An excerpt from Beyond Expectations: Second-Generation Nigerians in the United States and Britain
Idowu Damola grew up in a poor family in a very bad neighborhood in a large New Jersey City. He recalls walking along the glass-strewn block where he lived, “with people yelling and screaming and fighting. It was a pretty run down place.” His big break came when he won a full scholarship to an elite all-boys prep school in Connecticut. After he graduated, Idowu went on to study business and finance at Yale University, one of the top twenty-five universities in the United States. At the time I spoke with him, Idowu had just started working as an investment broker on Wall Street. To get there, he had taken advantage of affirmative action opportunities available to black people in the United States. His progression from a “run down” street in urban New Jersey to a coveted white collar job on Wall Street is an American success story, a story that exemplifies the promise many immigrants see in America.
Idowu acknowledges that he has benefited from being black in America, but he does not identify as African American—even though he is of African ancestry. To him, being black does not mean the same thing as being African American. He sees African immigrants, both the first and the second generation, as psychically and culturally different from African Americans. He says, “African Americans by and large in this country have had a very distinct experience, socially and culturally, and for whatever reason that experience [of slavery, Jim Crow] has become a sort of a chain, a weight to many African-American individuals. They have a lot of problems that maybe are caused by external forces acting on them. But, you know, by and large it is also their fault in the immediate sense, but it might not necessarily be their fault when you take a cultural or social historical look at it. But I am just not associated with that. Those chains that are weighing them down don’t weigh me down.”
He says, “I am obviously not a white American. I don’t feel that I am an African American. I don’t feel that I have strong cultural ties to that group, and I don’t really, can’t identify with them.” He identifies as Nigerian, but acknowledges that he is an ethnic hybrid, saying “I can’t even claim to be a real Nigerian. I don’t know enough. I don’t appreciate enough about being Nigerian because, look, it isn’t really my stuff.” He is caught in between, a feeling shared by many of the second generation of Nigerian ancestry, especially those who were born in their parents’ host country and who have not lived outside it except for brief vacations. Idowu concludes his commentary on his identity by saying “I think of myself as a beast of no nation.”
Michelle Anoke is a barrister, a highly coveted profession in Britain. She was born and has lived in Britain all her life. She is married to a first-generation Nigerian and has two children. I interviewed her in her home in an upper middle class neighborhood in London. Michelle was raised by a single mom whose finances were devastated after divorcing Michelle’s wealthy father. She was forced to remove Michelle and her sister from the private elementary school they were attending and place them in the local comprehensive, which, according to Michelle, was “okay, not bad and not great.” In school and in her neighborhood, Michelle had a “rough time” getting along with most of her Black-Caribbean peers. Growing up, she had attended a predominantly Caribbean school, and she quickly found “what seemed to be a very big difference between children who were of African parentage and Caribbean parentage” because “in the 1980’s, it was not fashionable to be of African extraction at all.” Africans were bullied by their Caribbean peers, and “the bullying took the form of name calling, lots of ‘you’re African,’ laughing at our hair – my mom used to do our hair in thread and they would laugh at us. I was called ‘spider head’ throughout my years in secondary school.”
Michelle sees discrimination as something black people face in Britain every day. Her experiences of discrimination were not confined to school, nor were Caribbeans the only people to treat her as a second-class citizen. “It doesn’t surprise me. It doesn’t particularly disappoint me [to be discriminated against] because I have a low expectation in terms of what I’m going to be given by white people. I don’t expect anything. I don’t even expect, on a day to day basis, a ‘hello’ because English people are notorious for saying hello, having a chat with you one day, and the next day, they don’t know you.” Partly as a result of this, Michelle does not identify as British. “‘Black British’ was not a phrase used in my house because you’re not British. So, I don’t ever consider myself to be Black British. I tell people I am a British-born Nigerian.”
Focusing on questions of identity, Beyond Expectations examines the nature of second generation Nigerians incorporation in the United States and Britain. Up until this book, we knew relatively little about the nature of second generation African adults incorporation into British and American society because second generation assimilation theories and most existing research on the black second generation have focused on the Caribbean second generation. Furthermore, none of these studies fully explicated the processes and mechanisms that impact identity formation among second generation blacks from highly selective immigrant populations. This book does this. The key objective of this book is to understand how, in combination, race, ethnicity, and class (both parental and individual) affect the identity formation process and assimilation trajectories of the adult second generation of Nigerian ancestry in the United States and Britain.