My more than five years living in America has definitely had its ups and downs. I think of the great people I’ve met. How African-Americans (or other people of colour) have helped create many amazing memories for me. Over the years, they have also made up a huge chunk of my support system.
However, I can’t ignore the more challenging situations. The ones that were not only traumatic, but also happened with people that I have a lot in common with. When thinking of the toxic people my friends and I have encountered, there are so many avenues this article could go down. Be it gay white men who are sexist, racist or engage in cultural appropriation, straight black men who mistreat black women, or women who are blatantly transphobic. With my most recent occurrence in mind, I want to tap into the strange hierarchies some black women enforce on each other.
It was Friday night at a bar in Downtown Los Angeles. A friend (let’s call her Jade) and I, were having a much-needed catch up. Jade told me that another friend of hers was on her way. She was a fellow queer black woman (I’ll call her Tasha). Right after we exchanged names, Tasha asked me where I was from and how long I had lived in America. When I told her I was from London, her tone took an unexpected turn. “So answer me this,” she told me: “why is it that black immigrants always think they’re so much better than African Americans?” When I told her how inaccurate that statement was, she replied with a rant that heavily resembled something from a Trump rally.
I sat there in disbelief while Tasha explained her beef with immigrants. She said were “coming in and taking all the jobs” which she believed prevented African Americans from advancing in society and getting their reparations. Her go to phrase was: “Immigration is a detriment to black American life”. While mentioning immigrants from all races, she had a particular problem with black immigrants (especially Nigerians), and felt that our time in this country was only met with ease and privilege. “I don’t have a problem with you personally,” she told me. “I actually have tons of immigrant friends. But you need to understand that as long as you live in America, you are part of the problem”.
“I couldn’t accept that someone who fell under more than one minority identity would be pushing so much hate onto others”
That statement alone should have showed me her very distorted view of the truth. Yet in the moment, I tried (and failed miserably) to reason with her. I couldn’t accept that someone who fell under more than one minority identity would be pushing so much hate onto others. Hate that flew out of her mouth as she asked me: “I’m not saying you should leave the country, but if you moved to the States knowing that things weren’t perfect, then why are you here?”
This isn’t the first time my presence in the country has bothered someone. While I’ve experienced every kind of -ism and –phobia from white people, African Americans were the ones who told me to go back to London, one even threatening to call immigration and get me deported. The list only grew after the controversial comments from Samuel L Jackson. A discussion I was having with Africans Americans about ways to unite and create solutions was met with remarks from a few “friends” who suddenly had an issue with me being an actress. One went as far to say: “step down, know your place and never play an American role again”.
I’m not sure what made that night worse. The fact that I was way too familiar with her mindset, or the physical similarities Tasha and I had shared. Like me, she had shaved sides with twisted, coily hair on top. We both had multiple nose rings, a medium skin tone and small, slanted eyes. I literally saw myself in her. Yet she refused to do the same because she couldn’t get over where I was from.
How does one deal with this? How do you tolerate this behaviour when the person behind it (in many ways) is just like you? I posed these questions to a Zimbabwean friend the next day. “You don’t,” she told me. “The moment you realise the direction in which things are going, make it clear that’s a conversation you’re not going to have. She wants you to be the respectable immigrant who agrees with her, and you have to make it clear that you’re not the one”.
“We cannot fully unite unless we also dismantle the ways in which we tear each other down”
There is no denying that racism and sexism are the main perpetrators behind lots of our problems. However, solving these two things alone won’t fully rid us of the issues within black and PoC communities. This is not to say that anything we go through is solely our fault, but it’s important to always call out toxic behaviour whenever we see it. We can’t find it unacceptable from a white person, yet give a black woman a pass in the same breath. We cannot fully unite unless we also dismantle the ways in which we tear each other down, ways that aren’t always tied to white supremacy.
I am here for all black women (even the ones who aren’t here for me), but I will no longer tolerate behaviour from the toxic ones just to maintain the idea that all black women must stick together. As much as that should be the ultimate goal, it should never come at someone’s detriment. I’d rather focus on the African American women who truly have my best interest in mind – women who were the first to comfort me when dealing with these harrowing situations. Who emphasised the value of my voice and presence in America. The ones who see my nationality as a strength, instead of a novelty or something that’s getting in their way. We need to listen and give space to each other in the same way we expect white people and black men to do the same for us. If one kind of black woman can advance in the world while another is being left behind, progress is not being made.