What’s Identity Got To Do With It?
By Divine Muragijimana
About a month ago, I was browsing the net and found an article by a Nigerian (or for the sake of correct identification, a Nigerian-American) on why Africans in America should start identifying with “African-Americans”. Generally, I read these sorts of articles with disinterest; but this time, I read with the hope that there would be an enlightening discussion on the “why” of a subject that has been prevalent in black communities for the past couple of years. By the end of the article I was unmoved and started listening to music and eating my fried chicken drumsticks from the KFC in Nairobi. A couple of hours later though, the article resurfaced in my mind. Again, I started
thinking of the African-American identity dialogue that we have had oh so many times. In fact, I got to a point where I was simply upset because, after going back and forth with this issue of identity, I came to the conclusion that there is no compelling reason to ask African immigrants to identify with African-Americans and vice-verse, unless someone wants to.
We cannot castigate an entire population in one sentence – there are Africans who embrace an African-American identity and vice versa. But for those who don’t – that is their choice. There is nothing in this world that should force one to accept an identity that they don’t want. If two brothers can be from the same parents and one chooses to play football for Ghana and another one for Germany, who is to say which Boateng boy made the right decision? Likewise, Africans in America can choose their identity and roll with it. Barack Obama is Kenyan if he chooses to be and African-American if he chooses to be. He can also be Caucasian – if he chooses to. Where you land your feet does not necessarily translate to your identity.
In 2012, I tried to take a crack at this issue in a previous article. In this article, I identified the similar struggles that both African-American and African immigrants face in the U.S. But looking at this issue on a global perspective, I wonder if we are obsessing over it a bit too much. It still stands that while both African immigrants and African-Americans have different cultural identities and practices, they face similar struggles with economic independence and social mobility in the U.S. These two groups, who face the same types of discrimination based on the color of their skin and their broken relationships, are ineffective forces in both political and economical affairs nationally. Yet, I think it is time that we give ourselves permission to be who we choose to be, and not simply who we’ve been grouped together with based on the similarities aforementioned.
What I see is a lot of guilt being passed around in the name of “unity”. Let’s not be quick to guilt or force identities on people without understanding that maybe they are better off forging their own identity. The truth of the matter is that whether Africans are in America or in their respective countries, their struggles do not end. Whether they are in America or not, they will go back to their home countries and still face unemployment issues, life in the “ghetto”, and, for the unlucky ones, they will still die from a bullet, shot by someone who deemed them undeserving of life. All this to say, Africans in America face their own struggles and have burdens to carry, including having ties to, and responsibilities in, two different continents – expecting them to take on an identify just because of the color of their skin is a step too far. Not to mention that most of this demographic are still aliens in America trying to make the “American Dream” work.
But lets add another dimension to this. The world has become a global village. Truly unique in that our identities have become fluid. More than ever, in this day and age, we need to rethink the way we embrace race, color and identity. Identity, or the lack thereof, define and shape ones thinking. We need to open ourselves to the idea of this fluidity. Look at half of France’s National football team, Les Blues; they are both African and French. They chose their identity, for better or worse. In his recent interview with the Daily Nation, prominent Somali novelist Nurriddin Farah talked about how identities are inclusive. As he points out, “The world is a richer world because of the differences that are there in our lives.”
And here I am: a Burundian, a Kenyan, an American, an African – and I am a better person because of all these identities. I celebrate all of them and have earned the freedom to pick the battles I choose to fight.