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Perception vs. reality: An African in the diaspora

There is no denying that America, as the home many nationalities with diverse cultures and languages, faced and continues to face a number of socio-economic and political challenges. It is common knowledge by now, that America suffers from self-induced disease known as racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia and Islamophobia, writes Alem Asres.

What compelled me to write this article on diaspora and share with my fellow Africans, especially with Ethiopians, is what I have heard from some Ethiopian youth during my recent visit. What I gathered from my conversation with fellow Ethiopians and from watching Ethiopian-produced TV shows, was the fact that Ethiopians have distorted and rather unrealistic views of the United States. I heard some Ethiopians, not only describe America as heaven on earth, a paradise, and the land of golden opportunities, but also that they will do anything and bear any burden to immigrate to America in search of those golden opportunities. Visiting Ethiopians from the United States were not only welcomed with open arms by their fellow Ethiopians, but also were treated like kings and queens returning from forced exile. They spend their hard earned money like multi-millionaires without telling what they had to do to earn it. Their social behavior combined with their generosity in spending their money left an impression that there is gold to be dug and dollars to be picked like fruits from a tree in America. I gathered also, to my surprise, that the term “diaspora” has been given new and respectable meaning and Ethiopians living in the diaspora are envied.

Given my experiences in living, schooling, and working in various public and private institutions, I am driven to share with my fellow Ethiopians the truth about the United States as I have and continue to see.  Please keep in mind that I am not trying to change anyone’s perception about the United States, or dissuade anyone from immigrating to America, but to inform those determined to leave their homeland, that there is price a person of African origin may pay for the perceived opportunities in America. Indeed, there is opportunity if one is willing to take jobs which Euro-Americans would not, like working as a janitor cleaning public bathrooms, as parking lots attendant, making beds in hotels, motels and hospitals, as doorman and porter in hotels, taxi-drivers, work in restaurants for less than minimum wages to support one’s self and family and tolerate of been treated as subhuman whose skin color is seen as a mark of degradation. Not to mention racial profiling while driving to and from work.  It is difficult, if not impossible for me to describe objectively the life of an African in America. However, I found it to be informative to share what both Euro-Americans and African Americans wrote on such subject with the reader.

Almost 200 years ago, Lester F. Ward wrote: “The fallacy of race superiority has outdone that of intellectual aristocracy and caused unbelievable misery and bloodshed. There is no better or noble blood, there are no inferior races or peoples, only undeveloped and stunted ones.” And in 1992, Joseph Lattimore wrote: “Being a person of color in America is like being forced to wear ill-fitting shoes. Some people adjust to it.  It’s always uncomfortable on your foot, but you have got to wear it because it’s the only shoe you have got”.  In 1994, Cornel West, in his book Race Matters, said: “race in America”…Leaves us intellectually debilitated, morally disempowered, and personally depressed.”

There is no denying that America, as the home many nationalities with diverse cultures and languages, faced and continues to face a number of socio-economic and political challenges. It is common knowledge by now, that America suffers from self-induced disease known as racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia and Islamophobia.  It is a country that has been trying, for several decades, to increase the numbers of women and people of color in its private and public institutions of education, government and industries. While considerable progress has been made in increasing the representation of the traditionally underrepresented groups, very little work has been done to foster understanding, respect and recognition for what a person of African origin brings to the table.

We live and work in the world where economic and cultural borders are fading away.  Advances in transportation, communication and the electronic linkage have allowed people of all nations to transcend both geographic and cultural boundaries.  Marshall McLuhan expressed it eloquently when he described our world as a “global village.”  Our success, in this highly competitive and borderless world, will depend upon how we interact with each other nationally and internationally.  Fostering and promoting cross-cultural communication, therefore, means understanding and accepting the cultural values of our co-workers, teachers, students and individual members of our national and international communities.

Developing multiethnic and multicultural perspectives to address cultural diversity question and to prepare diverse workforce to meet the challenges of the 21st century and beyond is a global concern indeed. Learning to accept and respect other peoples' cultures and developing a genuine cross-cultural communication skill is crucial if we are to continue to prosper as a multiethnic, multicultural and multigenerational society.

Defining culture is not easy.  In fact, there is no universal definition for culture that I know of.  And yet, most of our actions—from the way we walk, talk, and think, to the way we sit and eat our food—is guided by something we call culture.  The manner in which we communicate with each other and how we interpret what has been communicated, or not been communicated, is in part determined by our cultural background.  In terms of cross-cultural communication, what is perceived as rational, reasonable and important to a person from one culture may seem to be utterly irrational, unreasonable and totally unimportant to a person from another culture.  In our global village of clashing ideologies fueled by ethnic, gender and religion-driven tensions, a person may take an innocent remark or, even, a complementary statement by a person from one culture as a deliberate insult from another culture. Examples abound to illustrate this assertion.  Assessing, therefore, the behaviors or intentions of individuals from other culture, as we often do, is likely to lead to assessments based on inaccurate assumptions and treatments that are irrelevant and more damaging.

Culture has its own code and the code varies greatly from country to country, and from culture to culture. These cultural codes are transmitted from generation to generation guiding the individual how to function in a given society.  The knowledge of and the ability to decode other peoples' culture will help us to know and appreciate our own cultures better.  It will help us to reduce religious, ethnic, gender, and cultural misunderstanding, prejudice and pejorative stereotyping.

Our world is composed of diverse people and diverse cultures.  America is no exception. When we examine the cultural picture of the United States objectively, however, we see a multiethnic and multicultural society in appearance with well-oiled and rationalized monocultural institutions of higher education in practice.  Its educational system remains Eurocentric.  Kevin Harris once described education as “perception-altering drug.”  In the area of ethnic relations, the socialization and the education we received (reinforced by written and electronic media) have seriously altered our perceptions of each other.  For years, the educational institutions have been transmitting and promoting, intentionally or unintentional, to the world an assumption of white superiority over non-whites.  Most of us, be it in the United States or in colonial Africa and Asia, grew up without learning the truth about people of color, their cultures and their many contributions in the area of science and technology to our universe.  As educators, we teach what our society taught us.  Whether we accept it or not, what we have been taught and socialized to believe is far from providing us with well-reasoned, quantified and quantifiable philosophical foundations to change our “mental models” and to promote respect for cultures other than European cultures.

To repeat what, Lester F. Ward said more than a hundred years ago: “education as the first and final remedy for the evils of society is not only man’s deadliest weapon against dogma or reaction, but also the strongest instrument for the reconstruction of society.”  The task ahead of us, therefore, will not be accomplished without collective efforts in developing meaningful and self-empowering education for all our citizens regardless of their ethnicity, gender and socio-economic background.  If we are to succeed in addressing cross-cultural communication problem facing our society today, our attitudes toward the education of people of color need to change from “we have to” to that “we want to.”  Our public and private institutions and their leading representatives need to engage in creating a multilayered and self-reinforcing strategies and actions on national and international levels.

There is no denying that some of us are consciously trying to uncover our own biases and perceptual filters that hinder our ability to accept and respect the diversity of our world.  Nor can we deny of the existence of other voices telling us that learning and teaching the cultures and the contributions of men and women of color “will unglue our nation” and that multicultural education presents a threat to our national unity.  In my opinion, knowledge based recognition and respect for all cultures will strengthen our national unity and help us gain global respect.  Individual and institutional racism and sexism has been and continues to be the most powerful roadblock to national unity and international cooperation.  Fostering and promoting culturally diverse workforce calls for the rejection of all forms of racism, sexism and for modification of our social philosophy reflective our universe.

It pays to remember that America was built by the sweat and blood of men and women brought by force from Africa to serve as slaves. Later, the flow of immigrants from all over the world combined with well-established and diverse, ethnic, and cultural groups have contributed to the enrichment of the fabric of American society.”  However, in the interest of promoting Eurocentric notion of white supremacy, the contributions of the people of color, ranging from dust-pan-to satellite-dish and from labor-saving to life-saving devises remain hidden from the world.  Educators and writers everywhere are duty bound to educate our youth the truth about African, Asian, South American and Native-American people and their many contributions to America and the world. We must commit our intellectual energy and our material resources to developing and promoting education aimed at changing our “mental models” concerning race, gender and cultures.  Only then, can we expect and insist that our fellow citizens recognize, accept, and celebrate each other and create culture inclusive living, learning and working environment.

More than 100 years ago, W. E. B. Du-Bois, a noted African-American educator, philosopher, and civil rights leader, wrote: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.”  Indeed, that “color line” strengthened by individual and institutional racism has kept us separate and unequal.  Racism and racial hatred continues to keep most of us ignorant of the many contributions made by generations of men and women of color.  Ethnic and gender based discrimination and stereotype remains as a major barrier to equal accesses to education, housing employment and equal pay for equal works in America to this day.  It serves as a roadblock to ethnic, gender and cultural inclusivism in our education and to creating workplace climate that nurtures and promotes respect for humanity—humanity of color.

The call for cross-cultural communication skills and for the development of diverse workforce must not be viewed as a call for just increasing the number of historically underrepresented groups in our respective institutions and industries.  It must be viewed as a call for multicultural education that carries with it the suggestion that our educational system, and indeed, our pedagogy’s as well as our social philosophy should be modified to address both the concrete and abstract realities of our global society.  If we are truly committed to developing our human capital and to preparing culturally diverse workforce for the 21st century and beyond, our industry and our educational institutions must shift their framework from one that focuses solely on recruiting people of color to survive in what seem to be an alien world, to creating an inclusive environment conducive for academic, social and professional growth and development.

The central purpose of this article is to describe the realities that would be faced by people of African origin in America as I have faced them, and to remind my fellow Ethiopians to think seriously before they leave their homeland, their family and friends for perceived “golden opportunities” outside Ethiopia.  Remember this, if you have unshakable determination and unwavering enthusiasm for good life, you can create the “golden opportunities” you seek in your own backyard without waiting for ideal occasion.  History tells us that opportunities are created every day by men and women just like you.  Remember also the saying, “there is no place like home”.  I hope that the readers will find this article to be useful in making informed decisions.

Ed.’s Note: Alem Asres (PhD), (former Alemayehu Wondemagegnehu) earned his Doctor of Philosophy  in  Social  Foundations  of  Education  with  emphasis  on Comparative and Multicultural Education from the University of Maryland, College  Park. He  received  his  MA  degree  in  Urban Sociology  and  Urban Planning  from  Howard  University, Washington DC, and his BA in Political Science with emphasis in International Relations, from the University of Maryland, College Park. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].