I’ll never forget the expression on my friend’s face during one of our African-American-studies classes at Duke University, when she was asked to clarify her response—for what seemed like the umpteenth time—to the question, “Where are you from?” after having answered, “America.”
“Look, I’m just regular black,” she said, with an air of frustration plainly woven into her response.
Regular black. It’s become a sort of declaration used by some native black Americans to distinguish themselves from first-generation black Americans—those whose parents migrated to the United States from Africa or the Caribbean. A friend of a colleague said that the term “JB,” or “just black,” was regularly used at her alma mater, Yale.
And these terms have gained popularity as a convenient shorthand, particularly at top-tier universities and Ivy League schools, where a 2007 study found that approximately 40 percent of black students had at least one parent born in a foreign land—nearly half of the black-student population. Meanwhile, only 20 percent of black college students across the nation have at least one immigrant parent, which means that ethnic black students are overrepresented—and have a large market share—at the very best colleges in America.
I suspect that this imbalance is part of what was behind my friend’s snippy response. On several occasions, I’ve seen black American friends who attended Ivies mistaken for Ethiopian, Ghanaian, Jamaican or Nigerian. Like my friend, they were disappointed that their initial response of “American”—which, perhaps, sounded bland and generic compared with everyone else’s—didn’t seem to please or make sense to the people inquiring. It almost implied that black America couldn’t produce high-achieving students who could gain admission to top-flight schools.
Or, as Shahida Muhammad described for Clutch magazine, the similar frustration of how being just “American” simply wasn’t sexy enough for the black population at her school. During college parties and cultural events, the ethnic black students proudly represented where they were from by waving flags and doing all the new dances to reggae music. I recall how some students went on vacations to visit relatives in London, Barbados and West Africa and sometimes spoke to one another with unique English accents that were indigenous to their parents’ native countries. They had a strong sense of nationalism and cultural pride that evaded “regular blacks,” as Twitter attests.
These are some of the tensions that exist from a social perspective. There’s also the age-old affirmative action debate about whether ethnic black students are taking up admission slots that were intended for “regular” black students. If affirmative action policies were created to curb the discrimination that black Americans faced as a result of slavery and Jim Crow, the argument goes, why should colleges count black immigrants—or their children—toward their affirmative action goals?
The argument further suggests that while these first-generation students are, no doubt, black and American, some of their parents actually had certain economic advantages when they came to the United States, such as student visas, and certainly ideological advantages, such as having been reared and exposed to majority-black governments and societies, which no doubt does wonders for one’s sense of self-determination. There’s the idea that they didn’t carry a lot of the scars that American blacks bear, as a result of slavery and institutional racism—so why were they reaping the same social benefits?
There’s been a string of recent headlines inflating these distinctions among America’s black groups: “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua released a book in February singling out Nigerian Americans as having a “cultural edge” at succeeding in America. In early April, black America was elated to find out that a 17-year-old high school student from New York City gained admission to all eight Ivy League colleges.
And, you guessed it, he’s Ghanaian American.
I smiled a little wider when I saw that his name was Kwasi Enin (I’m half-Ghanaian), and wondered, then and there, if black Americans had a particular reaction to this story, since they didn’t precisely share his ethnicity. While Enin was raised in America, perhaps his family’s unique set of cultural values influenced his upbringing and, thereby, academic prowess. I wondered whether black America still felt a sense of pride, since he wasn’t necessarily a product of black America but, rather, of a West African culture. Others shared these concerns.
To be honest, as a first-generation black American myself (my other half is Nigerian), a part of me is basking in all of this newfound glory because, Lord knows, it wasn’t always this way. I can still remember those annoying “African booty-scratcher” taunts that you’d hear back in the day.
But I was never crazy about the term “regular black” because every time I hear it, I think, “If they’re ‘regular black,’ then what does that make me? Irregular?”
The whole notion seems wrong. “Why,” I’ve asked myself, “was America being touted as the regular nationality for black people if black people are not indigenous to America?” And then my counter-self would respond:
“Because you’re in America.”
Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele is a staff writer at The Root and the founder and executive producer of Lectures to Beats, a Web series that features experts dishing out situational advice to TV and film’s most complex characters. Follow Lectures to Beats on Facebook and Twitter.