Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Maybe It Does Matter If You're Black or White (African)

Some 20 years ago, a white roommate once asked me -- half-joking: "If an Afrikaner South African moved to the United States and became a citizen, would he and his offspring be considered 'African American'?" I said, I guess so -- also in a somewhat semi-serious/semi-not manner.

It's no laughing matter these days.

Paulo Serodio, a Mozambique-born student at a New Jersey medical school is suing the institution for permitting serial harassment to occur after he responded to a question about cultural heritage by identifying himself as "white African-American."

Now, I certainly want to hear the school's response: On the face f it, the case brings together two awful trends in contemporary American society -- academic PC run amok, on the one side vs. personal aggrievement-sparked litigation on the other.

But based on the facts as put forward by the plaintiff, he seems to have a pretty good case. Assuming that there wasn't any overt, intentional, harassment of other students by Paulo Serodio, it appears to me that the university's administration reacted awfully to this situation. It doesn't surprise me that students would be offended by a white person describing themselves as "African American." But that's why instructors are supposed to be able to recognize teachable moments and get a real conversation going.

Of course, as noted above, this sort of thing could have been foreseen decades ago -- as soon as the term "African American" came to be more popularized, replacing "black" in many instances. As soon as the current American descendants of African slaves chose to use geographic location as shorthand for ethnic identification (as opposed to the older, more clinical, descriptors -- Caucasian, Negro, Asian, etc), such problems were bound to crop up in a much closer global village. There are millions of first-generation dark-skinned Africans living throughout Europe and the United States. Are such people "French/German/Italian/etc" or are they "French-African" (counting the ones born in France), "German-African," etc.?

In the U.S., is an Ethiopian New York City cab river who gets his citizenship an "African-American" in the same way that a kid who grew up in the South Bronx his entire life? Of course not, yet they both can be referred to in the same way. Society -- and census documents -- tell me that my ethnicity is "African-American" -- even as I embrace my status as a natural born Trinidadian-American ( raised on the right).

This New Jersey case may turn out to be nothing; Serodio may have overstated the criticism he got. However, one never knows the full twist and turns of once the lawyers are involved. A settlement may go well beyond whatever monetary compensation the litigant seeks. It may help shine some useful light on a diverse, yet still racially obsessed society.

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