America

America 6: “I Would Like Some Fried Chicken.”

This is the 6th article in my America series. The series would probably be incomplete if I didn’t write about race. I should state that I am in no way an expert on race – I didn’t even study anything race-related at school. My only qualification is that I am a human being, albeit one with quite a bit of melanin on his skin.

In Zimbabwe, I had grown up with black people only. Racism was virtually non-existent to me. I only knew it from high school history classes, apartheid being the epitome. The only thing I noticed about white people when I did meet them, is that we gave them the utmost respect – revering them, really. They were the gold standard. When I set out for the US, that is what I expected – more of the inferiority complex. I didn’t expect any outright racism, to be honest. Of course, what I experienced was nothing like I anticipated.

Foremost, the inferiority complex wasn’t present. Everyone was at Stanford partly because they’d all excelled during their high school years. If they could do it, I thought, and I could do it too, then there was no difference between me and them – just the melanin content. Many people felt like that. They seemed oblivious of our respective races. We were all just students studying together. Just students. It was that environment that helped me effortlessly become color blind. It was all thanks to the Stanford Bubble, as we called this Utopian island of young adult students.

It was in the Bubble where I asked a friend from a Christian fellowship to teach me a bit of the ‘Southern’ accent. She was from Dallas, Texas – she had the Texas flag, cowboy boots and a big truck. She was very excited to get to teach me the accent, and she immediately picked the one sentence I would learn: “Ah-woold-lahk-som’-frah-I-d-chick’n.” At the time, I did not even pick up any hint of a stereotype. All I knew was that Diana* was teaching me a bit of the Southern accent. I was glad when she told me my accent was good, and I’d gladly oblige whenever she asked me to repeat the phrase to everyone else. “I would like some fried chicken,” I would say, with a wide smile. They’d erupt in laughter.

And it was all good in the Bubble.

But then the United States of America came in and re-framed things. Once I found out that black-people-love-fried-chicken was a common stereotype, I was taken aback. It was a fact that I love(d) fried chicken. But then here it was a stereotype. But what’s a stereotype anyway? Still, why did Diana choose that particular phrase for me to recite in a Southern accent? At this point, all the laughter I’d drawn by proclaiming my love for fried chicken took a whole new meaning. The Bubble had burst right into my eyes.

Little by little, I began to pick up on more of these racially non-neutral statements. While I was doing an internship in California, outside the Bubble, a mentor said this to me: “you should apply for that scholarship from the Corrosion Institute. Do put your picture – it will give you an edge. Put your picture – it will give you an edge,” he repeated for emphasis. He actually thought I didn’t get it, but I did. My melanin-rich face would do the trick. On another time, I walked into a fast food place with three of my (black) friends. A white gentleman greeted us, before asking, rather loudly, “What sports do you play at Stanford?” He had seen our Stanford T-shirts, but the melanin gave us away. It gave me away. It passed me off as a 5 foot 7, 135 pound football player on a sports scholarship at Stanford University.

For a neutral reader, some of the things I have taken exception to may seem childish. If we love fried chicken, so what? If many black students get great sports scholarships from universities, so what? The reality is that America adds a whole dimension to it. Everything has a meaning, albeit a different one for each person. That is why fried chicken stereotypes may be simple observation to some people; but those same stereotypes may have dark, racist connotations for some people. It is all in the context.

You may wonder if I was offended by these things…

I’d say I always brushed them off – until they actually did hit home. It wasn’t the melanin that did the trick. It was Africa that did. Once I began to routinely hear “…the starving kids of Africa,” the “…misogynistic African men,” “…the failed African states” and the “…African tribal wars,” I knew the stereotype bug had hit too close to home. I’d seen the starving kids, I’d seen misogynistic men, I came from a failed state and I’d seen tribal tension – but that wasn’t what Africa was/is. Suddenly, I was defensive. Of course I was because I was offended!

The biggest surprise of it all was that some of these things came from African Americans/Black Americans. And then I really knew that it wasn’t just the skin color – at least for me. Being from Africa trumped being black. That realization rocked my boat. Because, while I walked as a human being on earth, I also walked as a black man in America, and also as an African in the world…it was a struggle, a confusing experience.

What did/do I make of it all?

I don’t know, but when I flew back into “Africa, the motherland” – I lost it all somehow. Somewhere in the middle of failed states, of tribal tension, of misogyny, and of inhumane suffering, I enjoyed a piece of fried chicken in peace.

*pseudonym

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19 thoughts on “America 6: “I Would Like Some Fried Chicken.”

  1. Lesley,
    That young woman is very unkind, a racist and the epitome of the stereotype that often places all Southern Americans in a negative group. It’s what keeps some from getting jobs outside the South, from being accepted into other communities and places us as a whole in the “ignorant and uneducated” category.

    I love to read your stories, but this one made me angry and feel the need to protect you. I think to myself, surely someone at a Christian fellowship meeting randomly picked that sentence because she was homesick and craving something from home. Maybe, but probably not.

    Yet, this story reminds me of the evening at the CBO where I worked with a predominantly Hispanic population. I had been taking different sorts of meat soups and stews to our evening meetings. While the students (and mentors who worked with the students) liked and appreciated the stews and soups, my husband and I were having a hard time paying the bills and the cost of feeding 70 or so people every week was painful and beyond sustainable. I tried everything, including the food bank, but the only solution I could find was to cut the meat from the soups and try to find something yummy that was affordable.

    Anyone who knows me, would immediately know what my solution dish would be, pinto beans and cornbread, but the amazing students in my care didn’t REALLY know me. When I asked a few of them how they’d like to have pinto beans and cornbread the next week, the response was far beyond anything I’d expected. They were offended, insulted and hurt.

    One young man’s comment is etched in my memory, and the disdain with which it was made is also something I’ll always hear when I think about that night. The young man simply said, “Why, because we’re beaners?” I had never heard that term before but I knew what he meant. I tried to explain that pinto beans and cornbread is one of my favorite dishes and is something that brings back find memories of my home, childhood and my mother. Yet, the student never responded to me the same way. He didn’t believe me, never trusted me and never forgave me.

    I hope the same thoughtlessness was at play in your situation, but in the event it wasn’t, please share this young lady’s name with me. I think we may need to have a conversation – one Southerner-Texan to another.

    Hugs and love to you.

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    • Thank you for your comment, Tracy. Yes, your story is quite interesting – that you did something that seemed to offend somebody, yet you were completely well-meaning. But then – and this happens a lot in the US – somebody took it in a different context. And the end result was bad.

      And with the lady from school, I’m still confused. Honestly, I have never thought of her as being racist or anything of that sort. Because I hadn’t initially understood what she said in a racial context, it’s always been hard to go back and think of her as being racist. And she was a very nice person…..But then she STILL CHOSE THAT PARTICULAR phrase, so perhaps…..sigh.

      I really don’t know what to make of it. So I usually just joke about it.

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  2. This was so great Lesley. I think it must be a unique experience being an African in America, where many lump black Americans and Africans in the same group and many black Americans set a distinction between the 2. U detailed it very efficiently.

    A guy from Nigeria i had spoke to about this had an interesting theory about the “divide” between black Americans and Africans. He thinks the tension exists simply because our phenotypic similarities implies some sort of imagined precedent that we have to desire to cooperate/be around each other. He noted that u wouldn’t, for example, expect an Irish or Italian to “vibe” with a black American the way u would expect an African to.

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    • Thanks for your comment, Brittany. It’s true, I was foremost African, then black, while I was in America (sometimes I was black first, depending on the setting).

      That’s an interesting theory. The other one that I heard said that most Africans who come into the US are upper middle class or rich, which creates tension with black Americans who are more diverse – from very poor to very rich. It also claims that these middle class Africans tended to look down on the black Americans (or it seemed so to the black Americans).

      I don’t know if that’s true, but there is a struggle between black Americans and black people from other parts of the world.

      I’m glad I lived in Ujamaa in my final year (black themed house) as I got more insight into the life/plight of black/African Americans. I still felt a bit of alienation though.

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  3. I think you have got to be the most “chipless” (black) person I have ever met…don’t change.
    Now there, that is not too “opinionated is it?” I’ve been working on that!
    My daughter was offered a place at a larney school in the UK – the admin were happy, cos her surname is Jackson and she comes from Africa…little did they know, the only black people with that surname come from the USA…they did everything to botch up her application once she sent in her photo. Imagine the poor (black) kid if she had discovered she didn’t get there on merit, only on melanin…
    The school often posts photos of the few Chinese and black faces they can get together on most school photographs.
    I do however think you should use your ‘blackness’ on occasion – I used my boobs and legs many times and never regretted it. Write it off as innate assets!
    At that same school, my daughter had an argument with an ethnic Nigerian…who said she was African. My daughter told her SHE was African, and the Nigerian only black!
    I concur.

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    • Haha certainly not too opinionated, Frankie, and thanks for your comment! And what a funny story about the Jackson surname! It’s pretty funny how they assumed she was black because of the surname Jackson, and they didn’t even think that she’s from ‘Africa.’ (And, by the way, a white African might have more difficulty getting into a US university than an equally qualified black African, you know).

      Hahaha *innate assets* I don’t think there are too many opportunities to use my blackness…perhaps to look tough in certain places 😀

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      • Well…at least you can get all huffy about all things “colonial” and be believed – the “liberator” inscription on the David Livingstone statue at the Falls really got up my nose – and that something was not done to address the “ideology” differences pertaining then and now…given my opinionated way, I would have stuck a whole stack of notices up pointing out that now in Zimbabwe, we don’t follow this belief…of course most people look at me strangely – very un “Rhodesian…!” as if I can’t be short of melanin and be patriotic at the same time???

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        • Haha well, from me, you can be patriotic with a bit less melanin!! Ah yes, David Livingstone, the discoverer of Victoria Falls…

          I’m actually glad I can your own perspective on this, you know!

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