by MYA GREEN
The African-American Studies Department held an event on Monday afternoon entitled Engaging Black Diversity: A Conversation With UMD Students. The purpose of the program was to help start discussions about race, identity, class, immigrant status and social mobility amongst the diverse black community.
Five panelists posed questions to the audience and gave anecdotes about their perception of race in America.
The moderator, Dr. Sangeetha Madhavan, an associate professor of African-American Studies and an associate director of the Maryland Population Research Center opened up the discussion by sharing an excerpt from the book “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
“Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care. So what if you weren’t black in your country? You’re in America now. We all have our moments of initiation into the Society of Former Negroes. Mine was in a class in undergrad when I was asked to give the black perspective, only I had no idea what that was. So I just made something up. And admit it—you say “I’m not black” only because you know black is at the bottom of America’s race ladder. And you want none of that. Don’t deny now. What if being black had all the privileges of being white? Would you still say “Don’t call me black, I’m from Trinidad”? I didn’t think so. So you’re black, baby.”
Panelist Dr. Onoso Imoagene, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, posed the very broad question, “What does it mean to be black?” Although this question was not answered directly, it was ultimately answered indirectly through the anecdotes and stories told by audience members and the panelists.
Dr. Michelle Rowley, another panelist and associate professor of Women’s Studies and graduate director at the University of Maryland, expressed how she has observed that students feel that college is a progressive place, but then argued that that idea is not true. She expressed her thoughts on how colleges are being run like businesses and how diversity has become a commodity as a result. She went on to explain how diversity is used as a marketing tool by universities to draw in people of color but when accepted, students then branch off into fractions on campus.
“We are being encouraged to not see each other, to not recognize each other,” Dr. Michelle Rowley said.
She asked the audience, “What kind of world do you want to live in and what do you have to do to make it so?”
The other panelists were undergraduate students and while two of them had very similar perspectives on race in America, the other did not.
UMD student Devona Austin describes herself as “Jamerican,” because she thinks it better defines who she is rather than just saying “black.” She went on to give more details about why she does not identify as an African-American.
“I don’t identify myself as African-American because my ancestors weren’t enslaved and that’s why I don’t claim that.”
Her question for the audience was “What enabling factors do African-Americans face that do not affect black immigrants when pursuing the American dream?”
You could feel the cultural tension building in the room as Austin spoke but when UMD student Rick Tagne spoke about his similar beliefs about race and identity, the tension peaked.
Tagne came to the U.S. in 1997 and at first had a really tough time adjusting to the language barrier that existed, but now as an adult he is having trouble really understanding why Americans place so much emphasis on race. He feels that he is marginalized more because of his accent than his skin color.
“I’m not saying that I’m naive to what is going on in America, I know the history, but I don’t think it affects me.”
He shared that his perspective sprouts from the fact that he has only had positive encounters with the police. He argued that although he understands why some black people dislike cops, he does not really agree with that perspective.
“I don’t think racism in America is a big problem, it just depends on your experience.”
Kendall Foster, a Sociology and African-American Studies double major, agreed with the perspective that was first introduced with the “Americanah” excerpt. He acknowledged how fortunate the University of Maryland population is for having such a diverse black community but he then challenged the audience to think about whether or not the divisions that exist within it divide us further.
With these questions posed, the audience gave their answers and as more people spoke, the room became increasingly divided between those who identified as African-American and people of African descent who chose not to.