The “Regular Black” and “Ethnic Black” Experiences in College

I suspect that this imbalance is part of what was behind my friend’s snippy response. On several occasions, I’ve seen black American friends who attended Ivies mistaken for Ethiopian, Ghanaian, Jamaican or Nigerian. Like my friend, they were disappointed that their initial response of “American”—which, perhaps, sounded bland and generic compared with everyone else’s—didn’t seem to please or make sense to the people inquiring. It almost implied that black America couldn’t produce high-achieving students who could gain admission to top-flight schools.

Or, as Shahida Muhammad described for Clutch magazine, the similar frustration of how being just “American” simply wasn’t sexy enough for the black population at her school. During college parties and cultural events, the ethnic black students proudly represented where they were from by waving flags and doing all the new dances to reggae music. I recall how some students went on vacations to visit relatives in London, Barbados and West Africa and sometimes spoke to one another with unique English accents that were indigenous to their parents’ native countries. They had a strong sense of nationalism and cultural pride that evaded “regular blacks,” as Twitter attests.

Wish I was African. Being regular black is boring.

My dad refuses to accept being regular black. Every time somebody asks about his heritage he picks a random African country.

These are some of the tensions that exist from a social perspective. There’s also the age-old affirmative action debate about whether ethnic black students are taking up admission slots that were intended for “regular” black students. If affirmative action policies were created to curb the discrimination that black Americans faced as a result of slavery and Jim Crow, the argument goes, why should colleges count black immigrants—or their children—toward their affirmative action goals?

The argument further suggests that while these first-generation students are, no doubt, black and American, some of their parents actually had certain economic advantages when they came to the United States, such as student visas, and certainly ideological advantages, such as having been reared and exposed to majority-black governments and societies, which no doubt does wonders for one’s sense of self-determination. There’s the idea that they didn’t carry a lot of the scars that American blacks bear, as a result of slavery and institutional racism—so why were they reaping the same social benefits?

There’s been a string of recent headlines inflating these distinctions among America’s black groups: “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua released a book in February singling out Nigerian Americans as having a “cultural edge” at succeeding in America. In early April, black America was elated to find out that a 17-year-old high school student from New York City gained admission to all eight Ivy League colleges.

And, you guessed it, he’s Ghanaian American.

I smiled a little wider when I saw that his name was Kwasi Enin (I’m half-Ghanaian), and wondered, then and there, if black Americans had a particular reaction to this story, since they didn’t precisely share his ethnicity. While Enin was raised in America, perhaps his family’s unique set of cultural values influenced his upbringing and, thereby, academic prowess. I wondered whether black America still felt a sense of pride, since he wasn’t necessarily a product of black America but, rather, of a West African culture. Others shared these concerns.

To be honest, as a first-generation black American myself (my other half is Nigerian), a part of me is basking in all of this newfound glory because, Lord knows, it wasn’t always this way. I can still remember those annoying “African booty-scratcher” taunts that you’d hear back in the day.

But I was never crazy about the term “regular black” because every time I hear it, I think, “If they’re ‘regular black,’ then what does that make me? Irregular?”

The whole notion seems wrong. “Why,” I’ve asked myself, “was America being touted as the regular nationality for black people if black people are not indigenous to America?” And then my counter-self would respond:

“Because you’re in America.”

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  1. Very interesting article, Diana. I’ve never heard the term “regular black.” I was in college in the 80s so it didn’t have a name back then, I guess. I am also a first generation black American of Jamaican descent, both parents Jamaican immigrants. So I can relate to some of the issues surrounding confusion about we we identify ourselves and how others perceive us.

    I recall going through a “who am I” period as a student at Howard University asking myself as I sat in Black History class, ” Am I Black American, African-American, Jamaican, or something else.” I wanted to identify as Jamaican but my cousins weren’t having it and would call me “Yankee.” You see, if you weren’t born there, you couldn’t really claim the culture, especially if you had an American accent and ate American food. My sisters and brother were the only cousins born in the US, unlike the rest who were born in Jamaica, England, or Canada. So my identity crisis came on many levels.

    Today I proudly identify as “Jahamerican” holding fast to all of the Jamaican traditions of my culture and heritage. Thanks for this article; thought-provoking.

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