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January 22, 2004
WHITE AFRICAN-AMERICANS: A reader emails:
Here's an addition to the "white African American" story you posted to yesterday - this appears on CNN today :
...and these kind of stories support why I have ambiguous feelings about the "African American" tag for people of black descent.
I was born here in the United States, but was educated in a variety of Southern African countries. All my records for my primary and part of my secondary education are from African schools. When I came back to the States to go to college, I had to go to an interview for incoming students. I walked into the professor's office, and it was obvious that she took great pride in her heritage, with all sorts of "pride" posters, etc. on her walls. It was also evident that it was a shock for her to see a white guy walk in, based on the documents I provided.
Yes, I've encountered this phenomenon from time to time. Africa is a rather large and complex place, and there are, in fact, lots of white people, as well as ethnically Chinese and Indian people, who have many generations of African ancestry. For that matter, black Africans are a highly various group, and don't tend to think of themselves as an undifferentiated mass. Unfortunately, many people -- including many people who think of themselves as culturally sensitive -- persist in stereotyping.
Of course, this works both ways. My brother -- who doesn't look any blacker than I do -- is sometimes asked by Nigerians (in Nigeria) whether he is black. At first he thought this was odd, but one explained "We have Americans coming here all the time who say they are black, but they look white to us."
UPDATE: More thoughts from Tacitus: "What's amusing in Omaha is sometimes deadly in Africa."
ANOTHER UPDATE: Reader Julie Carlson emails:
I lived in Liberia for 2 years as a Peace Corps volunteer (1982-84). Allow me to make a few observations about race and Africa. First, people in Liberia at least, are very upfront about skin color. To them it is just another way to identify you. I had short hair and was rather thin, and little kids would occasionally say, "Hello white man" when I passed by. I am female. The adults just laughed good-naturedly. Several of my students were discussing another student and I couldn't place him by name. They said, "well, he's black". After a few minutes of back and forth I finally said the obvious. "Well, you're all black. That doesn't help me." Again, lots of laughter. Evidently this particular student had very black skin.
Second, to most Africans, we are less about race than we are about being American. Several of the black volunteers had a tough adjustment. They thought they'd be welcomed as a long lost brother, so to speak. But Americans LOOK American, WALK like Americans, etc. in spite of skin color. They were seen first and last as Americans.
Yes. Too bad more Americans don't see it that way.