The second motif at play in a lot of the commentary I’m seeing in the internet-wide Enin commentary deals with a variation of the model minority myth that is equal parts embraced and reviled, oftentimes by the same people: that of the successful black immigrant. One can learn a lot - about racism, about preconceived notions, and about expectations - through examination of this motif. Pre-internet buzz, Enin, like many high-achieving black youths, likely presented two faces to the world. The inner face - seen by his family friends, allies, classmates, and teachers - is that of a hard-working, dedicated kid. They saw someone with goals and the means to achieve them. They saw a person. The outer face may very well unknowingly present Enin as a threat, a “thug”, or at best, an Urkel. An object. Trayvon was viewed as an object - before and after death. As was Jordan. As was Rekia. As are thousands and black and Latin@ kids every year in New York City and beyond. As Enin had no choice in presenting the two faces, he may, despite all of his achievement, be powerless to avoid navigating two worlds that coincide with them.
Some of the most sophisticated racists take joy at constructing/ maintaining these worlds and at playing off the distinction between black immigrants (like Enin) and black Americans. The pattern repeats itself in elite institutions, workplaces, and circles of “diverse” friends. “The good ones”, oftentimes immigrants, are given a seat - two if they’re lucky - whereas black Americans are more readily left out unless they have considerable class privilege. In my experience, black Africans and black Americans aren’t much better at tempering their interpersonal tensions, with the domestics castigating the assimilationist mindset of the former while the immigrants minimize the struggles of the latter. Considering how controversial an issue the achievement gap between black immigrants and black Americans is, the actual explanation for it has always seemed straightforward, if not downright boring to me. Ta-Nehisi Coates explains:
"It always seemed to me that the question answers itself—an immigrant is someone who’s specifically come to this country to capitalize and exploit opportunity. Comparing any immigrant group to virtually any native-born group is like comparing the most ambitious members of one team with the entirety of another team. This is to say nothing of whatever skills, education and wealth a particular immigrant group may bring to bear…I think it’s very hard to accept what’s happened to black people in this country post-slavery. I think we can accept that we had slaves—most countries did. But very few followed it up with the Klan and Jim Crow.”
Note the emphasized portion above - and let’s get to know each other a bit while we do so. I am the first son of Nigerian-born immigrants. Doctor dad and pharmacist mom. Doctor’s brother - my uncle - also a doctor - also a prominent political figure - was working on his Ph.D. stateside when dad piggybacked. Dad piggybacked with a piggybank’s worth of money - $50 (about $300 today). He’d kill me if I left that out. Jump ahead a few years, everyone on my dad’s side is successful in either the States or Nigeria. The latter only allows travel to the former via visa. Visas are awarded by lottery, but, like everything else in Nigeria, lotteries can be rigged. Rigging requires skills. Education. Wealth. Influence. (Usually though, just the wealth will do.) We hit quite a few jackpots.
If that story reads awfully detached to you, it’s because it’s not my story. It’s our story - the black immigrant story, where our Rangers are constantly being compared to the Privates of an army traversing different terrain. So, to answer Coates: skills, education, and wealth contribute heavily to the any achievement gulf, actual or perceived. You’d think, then, that bigots would be less focused on questions of “why are The Blacks so baaaaad” and more on incentives for fostering practices that lead to increased achievement and more comfortable livelihoods for all black folks in America. Tough solutions require mirrors, however, and those who pit immigrants and black Americans against one another are awfully self-conscious about the snakes in their own hair.
Some of the slightly less sophisticated racists point out that it was unnecessary, if not harmful to non-black students, for Enin to apply to all of the Ivies instead of the 2-5 Ivies that elite students ordinarily apply to. I’ll help y’all out a bit more. When Yung Crasstoise was still young Crasstoise, I, with helicoparental assistance, applied to no less than 15 schools. No, that wasn’t a typo. Of course my mom knew damn well that I wasn’t going to attend 15 great-to-elite schools all at once. I didn’t even carry that many saved games in my favorite JRPGs. Rather, we/she simply didn’t care about the obvious impracticality. The point of getting accepted to all of those schools was to show that I could. My family came from dirt roads, selling dirt bread and dirty water to stave off returning to that same dirt. The fact that the great grandsons and daughters of colonizers were now groveling to associate with me was as radical an anti-racist act as my family could fathom. Plus, it made for great dinner conversation when like-minded immigrant families visit! As Enin now knows, it makes for even better conversation when the whole fucking internet is tipped off.
Racism, like any other human construct, is contingent, multifaceted, and self-contradicting. In practice, this results in smart black folks having to deal with lots of reverse Pandora’s Box situations where incompetence, criminality, and a host of other negative associations are presumed until (easily) shown otherwise. What becomes a mindblowing experience to the cop who finds out that the “suspicious” man he stopped just flashed ID of the most prestigious college in the area becomes another skirmish in the war against banal evil to me. Hopefully, Enin’s 15 minutes will inoculate him from that. None of us signed up for this, but we fight all the same. Some of us are more willing to stuff another set of preconceived notions into our Boxes than other. Some of us reached capacity long ago. All of us, however, are well-versed in multiple cultural worlds - usually far more so than they are in us.