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I Am an Emigrant’s Child: A Guest Post
I am an emigrant’s child. America is not my ancestral home and I was raised with the knowledge that I am Dutch, a child of the Netherlands and as such I feel a fierce pride for a land I have never seen. I find it fascinating when others tell me of their familial lineage that has stretched back eight generations in the same town and the pride that ensues upon the telling. I have not felt that connection to a place, my heart has lain across the ocean as long as I can remember and I have often felt a visitor in the land of my birth. I have often wondered if this is a driving force in my need to research other cultures and races; to see where that deep visceral connection comes from. I was an Asian history minor in college, am fascinated by the people and culture of India and recently have turned my focus to race and how people relate to it. In part because of these guys – my precious daughter whose grandpa was from Mexico and when she was an infant I was asked why I adopted a spic baby (she is not adopted) and the children of my twin sister, my beloved niece and nephew, who were called mongrel dirt babies while shopping at Target.
When I look at these children I see who they are – the little girl who talks to me on the phone and says she does not need to go to bed and to please tell her momma that, the boy who tells me of his soccer games and Legos and my own sweet girl who tells me about her friends and how karate class was. I don’t define them by their skin tones but by their hearts and their characters.
I recently finished Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The former a fictional tale of a young women coming to America from Nigeria and examining being considered black for the first time and the latter a memoir of a young black father written as a series of letters to his son describing his experience with race growing up in Baltimore. It was interesting to see the comparison and contrasts within these books, how closely fiction can mirror reality and how both can convey a deep message.
Why must we always talk about race anyway? Can’t we just be human beings? And Professor Hunk replied—that is exactly what white privilege is, that you can say that. Race doesn’t really exist for you because it has never been a barrier. Black folks don’t have that choice. The black guy on the street in New York doesn’t want to think about race, until he tries to hail a cab, and he doesn’t want to think about race when he’s driving his Mercedes under the speed limit, until a cop pulls him over. – Adichie
Very few Americans will directly proclaim that they are in favor of black people being left to the streets. But a very large number of Americans will do all they can to preserve the Dream. No one directly proclaimed that schools were designed to sanctify failure and destruction. But a great number of educators spoke of “personal responsibility” in a country authored and sustained by a criminal irresponsibility. The point of this language of “intention” and “personal responsibility” is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. “Good intention” is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream. – Coates
Americanah is the tale of a young Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, who comes to the U.S. for college and then stays for fifteen years before returning to the country of her birth. This book painted race relations with a broad stroke as seen from an outsider’s perspective. Ifemelu had never considered herself anything other than Nigerian; she came from a country that was deep in internal infrastructure issues and defeated coups and had no time to consider that the color of her skin was of importance. Upon coming to America she had the unique view of a non-American Black. “Oppression olympics” is what smart liberal Americans say, to make you feel stupid and to make you shut up. But there IS an oppression olympics going on. American racial minorities—blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and Jews—all get shit from white folks, different kinds of shit, but shit still. Each secretly believes that it gets the worst shit. So, no, there is no United League of the Oppressed. However, all the others think they’re better than blacks because, well, they’re not black.” An interesting note to me was the correlation painted between color in the U.S. and wealth and tribe in Nigeria. These distinctions were reminiscent of a caste system and reinforced that every nationality has a form of separating the population.
Between the World and Me is a love letter from a father to a son. A father who sees race as something visceral and something that defines a person. His greatest hope for his son is a future without the pervasive sense of violence he has felt in his own life. “Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body. We could not get out. I was a capable boy, intelligent, well-liked, but powerfully afraid. And I felt, vaguely, wordlessly, that for a child to be marked off for such a life, to be forced to live in fear was a great injustice.” Coates speaks of his love and his anger in the same breath; he feeds on historical injustice and rallies around hope. Anger, fear, incredulity and sadness mix with hope. For an outsider reading this sparks those same emotions. The senseless acts of the past merge with the senseless acts of the present to ignite a powder keg of truth.
I am not special, I see the color of peoples’ skin. I know the archetypes. I can continue to educate myself by widening my book selection to include more and increasingly diverse selections. If we all work to see other perspectives hopefully we will truly get to the place where people “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” And that is the world I want my children to inherit.