Ethiopian-Eritrean Trhas Tafere Reflects on Africans’ Perspective on Race in America

The author of the following opinion article Trhas Tafere was born in Eritrea and moved to the U.S. from Ethiopia in 2013. She graduated in Spring 2020 from Utah State University with a degree in both anthropology and sociology and was the Anthropology Program’s Undergraduate of the Year. (TUS)

The Utah Statesman

By Trhas Tafere

Featured Guest Column: An African Immigrant’s Experiences Learning What It Means to be Black in America

In light of the civil unrest that is going on in this country, I want to focus on the unique experience of many African immigrants, like myself, who had no prior understanding of the history of racism and the seriousness of the issue in this nation. Many African immigrants have had to face some kind of discrimination to realize the complex nature of race relations in the United States, and to identify themselves as “Black.” African immigrants, like myself, go through a series of identity crises as we make the shift from being “proudly African” to a stage where the only way to navigate the system is by embracing “blackness” from the American point of view and accepting all of the negative consequences that come with it. This strategy requires being extremely cautious while also trying to prove the negative stereotypes wrong. There is a constant struggle– not to avoid being judged by the way we look, because we can’t escape from being judged any way — but to prove that such misconceptions are wrong, and it is exhausting.

Race is a purely social construction, meaning that there is nothing biological or genetic to the social categories that have been created. We know this because the categories and what they mean change over time, and they are different in different places. In Brazil, for instance, they have dozens of “racial” categories, and sometimes I wish there were “intermediate” categories in the US, that would take into consideration the diversity of what it is to be “Black.” Being Black in America, regardless of where you are from, means all of the stress ascribed to race, all of the stereotypes, stigma, and experiences that are related to what it is to be seen as Black by others, including the legacy of racism, even when my ancestors (who were never enslaved nor colonized) never experienced them. Aster Osburn, an Ethiopian immigrant like myself, recently talked about a painful and confusing transition of her identity in a public Facebook post (2020 June 7 https://www.facebook.com/aster.osburn). She says that “The raw truth is, I went through a phase where I denied my ‘blackness’ and uttered the words “I’m not black, I’m Ethiopian” … A few years of living here quickly taught me that being black was going to be a struggle. It meant now I would have to live a life not celebrating it but defending it. Oh, the identity after identity crisis I’ve gone through to tear down my mindset from celebrating blackness to learning its new meaning for my life.”

Such encounters might seem petty, but it has a big psychological impact when you have to deal with it daily.

My first encounter with this stigma was while I was still in my “proud African” phase, before I embraced my “blackness.” My 4-year-old daughter was told by a neighbor girl that she could not play with her due to her skin color. I didn’t take it seriously. I just told my daughter, “maybe the little girl has never seen Queen of Sheba, a beautiful African queen who looks like you before.” My daughter will never forget what this little girl told her, though. Such encounters might seem petty, but it has a big psychological impact when you have to deal with it daily. I am very glad that other mothers, who do not have Black children, will not have to go through this painful reality and I regret that my children will.

Read more »

Related:

The Other Face of Privilege: An Ethiopian American Perspective by Amen Gashaw

Watch: Mahdere Yared on The Long-Term Effects of Racism (TEDx Pine Crest School class of 2021)

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