I first wrote this piece two years ago when I was an editor, at the now-defunct, Black Girl Long Hair. I’m resharing it today, on my own platform, due in part to the piece I wrote a few days ago in regards to the twitter drama surrounding Pop Culture writer, Luvvie Ajayi. You can read about that HERE. I’m also sharing my story again because it holds me accountable. It forces me to remember, that although I was born and raised in this country, there is still much to learn about the African American experience.
When I was growing up in the 80’s and 90’s I learned very early on that being Haitian wasn’t exactly the thing to be. When my family moved to a new town, my older brother and I simply hid it. Nobody asked, so we didn’t tell. Then it all began to unravel. My third-grade teacher assigned a family tree diagram which forced me to reveal our heritage. I recall coming home from school that day feeling dread as I told my older brother (by two years) that the jig was up. The tears came quickly, from both us, as we understood all too well what it would mean to reveal that we were Haitian. The teasing would be brutal, but tolerable. Feeling ostracized was what we feared the most.
But then we grew up, and like most people, the very thing we were teased about as children became the thing we cherished with the utmost pride. We embraced our heritage, and slowly the larger West-Indian community began to accept us. Gaining this acceptance, however, came at a price. While I had always heard family members speak with disdain about Black Americans, it wasn’t until I was a teenager when I learned that this us vs. them mentality spanned across West-Indian cultures. When I’d hear West-Indians attributing certain stereotypes to African Americans, I found myself nodding in agreement. We were different, I insisted. We were educated. Our children were better behaved. We were hard-working. Our food tasted better. African Americans, we said, gave us all a bad name. And while we would befriend them in public, in private, we’d deride them for being stereotypical.
I carried this belief with me to college. I was even proud when white people would praise me for being different from what they’d imagined. My French last name was also a crowd-pleaser. I ate it all up with a spoon. My hubris, however, came to an abrupt halt towards the end of my freshman year when, in a moment of drunken courage, one of my white dorm-mates screamed at me to, “Go back to Africa!” I was stunned. Surely, she couldn’t mean me? I had perfectly straight hair. I dressed well. I made the Dean’s list. I spoke the Queen’s English. How could she, in a moment of anger, reduce me to being a black face just like any other? I was different. Wasn’t I? It was a hard, but much-needed lesson. While I can never profess that African American culture and Haitian culture are one in the same, our differences are not so great that we should ever feel that one culture is superior to the other.
Huffington Post writer Nadege Seppou, who is of Cameroonian heritage, penned an open letter to African immigrants, urging them to not fall victim to the same belief system. She writes:
White Americans will say you are better than American blacks, but please do not fall for this trap. You will be told you behave better, work harder, and are more educated than American blacks. You will be tempted to agree and will sometimes want to shout, “YES, I’M NOT LIKE THEM, WE AFRICANS ARE DIFFERENT!” Just don’t…don’t even think it.
The praise of your acquired characteristic and culture becomes a justification for white Americans to perpetuate discriminatory treatments towards American blacks. These statements of praise have an underlying message of, “If Africans can do so well then surely racism has nothing to do with anything, therefore, American Blacks are to be blamed for their condition in America”. This problematic line of reasoning sustains cultural racism. I beg of you, refrain from nodding in agreement when you receive such faulty praise.
Indeed, West Indians, like the African immigrants described in Seppou’s letter, are guilty of the same misdeeds. In wanting to carve out a place for ourselves in a society where being black places you on the bottom rung, we have perpetuated the belief that we are better than our African American counterparts.
Still, culture is this interesting thing, right? Here I am, a black woman, born and raised in America, and yet I cannot call myself an African American or even say, I am of the culture. I am for the culture, of course. I would, today, defend the culture against anyone who would seek to tarnish it in any way, but I wasn’t raised with any real understanding of African American culture. Not in school, certainly not in my home, and not even with the few friends with whom I was permitted to spend time (Haitian parents don’t really do the whole “friend” thing).
Consequently, I have spent the better part of the last 16 years learning, understanding, and appreciating the beauty and the richness of African American culture, but I have never forgotten where I am began. It is this understanding of self, I believe, that now allows me to navigate both worlds, African American and Haitian, with ease. I only know what I know, and what I don’t know, I’m open to being taught. This, friends, is how I believe we can, as a people, come together and stay together.
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Hey, Boo! My name is Lisa and you’ve stumbled upon my own little corner of the world. I’m a 30 something-year-old writer/mother/wife who happens to love lipstick, high heels, blackness, and the truth. You’ll find a mix of everything on this site, so I won’t bore you by trying to define this space. I hope you stay awhile!