Campus Racism: The “Other” African American Students

Mustafa Jumale, a Somali American student at the University of Minnesota, has been blogging on experiences there and in South Africa. Here is what he just sent me about some of his own experiences and insights about the experiences of other African-origin students:

The experiences of Black South African and African American students at historically white universities and predominantly white universities are both problematic and unique. South Africa has had a black democratic government since the fall of the Apartheid government. However, incidents at the University of the Orange Free State University, in which a few “white” South African students asked university housing employees to participate in a game. The students asked the employees to eat food, which contained urine. Moreover, these [white] students video recorded the game and entered it in a competition that was facilitated by students that were employed by the university as resident assistants; furthermore, these students won the best documentary for their video. In the United States, ever year we hear about white students participating in parities with racial themes in Black History Month, like the recent incident at University of California-San Diego.

After the elections of former President Nelson Mandela and President Barack Obama, media outlets enabled a discourse, in which these countries were referred to as “post-racial.” As a Somali American at a predominately white university in the Midwest, I understand the struggles of being black and Muslim. My senior honors thesis is entitled “Post-Racial” Societies: A comparative study of South Africa and the United States. I argue that “post-raciality” is in and within itself problematic. I used ethnographic methods and qualitative approaches to examine the “Black” South African experience and “African American” experience at historically white universities and predominantly white universities in South Africa and the United States. Moreover, I opened the discourse to students at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and the University of the Western Cape by using a blog and facebook to generate discussion and to collect narratives of the experiences of students.

Here is an excerpt from an article from the Mshale (local African community) newspaper cited on his blog on some Somali Americans’ experiences in Minnesota:

“‘Minnesota nice’ at this university is covert racism,” Jumale said . . . just outside the university’s West Bank campus. Jumale’s sentiments stem from observation and interviews he conducted of least a dozen students for a research paper he wrote about the experiences of “Somali College Students at a Predominantly White Institution.” In his research, Jumale heard from a Somali honor student who majored in English Literature but was told by a professor on the first day of class that the course was “too advanced.” Then there was another student who told him he received a D in a term paper because, according to the professor, “the words in your essay are not words you would be able to understand.” But no grievance was more common than alleged harassment by the university’s police. Jumale heard complaints about police officers randomly searching Somali students’ supposedly looking for stolen property. Others complained about being asked to provide IDs while white students walked by uninterrupted. … It wasn’t until last October, when a police officer detained three Somali students for robbery, that Jumale and his fellow students realized that these were no trivial issues. …. Shafii Osman, a 19-year-old sophomore majoring in Biology, said he and two of his friends were walking from the university gym to a nearby MacDonald when an undercover police officer stopped them and asked for their IDs. . . . After looking at their IDs and searching their pockets, the officer allegedly said they “fit the description” of “East African males” who had just robbed Subway…. Osman said the officer ordered them into the car and took them to Subway.….. Despite the Subway employees’ failure to identify the men who had committed the crime a few minutes earlier, the officer allegedly asked Osman and his friends to pay for the sandwiches or risk criminal charges. They chose the latter. … With the help of an attorney, the three students were able to get their cases dismissed. But for one of Osman’s co-defendants, who did not want to be identified, the whole ordeal was so damaging that said he is still struggling to understand it. “It caused me a so much stress,” the friend said. “I was approaching exams with the possibility of being sent to jail.”

This is a common experience for native-born African American college students, as reported in research studies by social scientists on historically white campuses. And such academic and policing incidents are now becoming more commonplace for the “other African Americans” as they are sometimes called. They too are often viewed by many whites from the same white racial framing that has long negatively portrayed those African Americans whose ancestry goes back generations in the United States. BTW, Social scientists Yoku Shaw-Taylor and Steven Tuch have a very good edited book with chapters on various subgroups within this increasingly diverse group, titled The Other African Americans: Contemporary African and Caribbean Families in the United States.