There is no doubt that Black social justice movements have once again successfully pushed issues of racial inequity to the front of the social and political agenda, transforming not only the conversation about police violence but the larger question of what it means to be Black in America. At time, these discussions turn to the topic of Black immigrants as a way to position them at an advantage over African-Americans. The recent Fusion article, The Rihanna generation: How black immigrants are reshaping America, claiming "The Black immigrant is on the rise" did exactly this, citing oversimplified demographics from a recent Pew Research report, while leaving out the significant ways in which African-Americans and Black immigrants experience structural racism and state violence, the area where one's accent, language and country of origin offer no protection.
The Fusion piece concludes that there is a new and different kind of Black demographic emerging in the U.S., even dismissing the long standing history of Black immigrant leaders such as Shirley Chisholm. This history is key. To fully understand the Black immigrant experience in the U.S., we must understand that it has always been shaped by migration, both forced and voluntary and our identities have always been multinational.
Claims that Black immigrants are set apart and somehow better than African-Americans are often the source of much pain and tension. This frame also erases the fact that the courage and ongoing struggle of African-Americans is what opened the door of opportunity to immigrants, and the future success of these communities is tied closely together in the progress of racial justice. The truth is that Black people are not all the same, have never been monolith and never will be. It is anti-Blackness that attempts to paint a monolithic picture of the Black experience, muting the complexity, nuance and diversity that has always been there. It is this same anti-Blackness which creates the inescapable racial hierarchy that forces Black immigrants, 1st generation and beyond, to experience employment, health and economic inequity in line with that of African-Americans. Immigrant communities aren't necessarily tight knit only due to their culture, but likely because of segregation and discriminatory housing practices. It is necessary to consider this to truly understand Black immigrant experiences, not as separate from, but central to the racialized reality of being Black in America. Exotifying certain categories of Black people, with the purpose of contrasting them to African-Americans (also not monolith) serves this same anti-Black viewpoint.
However, The increased visibility and interest in Black immigrants and the diversity of Black identity does not have to be negative. Discussions around identity, ethnicity and race among Black people are happening more often. An ideal time for such conversations takes place in just a few weeks at the the Black Immigration Network (BIN) Kinship Assembly April 8-10 in Los Angeles, CA. With the theme Black Love Beyond Borders, attendees will challenge the notions of division both interpersonal and global, to create necessary connections. The Kinship Assembly is an experience to build unity that is inclusive of unique identities while finding points of commonality that does not deny the varied experiences, perspectives and cultures throughout the African Diaspora. Unity is needed to face challenges such as economic inequity, physical and mental health disparities, transphobia, Islamophobia, militarism, refugee crisis, mass incarceration, detention and deportation. Divisive narratives that attempt to separate Black people do nothing to address these issues.
Some may just be discovering what Black people have known for generations, that our shared ancestry does not mean we all share the same experience. However, in the fight for our humanity, determining a unified identity for ourselves will certainly help to strengthen us as our ever changing Black communities continue to grow.
Tia Oso is an organizer and speaker based in Los Angeles. She is the National Organizer for the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) home to the Black Immigration Network (BIN). To learn more about BAJI and BIN please visit www.blackalliance.org.