Triple consciousness: To be black and an immigrant in America

We need more awareness of the black immigrant identity, which is unique in America

Published September 17, 2017 1:00PM (EDT)

 (Salon / Ilana Lidagoster)
(Salon / Ilana Lidagoster)

Double consciousness, a term first explored by W.E.B. Du Bois in his 1903 “Souls of Black Folk,” describes the experience of being black in America and being keenly aware of how you are viewed in a society that daily inflicts the indignity of racism upon you and forces you to create a palatable version of blackness to make others feel safe. With the White House decision to repeal DACA — despite President Trump's newfound support for the DREAM Act — and pardon Sheriff Arpaio, I’ve been filled with memories from what I call my third consciousness, the immigrant identity that both tries to be seen as American and has been frustrated with the increasing anti-immigrant sentiment as of late.

The black immigrant experience is a perspective not often shared in the media or policy discussions, especially when immigration policies such as Trump's Muslim ban or DACA repeal take on a Latino or Middle Eastern face. This happens despite the organizing efforts of black immigrant groups to raise awareness of their very existence and how these policies affect them, often disproportionately.

Who are we? We are from all over the Caribbean and the continent of Africa. More than half of us hail from the Caribbean and the rest mostly from Northern and sub-Saharan Africa. Africans make up the fastest growing U.S. immigrant group, increasing by 200 percent in the 1990s and nearly 100 percent in the 2000s.

Black immigrant women from Africa are substantially more likely to work than any other immigrant group. A large percentage of African immigrants are highly educated with college completion rates that greatly exceed that of other immigrant group and U.S. natives, which is why you will often find an African cab driver, security guard or janitor in cities such as Washington, D.C. and New York with a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

There are many more black immigrants who find a way, like many other immigrants, to enter America’s middle class as teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers, journalists, non-profit managers and small business owners. Some of us, such as Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o, have even excelled in the arts. Africans are immensely proud that the first black President of the United States is the American-born son of a Kenyan who briefly immigrated to the U.S.

To be black in America can be a complicated existence, filled with joy and pride, but often unnerving. No matter your status, education or income, you are never protected from the onslaught of racism, which is only further complicated if you are also a woman or LGBT person.

To be a black person who is also an immigrant or from an immigrant family adds a layer of complexity to the otherness that has often been ignored in larger policy discussions on immigration reform, even within the larger black community.

Non-immigrant focused black civil rights organizations like the NAACP and Urban League made short statements condemning the DACA repeal, but neither used the opportunity to focus on what this could mean specifically for the black community. The Black Lives Matter movement does have black immigration as part of the movement platform, a fact heavily influenced because one of their founders, Opal Tometi, is Nigerian-American.

Like other immigrant communities, most are admitted through family reunification. Africans also are more likely to come as refugees or through the diversity visa program, which allows people from underrepresented countries to come to the U.S. without a formal job offer, school or family tie.

In all those experiences of triumph, sometimes through adversity, I see my parents: my father, a refugee who escaped all but certain death when a military coup took over the government for which he worked, and my mother, who arrived in the U.S. a few years later from this same war-torn nation to get a college education. It was in America that the two, united by a common nation and perhaps loneliness, met. It was a 1970s America, still coming to terms with civil rights advances and its treatment of its own native-born black citizens, people whose roots in my parents’ home continent connected and distanced them from the young couple who chose to make America their home — a choice black Americans never had.

The African and Caribbean experience in the U.S. is reminiscent of any immigrant story, from our diverse ethnic food, difficulties adapting to a new language and its slang, and different climate and cultural habits.

However, our skin color makes our experience as new Americans a unique one. We share a history with our black American brothers and sisters that is fraught with fighting European colonialism that, like Jim Crow, was tied to white supremacist ideology. For example, my father organized a protest in his school as a teenager in the 1960s when the Scottish headmaster wanted to make students wear kilts like good Scotsmen. And both of my parents remember their history classes teaching them about European civilization but never about their own continent’s geography, history and people.

Despite these similarities, I and many others who are African or Caribbean immigrants or children of those immigrants can recount experiences of being isolated from those in the American black community for not being American or black enough. It wasn’t always the case, but it happened enough to sting. Within white communities, well, I was black and foreign.

It goes both ways. Black immigrants should not view American blacks with suspicion or try to convince white Americans that they are somehow more worthy of equality. We have a shared experience in racism that binds us together, and one that complicates the existence of the black African immigrant in America.

It is American racism that makes black immigrants five times more likely than any other immigrant group to be detained and deported, even though roughly 400,000 Africans are a smaller percentage of the undocumented immigrant group at about 3.6 percent. It is American racism that also does not make us immune to encountering racial profiling and police brutality, as shown in the cases of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed immigrant from Guinea shot and killed by New York City police officers in 1999, and Abner Louima, a Haitian brutalized and sodomized by a New York City police office in 1997.

It is every day racial discrimination in the job market, one that blacks native to America also know too well, that keeps many highly educated Africans underemployed.

We, too, are America and have and will continue to contribute to the fabric of American life. Though I am an American by birth, and my parents are naturalized citizens, I feel obligated to use the privilege of my birth to advocate for immigration reform that takes into account all immigrant communities and experiences, not just a few.

By Atima Omara

Atima Omara is an award-winning leader in politics and the progressive movement who has worked as staff on many political campaigns including organizing African and Caribbean immigrants for labor and community organizations. She is the immediate past president of the Young Democrats of America (YDA), where she served as the first African-American President of the nation’s largest partisan youth organization from 2013-15. In 2016, she was elected a member of the Democratic National Committee from Virginia. She is a Ford Foundation Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.

MORE FROM Atima Omara