“Black African” may be oxymoronic

For many African immigrants in the United States, being seen as Black doesn’t necessarily equate to seeing oneself as Black.

Photo by Creab Mcselvin on Unsplash

I am Black, but my parents aren’t. I am not adopted. In fact, I am the child of immigrants from the continent known for “peak blackness.” After emigrating from Ghana to the US my parents became citizens, raised children, and spent more than 70 combined years navigating American social and political systems. I heard stories and bore witness to moments when these systems identified, and punished, their perceived blackness. I assumed that even if they were initially resistant, they had no choice but to accept this identity.

Before my parents retired and returned home to Ghana a little over a year ago, I asked them about their racial identification to clarify my hunch. Despite having lived so long in this society, they upended my assumptions. They assured me that they were Ghanaians, Africans, and now African Americans, but not Black. Not really.

I wasn’t completely shocked by their reluctance to claim this racial marker; warnings not to become “too Americanized” abound in African immigrant households, in no small part because of the US’ relationship with Black America. But the idea that Africans, whose continent is the conceptual home of blackness, could wholly reject it seemed curious. I found it perplexing that Africans who had spent decades in a place where they were undoubtedly seen and treated as Black could simultaneously refute the identity. It was furthermore peculiar to me that individuals who had lived through pivotal moments that brought Black and African identifications to the fore —among them the murders of Rodney King and Amadou Diallo, the election of President Barack Obama, and the Black Lives Matter movement—could not feel Black the way I did. I wondered, for the hundreds of thousands of Ghanaian immigrants in the US, where is the line between being perceived as Black and perceiving oneself as Black?

So, in a structured qualitative research sort of way, I asked around. I spoke with other Ghanaians like my parents who arrived in the US between 1960 and 1990, and who’d lived in the Washington, DC area (aka “Chocolate City,” a primary landing spot for Ghanaians) for at least three decades.

These conversations—pilot interviews for what I hope to be an eventual full-scale study—revealed three emergent themes: (1) long-time Ghanaian immigrants acknowledge that they’re seen as Black in the US, (2) feel perceived as a Black “other,” and (3) often consequently maintain a distinct non-racialized cultural self.

Interviewees’ connectedness to blackness differed, ranging from embrace (one participant shared that he was “100% percent Black”) to reluctant contextual acceptance (“That’s an identifier in the US, so it’s not even my choice”). Even when blackness was accepted as part of one’s identity, interviewees demonstrated a consistent recognition—by self and others, often Black Americans—that they were a distinct “type” of Black: the accented, home-bound type that is always more Ghanaian than Black. This was evident in their patterns of circular migration and hopes of permanent repatriation, efforts to ensure that their distinctly African cultural home would also remain a physical one. Despite spending most of their lives in the US, these interviewees saw themselves as intimately rooted to a Ghanaian identity in a way that racial blackness would not transcend.

The insights from these conversations lined up with existing literature indicating that African immigrants adapt to, negotiate, and frequently resist Black racialization in the US. Fluid and context-dependent, blackness for the “Black African” doesn’t always stick.

As race remains at the fore of cross-national public discourses, narratives of the long-stay Ghanaian immigrant in the US signal the problems of normative racial categories. There are red flag implications for the US census, a data space where an unprecedented number of Americans identified as “some other race” in the 2020 count. Many immigrants, including Afro-descendant foreigners who do not identify with established racial categories, self-select into this group, which “does not produce the data needed to address racial inequities.”

Moreover, such narratives reveal the fragility of a racialized diasporic identity. Social organizations and platforms that enliven their activism around African descent often leverage blackness as a unifying transnational and transethnic force. Narratives suggesting that African immigrants have mixed feelings toward blackness despite it being a decades-long part of their (assigned) identity point to a potential fault line in social and cultural efforts to unify Afro-descendants.

For those (myself included) who see potential in racialized solidarity projects, stories of the long-stay Ghanaian immigrant in the US highlight a slightly uncomfortable reality: being seen as Black doesn’t necessarily equate to seeing oneself as Black. Ambivalent blackness creates a weak foundation for inclusive, cross-generational efforts to connect and uplift the diaspora.

Further Reading