Black Is Not A Monolith: An Exploration Of How The Black American And Black Immigrant Experiences Diverge

Black people within the United States are often seen as a monolith. There are many things that connect Black people, including shared customs, norms, language, and food. In 2021, a Netflix documentary called “High on the Hog” explored this connection through food, identifying similar cuisines eaten throughout the African diaspora. And while racism, discrimination, and anti-blackness are global, it’s important to analyze how Black communities living within the U.S. have vastly different experiences. To fully and deeply understand Black people in America, recognizing these nuances is vital. A Pew Research Center study found that the Black immigrant population in the U.S. is continuing to grow rapidly, with one-in-ten Black people being from another country. Despite these rising numbers, when people think about U.S. immigration, the Black immigrant experience is often ignored. The erasure of the first-generation (those born outside of the U.S.) and second-generation (the children of those born outside the U.S.) Black experience often leads to the conflating of the Black experience as one. This article seeks to explore three important differences within the Black American experience, while unpacking how these differences have led to discord. Supporting Black people requires an understanding of the unique barriers that different Black communities face, in order to develop support systems and interventions to reduce and repair the harms experienced.  

1.    Generational trauma. Researchers have found that offspring are impacted by their exposure to parental trauma. Trauma can leave a lasting mark on an individual and can be inherited from one generation to the next. Adverse events and the trauma that they cause can be passed through several generations, leading to modifications in an individual’s genes. Black people in the U.S. who are descendants of enslaved people have inherited the trauma that was felt and passed on by their ancestors. In the book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary labels the generational trauma that descendants of enslaved people have endured as Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS). Leary asserts that one of the ways that PTSS impacts Black Americans is via self-esteem. Vacant self-esteem is defined in Leary’s book as “the state of believing oneself to have little or no worth, exacerbated by the group and societal pronouncement of inferiority.” Black Americans were stripped of their culture, identity, heritage, and religion, and may experience varying levels of vacant self-esteem. For many first and second-generation Blacks, there may be a lack of awareness and understanding regarding generational trauma. To an uneducated person, the barriers that Black Americans face may seem self-made but the impacts of generational trauma are often undiscussed. Black Americans may have internalized the negative attributions that were assigned to their enslaved ancestors. Many first and second-generationers do not experience the same generational trauma that their Black American counterparts experience. First and second-generationers often lack this collective memory of ancestral harm, which comes with a level of privilege.

Cropped shot of an unrecognizable man and his wife touching her pregnant belly.
Researchers have found that offspring are impacted by their exposure to parental trauma. GETTY

2.    Socioeconomic status. Many Black immigrants were able to enter the U.S. through a diversity visa program that was established through the Immigration Act of 1990. Through the diversity visa program, applicants must either have at least two years of qualifying work experience or a high school diploma. According to the Pew Research Center, Africans with higher education levels are more likely to move to developed nations, which may explain the differences in educational attainment among different Black groups in America. Higher levels of academic attainment may explain the differences in median household income. When examining educational and economic outcomes, we must account for group differences within the Black community. The advocacy of Black people, many of whom were descendants of enslaved people, catalyzed the l965 legislation that made Black immigration into the U.S. possible. Reparations are owed and social programs should be implemented to support the development of Black Americans whose labor was extracted to build the country’s wealth. More of a concerted effort must be made to rectify the harms that were caused to descendants of enslaved people.

3.    Discrimination and Internalized Racism. The compound forms of oppression that Black immigrants experience cause them to lead what some have called a double life. Undocumented foreign-born Blacks experience similar levels of over-policing and incarceration as Black Americans, but also have to worry about deportation. Black immigrants who came from war-torn countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia may carry the trauma that they witnessed in their countries with them. Accent bias is another concern for those trying to assimilate within the American system. A 2012 doctoral dissertation written by Adaobi C. Iheduru explores the social distance between Africans and African Americans. Iheduru’s research identified negative stereotypes that both groups held about each other. Each group perceived the other as “lesser than.” The perceived distance between Africans and African Americans is reinforced by internalized racism among both groups. “I think there can be a lack of understanding from both ends,” shared Fieven Amare, a Washington D.C.-based consultant and second-generation Eritrean-American. “Many Black Americans feel that Africans who migrate to America have a superiority complex and feel the need to delineate the differences among us.” When examining the relationship between different Black communities, it’s apparent that the friction between groups is more pronounced between Africans and African Americans. “In high school, a lot of my friends were Caribbean…mostly from Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana, and Haiti. We were all close, like best friends. It was like a brother and sisterhood,” shared Justin G. Smith, who is a VP of Operations at an investment bank. Smith, a New York native born and raised in Brooklyn, has ties in the south; his family has been in the U.S. for several generations. “I had maybe one close African friend [growing up]. I feel like his traditions were different from the West Indians I hung out with…I felt I related more to the traditions of my West Indian friends more so because of my [Black American] upbringing.”

To better understand what it means to be Black in America; these three differences are important to consider. Census data should be disaggregated to get a better snapshot of economic, health, and educational disparities within the Black community. It is not divisive to make distinctions that specify the unique differences within a particular community. Treating Black people as a monolith erases the harm that different ethnicities and nationalities within the Black race have endured. Each experience is important to understand in order to be better advocates and allies for one another. We must acknowledge these differences while creating support systems to address them. The systems that harmed Black Americans throughout the generations are the very same systems that continue to subjugate all Black people living in the U.S. and abroad. We must examine how we can collectively eradicate the oppressive regimes that continue to harm us all. It should be in everyone’s interest to understand how these systems seek to keep us divided.

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