The story of the first-generation Ghanian-American student accepted by all eight Ivy league schools is wonderful, but it also stirs up the tension between black Americans and recent African immigrants — especially when you describe him as "not a typical African-American kid." That's been the reaction to USA Today's profile on Kwasi Enin, a Long Island high schooler who got into the nation's most competitive schools through hard work and, according to IvyWise CEO Katherine Cohen, being African (and being male). At one point the piece reads:
Being a first-generation American from Ghana also helps him stand out, Cohen says. "He's not a typical African-American kid."
"Not a typical African-American kid" is being read as an allusion to the lazy black American stereotype. The tension comes from the fact that some African immigrants buy into that stereotype, which gets turned into "Africans don't like black people." This has almost nothing to do with Enin, who is obviously a remarkable young man, and everything to do with how America perceives and portrays black Americans and African immigrants.
In January, Luvvie Ajayi, a Nigerian-born immigrant, tried to explain "akata," a word some Nigerians use to refer to black Americans that translates into wild animal. (Note: A lot of Nigerians use akata to mean "ghetto" as well. My mom once told me I was dressed like an akata girl because I wanted to wear sweatpants in public.) She argued in a series of tweets, collected by Clutch, that the reason some Africans believe black Americans should be doing better is because they don't know about the history of black Americans but see their own success as a reason blacks should excel as well. "Africans who come to the U.S. are statistically more successful than African Americans and they think 'if I could do it, why not them?'" she wrote.
American society holds that same view as well. A 2007 study covered by the Washington Post found that a quarter of black students admitted to elite colleges were African immigrants, though they only represented 13 percent of America's college-age black population. The study's authors several theories on why black immigrants do better, including "to white observers black immigrants seem more polite, less hostile, more solicitous and 'easier to get along with.' Native blacks are perceived in precisely the opposite fashion."
Lani Guinier, a Harvard professor, argued instead that schools were attempting to "resolve historic wrongs against native black Americans by enrolling immigrants who look like them" but had different experiences. "In part, it has to do with coming from a country ... where blacks were in the majority and did not experience the stigma that black children did in the United States," Guinier said. Either explanation creates a divide — as if Africans can only succeed at the expense of black Americans, or vice versa.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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