Like most immigrants coming to this country, I wasn’t privilege enough to have my school paid for. I had to get a job to pay for school and support a family back home. A co-worker at one of these jobs ( yes I had numerous jobs) used to tell me that despite our similarities in skin tone, my accent counts for something. It used to make me laugh. The notion that white people will gravitate towards me despite what I termed as a detriment (my accent) doesn’t make a lot of sense to me then. But he insisted and as I integrate more into the society of my adopted country, I have come to realize the folly of taking his insistence for granted. The institution of slavery have left a stigma on the off springs of Africans who came through the middle passage that Air Africa arriving immigrants like yours truly are not subjected to. This story in the Nation magazine illustrates just that point:
Less than ten years ago I found myself one Sunday in a white Baptist church in rural South Carolina listening to a sermon titled “Surrounded” and sincerely wishing I was somewhere else. For more than an hour I sat there, gradually realizing that my own considerable discomfort was dwarfed by that of the worshipers around me. The stares I received betrayed not hostility but genuine confusion. In a segregated town that was 60 percent black, my presence in this white space was itself a statement. But about what, no one knew. The eyes fixed upon me desperately sought answers. “What are you doing here? You know the rules. Everybody knows the rules. We don’t go to your churches, and you don’t come to ours. Why are you doing this to us? What do you want?”
When the sermon was over, I tried to leave as quickly as I could, but a hand caught my shoulder.
“Welcome. I’m so glad you came,” said one woman.
“Thank you, I’m glad to be here,” I said.
On hearing my voice her face relaxed a little.
“You’re not from here, are you?” she said.
“No, I’m from England,” I said.
As the words were repeated all around me a small crowd formed. “He’s from England,” “He’s English,” I could hear people muttering as a mini-stampede came to shake my hand and greet me. I was English. I was not their problem. I would not be coming back.
As a black Briton I know a thing or two about white America’s comfort zone around race. The wariness at the sight of me and the relief at the sound of me can leave doors half-open that might otherwise be firmly shut. American racism has me pegged somewhere between the noble savage and the idiot savant–it adds twenty points to my IQ for my accent but docks fifteen for the bell curve.
If only I can find old Mitch, I will tell him he is got a point.
As Fola said in the comments:
Stanley Crouch wrote in his New York Daily news column something along the same hypothesis. He has a provocative title for it: “What Obama isn’t: black like me”. Here is a snippet of what he said in that column:
Back in 2004, Alan Keyes made this point quite often. Keyes was the black Republican carpetbagger chosen by the elephants to run against Obama for the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois. The choice of Keyes was either a Republican version of affirmative action or an example of just how dumb the party believes black voters to be, since it was obvious that Keyes came from the Southeast, not the Midwest.
That race was never much of a contest, but one fascinating subplot was how Keyes was unable to draw a meaningful distinction between himself as a black American and Obama as an African-American. After all, Obama’s mother is of white U.S. stock. His father is a black Kenyan. Other than color, Obama did not – does not – share a heritage with the majority of black Americans, who are descendants of plantation slaves.