On Being an African in the US: Navigating an Endless Web of Stereotypes
by Simba Runyowa
One of our most read, and most thought-provoking, pieces from 2012 was Simba?s moving look at how Africans are perceived in the U.S., and his plea for a more balanced perspective.
Harare, Zimbabwe. Would an American know that this is Africa? (Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Martin Addison)
"Do you live in a ?real? house back in Zimbabwe?" Simba said he's been asked. "Do people have cars in Africa?" "How come you speak such good English?"
But, he added:
While these comments all made me cringe inwardly in disbelief, none of them topped a remark I received while eating in the college dining hall early this semester, when somebody (Let?s call him Boy Z) remarked, 'It must hurt you to see people throwing away food when so many people in Africa are starving.'
"It?s high time the world moves beyond these parochial, dated frames and seriously reorients the way it engages with African people," Simba concluded, adding that while Africa certainly has its problems, so does America.
He wrote, "It?s important to realize that Africa, America, and indeed any other place in the world, can never be completely and accurately represented by any one blanket perception."
The article generated a lot of conversation, and several commenters wrote in to say that they too encountered negative stereotypes when studying in the U.S., and not just about Africa. Sultan, who came from Pakistan to study in the U.S. in 1972 wrote, "I was asked the most ridiculous questions including 'Do you have fruit in Pakistan.' It seems not much has changed in 40 years."
Like Simba, many international students are doing their best to change these negative images. One of those is Abuzar, whose poignant take on being an Afghan in America, and trying to create a new image of his country, was one of our most shared stories of the year.
"I had now become the avatar of my country," Abuzar wrote of how he was viewed by American classmates, "and I realized that whatever I said and whatever I did, I was helping create my classmates? perception of what an Afghan person is."
What do Americans think of when they see this? Probably not me.
He recalled the burden of taking on this role:
When I came to school in jeans, a t-shirt, and basketball shoes, I realized, in my classmates? minds all Afghans dressed in the same fashion. The food on my plate or the drink in my cup became recipes for how an Afghan would eat. Every ?A? I acquired in my classes earned Afghanistan an ?A,? and I felt that my failures and the things I didn?t know became testaments to Afghanistan?s ignorance.
"But on the other hand, I felt proud to have substituted the predominant American images of Afghanistan with my own," Abuzar concluded. "I would introduce Afghanistan through the eyes of my generation, a generation tired of the animosity and ignorance that had ruled Afghanistan, endeavoring to make the country a better place."
And international students like Abuzar and Simba are speaking to a captive audience in the Americans whose minds they hope to change.
How do we know? One of our most complex and rewarding endeavors in 2012 was an anonymous survey of American students; an attempt to find out what they really think of international students.
55% of the Americans who responded to the survey said they?d like to have more international students on their campus, and many talked about how much they enjoy learning about other cultures and being educated about life in other parts of the world.
"I like to learn about who people are and what their different stories are," said one Oberlin student. "Almost always I learn something new about not only their personal life but how their life at home contrasts with their life in America."
"I make an effort to get to know them because I think all of their international backgrounds and cultures are so fascinating and I would be truly blessed to get to experience a small sense of their life through what they tell me," said a North Dakota State University student.
But we also found a major hurdle: American and international students aren?t mingling as much as they could be. Only about 50% of the Americans who took our survey said they have more than two international friends.
"At my school, international students stick together," said a student at the University of Central Oklahoma. "There?s always a group of two or more in my classes and they rarely try to talk to us, so we sort of just leave them alone. It?s like they don?t want to make friends with us."
The survey results generated a lot of discussion, including some suggestions about how to overcome this barrier and get international and American students talking. Lily wrote, for example:
I am a really shy, reserved person and I do find it hard trying to make friends. One thing about this is that the Americans will find it hard trying to get close to you because you are really not open to them. But I later realized that it takes time for them to really know you, and one just has to be natural ? no pretense and feeling of pride ? and you will find them flocking around you.
Most everyone, international and American, seemed to agree that those who make the effort to reach out reap significant rewards. As Simba concluded:
Only when we all first recognize, and take stock of, our common humanity can we begin to build the bridges of mutual understanding and forge the highways to genuine appreciation and illumination.
Other top posts of 2012:
#4: The Surprising Links Between Food and Identity
#3: The Cultural Nuances of Language
#2: Keeping Standardized Tests in Perspective
#1: Taking Responsibility is the Key to Academic Success