By Jane Madembo
Sometime last year I received an email from a young South African man whom, after reading my article in the Mail and Guardian wanted some advice about coming to America. This was not new. Every time I visit Africa I meet many young people who share their dreams of coming to America. They often want advice on how to make it happen.
Getting an American visa is not easy, those who have been through the process know this. Since September 11 2001, America has tightened its immigration laws and the doors are almost sealed, especially for Africans from poor and conflicted countries.
On my visit to Africa last year, I noticed how young people’s American dreaming was reflected in the many ways they were embracing American culture. Most women I met sported hair extensions and weaves. They love American apparel, watch American movies, music, magazines and follow American tabloid stories. They glorify celebrities. On Facebook they write in American gangster slang and swear words. In other words, they can’t get enough.
They know more about American pop culture than they know about the history of America. They dream about the America see on television and read about in the media. Their infatuation for the US is not only superficial but is also mired in ignorance.
There is more to the US than just entertainment.
For someone in Africa, it’s hard to know the real America amidst western media propaganda. A black person in Africa today never stops to think much about his skin colour. But when he arrives in the US, he is forced to face the mirror. For the moment he reaches US soil, he becomes another black man among millions of other blacks.
As an African immigrant you haven’t really arrived in the US if you have not experienced racism. You are going to go through your own experience of racism like a cow waiting for a turn at the dip tank. Racism still affects the personal and professional lives of black people in the US. According the Bureau of Labour Statistics, black people have the highest unemployment rate at 15.8% — double that of whites at 7.7%, Latinos at 11.3% and Asian at 6.9%.
Recently in Florida, a young unarmed black teenager called Trayvon Martin was shot dead by George Zimmerman, a white neighbourhood watchman while coming from the store. His crime? He looked suspicious. On February 5 1999, Amadou Diallo, a West African immigrant from Guinea, had only been in the country for two years when he was shot 19 times by New York Police officers, while standing on the doorway of his building. Amadou, like Tyron, was unarmed and minding his business. Amadou’s death sparked demonstrations in New York. When it comes to racial profiling, oppression, exploitation and discrimination all black people are treated equally. Yet in spite of their shared suffering blacks in America are not united, not in the same way Jewish people are united.
African and African American Relations
When Africans in the US get together, they often complain that African Americans are ignorant about Africa. But may be true for some but as I found out ignorance can be two-sided. Some African men disparage African American women as in “I married an African American woman for a green card, now I am looking for a real African woman to marry,” which can be translated as “I am an idiot and foolish man who exploits women, after using one woman to get a green card, I am looking for another woman whom I know I can exploit.”
When some African Americans go to Africa they are full of talk about their connection with the motherland, but when they get there they start waving the American flag. They start behaving like tourists.
Why can’t we all get along?
Two years ago, a gas explosion in an apartment at a building on my street killed an African woman and seriously injured her children. In the immediate aftermath of the accident, as the media descended on our block, African American neighbours appeared on camera saying things like “the Africans were running a restaurant from their apartment, cab drivers were coming to pick up food etc. They should go back to Africa.”
But in reality the family had just moved from Michigan to New York three weeks before.
Not all white Americans are racists
With due respect to the really nice white Americans I have met and worked with, not all white people are racists. However, if you are unlucky you will meet the devil incarnate, the crude ones or the other. I am not sure which one is the lesser evil, the one who tries to hide his hostility or the one who makes no attempt to hide it.
I know most of you are probably saying I must have experienced racism in Zimbabwe. The answer is no, white Zimbabweans were mostly nice people who treated their employees with respect. In fact, my former bosses assisted me in getting a visa to come to the US, five years after I had left their employment.
I worked at one prestigious place in New York where some whites never answered if you said good morning. When I raised the issue with some of my African American friends they treated it as a matter of fact. “It’s New York you know.”
This is what I figured. Wealthy white people send their kids to private schools where most never meet minority students. Later in college these kids will meet black students but avoid interacting with them. (A month ago, a Fordham student returned to her room from class to find the word “nigger”, written on her door). After college they move to the work place, the real world where they will be forced to interact with the people they had been avoiding all their life. Racism is most hurtful when it is used to deprive other people of equal opportunities to employment.
Blacks and Latinos occupy the vast majority of minimum wage jobs which pay $7.25 to $8 an hour. They work in supermarkets, department stores like Macys, K-mart and Walmart. The wages they earn are not enough to cover their living expenses. They are assigned irregular shifts which prevent them from seeking additional employment to supplement their income.
Charity begins at home
When white people come to Africa, they often come with their pockets stuffed with sweets, in the form of donor aid and other goodies. My African American co-worker had this to say: “what are they doing going all the way to Africa to help black people when there are black people that need help over here?”
Nobody is born a racist, criminal, violent or xenophobic.
A few weeks ago, the Afrikaner Blood video showed a group of teenagers being indoctrinated by a right-wing racist group. Whether this is in South Africa or US, parents and society enable this behaviour by their failure to stop it. Zimmerman, a guy who comes from a privileged background, most likely grew up conditioned to view black people as criminals. Giving a gun and power to someone like that is like placing a ticking bomb in a crowded area.
Jane Madembo is a Zimbabwean living in New York