned to associate Blackness with downward mobility.

And yet these strategies always seem to fail in the end. In the last century Black people have created and recreated racial ID’s (Colored,” “Negro,” “Black,” and “African American”) to escape discrimination. But sooner or later, American racism—whether on an interpersonal or institutional level—kicks in, and the newly created label becomes a tainted reminder that we’re still referring to Black people. Since Blackness has always connoted inferiority in this country, the quest for a better label (and discrimination-free life) has been never-ending.

When our health is concerned, racism impacts Black people in similar ways. According to a 2013 research study on mental health issues among Black Caribbean immigrants, racism-related stress increases the longer they live in the US. In short, American racism ensures that sooner or later, Black immigrants will be treated like Black Americans. Go figure.

Perhaps the most sobering argument for ditching our anti-Black quest for success comes in the case of police brutality. The slew of police killings of unarmed Black women, men, and children in the last year proves—in life and death terms—that none of us are free from the senselessness of racial profiling. At the end of the day, no amount of effort or distinction can protect us against America’s racism.

But an empowering Black solidarity is emerging. In the last year, social media has helped Black college students challenge racism. In March, Black students launched the “I Too Am Harvard” multimedia campaign against racial micro-aggressions that they experienced on campus. With a little help from Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter, it sparked other versions by Black students at colleges and universities across the nation and world.

Now, in lieu of relentless police brutality, African, Caribbean, and Black American college students are taking over their campuses and towns to stage protests, marches, and die-ins to demand criminal justice reform. For themselves. For their friends. And for their families. Whether we came to this country by choice or by force, our institutions are showing us that our fates are inextricably linked. Our Blackness has now become a unifying tool to demand that America live up to its promise to all of us.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Zahida Sherman Ewoodzie currently works as Assistant Director for the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Kenyon College, in central Ohio. She lives for discussions on Black culture, history, and politics.

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