Too exotic for here, too Western for there. First-generation kids balance everyday a dichotomy so deep, at a certain point the hope for acceptance fleets into evanescence. Assimilation is a malady our societies proliferate.
I grew up in a D.C. suburb where I represented diversity to everyone but myself. Although the thick hair and dark skin made it hard to not protrude in every class picture, I did not choose to see myself as any different. I spoke with a seamless American accent (thank you PBS Kids), played on my town’s girls soccer league throughout elementary school and sang songs of a faith different from my own in a sublimely homogeneous county choir. Nonetheless, as much as I could define myself beyond cultural heritage, those around me relegated my identity to that of “outsider.”
For many children of immigrants, the social ostracization that begins as early as pre-kindergarten is only a precursor to the societal forces wishing you to forfeit your identity for the sake of integration. My father’s Hausa-Fulani robes and mother’s mispronunciations would often embarrass me (or as my mother would say, “ehm-baa-rass”) because of the fear of alienation that underwrote my experience as a dark face in a sea of Caucasians. Perhaps it is because darkness was so frequently equated with horror, the younger rendition of myself felt unsafe in seemingly borrowed skin.
There is an important distinction to be made between assimilation and integration. While integration reinforces a firm grasp on the majority culture, including language, values, religions, hierarchies and more, assimilation encourages a cross-influence whereby the minority culture can eventually be accepted by the majority one. Integration values quickly adopting the status quo at the expense of meaningful transitions, and dissuades the minority culture from steadfastly holding prior aspects of their identities.
While of course integration can work as a two-way process whereby difference introduces potential conflict but harmony can eventually concludes the tale, assimilation can create a market for accent-therapy, hair-straightening products and other industries advocating conformity more generally. On the other hand, integration also seeks to promote a wholesome adoption of the identity “American,” but this time not necessarily creating an environment where abandoning affectation for one’s culture may be an advantage.
In a culture of assimilation, for example, immigrants and their children’s voices are not heard without conjured “American” accents. When I was young, I rarely heard characters that sounded like my parents. Yet, I was able to see one aspect of my identity in very few. Today, the racial diversity in kids’ television shows gives me hope; but, there is still more to be done to include immigrants and first-generation kids.
I remember Cyberchase, an animated television show that helped me “see math everywhere,” not for its riveting interactive math games and hilariously clumsy Hacker’s henchmen, Buzz and Delete, nor do I remember it for the compelling introduction song. Rather, it was the brown girl with a big bun and even bigger brain, Jackie, who represented something I could latch to. Her sense of order, melodrama and adventure were all qualities rarely attributed to the rare stereotypical bland side-kick characters whom I perceived to look like me. Although Jackie’s familial background remains unknown, the power of representation, accessibility and a culture of inclusion is quite the contrary. Given the impact of this single character, there can be much more done to uplift immigrants and first-generation kids, in addition to racial minorities.
To wholeheartedly embrace one’s “foreign” accent is no simple feat. Not compromising one’s intuitions of comfort and respectability is a skill not for the faint-hearted. In a world in which sacrificing your identity for the sake of integration is lauded, the value of celebrating counter-cultures remains understated.
Today, I can proudly profess my love for jollof rice, a popular Western African dish. I am dignified by the languages I speak, and the tongue that connects me with people throughout the sub-Saharan. My parents’ accents fall softly on appreciative ears, reassuring me that this country truly can welcome all. As estranging as the name-calling, inadequacy of representation and pressure to conform can become, I am thankful for the resilience these anti-foreigner, anti-American, intentional and unintentional demonstrations of chauvinism have cultivated.
To my fellow first-generationers, our hidden languages, celebrations and cultural norms may still distinguish us from whatever “the norm” has been fashioned to co-opt. It is up to us to use these wrongfully manifested resentments for the fostering of a more enthused appreciation and pride for the diversity we represent. Furthermore, studies have shown that guilt is one of the biggest struggles facing first-generation college students, and universities are often weary to address grievances. Calling attention to them in our intimate circles is just the beginning.
Amidst a dismal political landscape, time to reflect on the apolitical has never been as auspicious. After all, appreciation and togetherness need not fall along partisan lines. Recognizing cultural biases, reaching out to the “other” (and in turn shattering those constructs) and importantly holding on to our senses of self, will serve our communities today and tomorrow.
All immigrants and nonimmigrants have a role to play in genuinely putting words of inclusion, liberty and respect into action; space for diversity is ubiquitous throughout classrooms, cafeterias, grocery stores, the entertainment industry and beyond. The burden to correct the alienating prejudices found in these places falls on us all.
Sabriyya Pate is a Trinity sophomore. Her column, “in formation,” runs on alternate Mondays.
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Sabriyya Pate is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternate Mondays.