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Black Africans Feeling Left Out


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we'll talk about how to protect kids' privacy when it comes to social media and how some of the old rules aren't keeping up with new tech. That's in just a few minutes.

But, first, we'll talk about a group of immigrants that for some reason are rarely discussed on Capitol Hill. According to the Migration Policy Institute, in 2011 African immigrants made up nearly three percent of the foreign-born population in this country, but some feel their experience is absent from the national conversation on immigration, and as a result many African-born immigrants find themselves identifying as black Americans.

Wayetu Moore recently wrote about this in a piece for The Atlantic called "How the Africans Became Black" and she sat down recently with Michel Martin to talk about it.


Welcome to the program. Thank you for joining us.

WAYETU MOORE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, you made an interesting argument here. Your argument is that kind of Africans are becoming subsumed under the broader banner of African-Americans, or black people, and you draw an interesting parallel between the history of Irish immigrants in this country and African immigrants. Could you talk a little bit about that?

MOORE: Yes. I read Noel Ignatiev's "How the Irish Became White" a while ago, and he made a really great point about how the nation's white solidarity can be traced back to the arrival of Irish settlers and how Irish immigrants, for the most part, were seen as the blacks of Europe, but when they came over, they began to be just as prejudiced or racist against blacks to separate themselves from the stigma of being second class citizens.

So with African immigrants, I don't believe that it's something that's consciously done. I think that - and then also it's regionally based, because of course when you think of Africans in New York or D.C., it's much different from what people consider Africans in Texas or Arizona, because in those regional - in those places, what's considered black is more homogenous.

MARTIN: So you were laying out this kind of interesting dynamic where you're saying that kind of Africans become - or first generation African diasporans, let's put it that way - sort of get subsumed under the umbrella of black folks. Right? Just black folks in general. So is that a bad thing? Is it a good thing? Is it just a thing?

MOORE: I don't consider it a good nor a bad thing. It just is what it is. I think it's a result of our maybe homogenous view of what being American is, and growing up in Texas it was black, white and Hispanic, and as far as we were concerned, a lot of the Hispanics - or all of the Hispanics, I should say - were Mexican or Mexican-American. So when I moved to New York for the first time, I remember at NYU I had a Puerto Rican friend and I was like, oh, you know, you're Mexican. And she was - no, no. I'm Puerto Rican. But that was my consciousness at the time. That was my only awareness being in Texas.

And I think the larger picture within America - it is, you know, black, white, Hispanic, and unfortunately when you think of Hispanic or when you think of that other, that is the group that gets labeled with immigrant.

MARTIN: Let me ask you why you started thinking about this to begin with. Your family is originally from Liberia. Right?


MARTIN: Is that why you started thinking about this?

MOORE: It wasn't until I moved to the North - because in Texas I would always say, oh, you know, I'm black. I'm black. And I moved to the North - and I remember I went to like a black student association meeting in college and, you know, I refer to myself, you know, as African-American, and someone looked at me, like, you are not African-American, you are African. You're Liberian. And I remember feeling so rejected and sort of offended and I just - I had one of those moments like, oh, like maybe I - am I that different or am I different?

And similarly, the same thing would happen once in a while when I went to African association meetings. Like, oh, well, how long have you been here? And I was like, since I was five. And then, of course, that discourse changes as well to - oh, well, you're American now.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are talking about the experience of African immigrants. Our guest is Wayetu Moore. She wrote a piece for The Atlantic called "How the Africans Became Black."

One of the reasons that you said that the Irish were viewed as the blacks of Europe but came to this country and kind of took on prejudice, even though there were important voices urging them not to do this, for example...

MOORE: Right.

MARTIN: ...urging them to identify with the abolitionist struggle, but kind of as a - I don't know whether it was conscious or unconsciously - sort of identified as white and in part as a way to kind of separate themselves from blacks and thereby kind of advantage themselves that way - you say that black immigrants are benefiting from a black racial umbrella. How so?

MOORE: Absolutely. I mean when our college counselors or high school counselors come to us with college scholarships, they were presenting African-American scholarships. They were presenting scholarships that would previously only be for, you know, native blacks or blacks whose ancestors may have been slaves or went through the civil rights movement. So black immigrants, a lot of time, when they do get lumped in by people who are not black and cannot identify that they are different or of different heritage, they do get lumped into this black caveat and the result is that we do end up benefiting in a number of ways and, you know, the college scholarships - of course, that's just one example.

MARTIN: Well, but I would argue, on the other hand, that - I think a lot of people might argue that one of the strengths of America is at some point everybody's encouraged to think of themselves as American first and that that's one of the strengths of it, so that everybody is called upon at some point to subsume a part of their identity, and that that's one reason why the country works. You know, what would you say to that?

MOORE: I don't believe that in recognizing our maybe individual cultural identities takes away at all from what it means to be American. I think it strengthens it because America is about inclusion of different cultures, inclusion of different histories, and so I actually agree with you.

MARTIN: You know, it's curious that our first African-American president actually has a journey by way of the African Diaspora. You know, he does not have a typical African-American story. I mean not just by being biracial, but because his family did not come through the segregated South, did not come through the Jim Crow experience, did not come through the experience of slavery in the United States. I mean his wife's family did, but he didn't, so in a way it's kind of - it's kind of curious, in a way, isn't it, that in your thesis that kind of Africans in general become subsumed under the banner of black, that perhaps - that maybe that isn't actually true, that maybe the immigrant aspect of it does kind of persist.

MOORE: I think it depends on the audience. There are people, including myself, who do consider Barack Obama an African-American, and I consider myself an African-American, just by, I guess, cultural exposure. He - if Barack Obama were to say, hi, I'm just black, like, say, for instance, a Tiger Woods - don't call me African-American is what he says all the time - then the dialog would be different. But he associates himself with that culture and so it depends on the audience. I feel like many people - as many people that oppose him, just as many accept him for that.

MARTIN: And finally, before we let you go, you wrote this piece in the context of the broader debate that the country's having over immigration and the way forward on immigration. What do you think the value would be if - I'm (unintelligible) in a way who you're talking to here. Are you saying that other African immigrants or first generation immigrants from Africa should be more forthright about their African identity? What would be better? What would be different if they were?

MOORE: I don't think that there should be any rejection of any culture. You know, I don't think, you know, they - that a person has to reject African-American culture in order to be more in touch with, you know, their Liberian-ness, because I mean, as I mention in the article, I mean my ancestors were slaves also.

Where attention needs to be paid is the reform issue, like what can we do as black immigrants, as a black immigrant community, to raise awareness to the larger immigration debate and the larger immigration struggles of our fellow Americans? And those are the browns, those are the yellows, those are the many others, what's considered other in this culture that makes up the larger American blanket.

MARTIN: Wayetu Moore is a freelance writer. Her article "How the Africans Became Black" is available online at She's also the owner of a publishing company, One Moore - that's with two O's - Book. And she was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.

Wayetu Moore, thank you for joining us.

MOORE: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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