Becoming African Americans: African immigrant youth in the United States and hybrid assimilation.

Author:Habecker, Shelly
Position:Report
 
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After asking Rebecca (age 14) a series of questions about her family background and friendships, we asked how she prefers to identify herself. "I am an African," she answered haltingly with a question in her voice, "but more American than African, 'cause, like, I was born there and all, but I don't, like, know all about it. Like, I'm not fully African, but I guess the fact that I was born there--I don't know, it's confusing." Rebecca came to the US as a baby and does not speak her parents' languages, nor does she remember their homeland. Nevertheless, being an American is complicated for her as well: "In a group of my black friends, I'd be the white girl .... And then with my white friends, I'd be the black one, so [laughing], I guess I'm just in the middle." Rebecca, who has a lovely, brown complexion and is not biracial, is variously regarded as culturally too white, too black, and too African, as well as not white, black or African enough depending on the context. She concluded, "I'm not ever gonna be fully American, but then again I'm not gonna be fully African. Like, I'm just gonna be there in between and working at it."

In this article, I examine the process of identity formation undertaken by youth like Rebecca with recent African origins who are members of St. Augustine Lutheran Church in the small US city of Fort Wayne, Indiana. St. Augustine is an intentionally pan-African congregation of 75-100 immigrants from 17 African countries, and thus church families have cultures, languages, and histories that differ from native-born African Americans. Meanwhile, the church's youth also typically lack a foreign accent and strong ties to their parents' homelands. As a result, they often struggle to define themselves within oversimplified US racial categories that label them as a person of African origins ('black') and African American. In the 1980s, civil rights leaders and presidential candidate Jesse Jackson in particular popularized the use of the term "African American" to describe the descendants of African slaves who have lived in the US for generations (Smith 1992), which is how I will use the term in this article. (1) However, as growing numbers of people with African origins who are immigrant youth come of age in the US, how are they responding to a racialization process that links them to the African American descendants? Are they becoming African American, which is the category, ascribed to them? Where exactly do the children of African immigrants fit within US society? These youth represent hidden diversity in the US that needs to be better understood.

The critical role of race in immigrant incorporation has been well examined, particularly among West Indians in large metropolitan areas like New York and Miami who are also closely identified with African Americans (Stepick 1998; Waters 1999; Foner 2001). These studies have important parallels with the emerging literature on people from Africa who represent a newer immigration stream (Chacko 2003; Clark 2009; Awokoya 2012; Reynolds 2012; Habecker 2012; Halter and Johnson 2014). For example, the research shows that both first-generation West Indian and African immigrants often resist racial identification with African Americans. Arriving with well-developed ethnic and national identities, these immigrants perceive African Americans as overly preoccupied with racial issues. However, their children (that is the 1.5 generation who come to the US as children and the second-generation who are born in the US) feel greater pressure to social identify as African American. Stepick (1998) illuminates distinctions between Haitian youth known

as "just comes" whose speech and dress reveal their foreign-ness versus "cover-ups" who want to pass as African Americans. He explains that prejudice and discrimination against Haitians pushes many of these youth to become "coverups." Likewise, Awokoya (2012:100) addresses how Nigerian immigrant youth seek to distance themselves from negative media images of African people as "ignorant, poverty-stricken, and uncivilized" and feel social pressure to ally themselves with African Americans. Meanwhile, they also feel parental pressure to maintain their cultural heritage and avoid identification with negative stereotypes of African Americans as "lazy, prone to criminality, and lacking familial ties."

The West Indian studies generally conclude that people of African origins ('black') who are immigrant youth experience a process of segmented assimilation. This concept, originally developed by Portes and Zhou (1993), suggests that non-white immigrants groups became part of two (or possibly three) main segments of U.S. society based on the socio-economic resources they bring and the context of their reception.

First, those from families with limited socio-economic prospects end up worse off by identifying with the African American underclass in inner city neighborhoods. Secondly, youth from families with more social and economic resources are more likely to succeed by maintaining an ethnic identity within the context of a strong, supportive ethnic community. A third option would be to assimilate into the white, mainstream, middle class as European immigrants in the early 1900s were said to have done, but this trajectory is typically not considered for people of African origins ('black') who are immigrants because of their race. While the segmented assimilation concept has evolved and become more nuanced over the last twenty years, it remains "the most important and the most controversial idea" explaining how non-white immigrants are being incorporated into US society since pivotal immigration reforms in 1965 (Stepick and Stepick 2010).

Nevertheless, African immigrants are more likely than West Indians to live in smaller US cities like Fort Wayne, which has important implications for their children's patterns of incorporation into US society that have not been sufficiently addressed. (2) While 90 percent of West Indian immigrants live in the Northeast and Florida, a third of people from Africa are scattered across the Midwest and Western states (Kent 2007:14). As a result, African immigrants are less likely than West Indians to live in segregated inner city communities and more likely to live in smaller, more economically diverse places like Fort Wayne (as in this case study). Their immigrant communities are also much smaller and more likely to organize around a pan-African identity (Hume 2008; McComb 2014). Thus, African immigrant youth in Fort Wayne were constantly navigated overlapping social groups, which included various ethnicities within their parents' nationality, various African nationalities worshiping together at St. Augustine, other immigrant groups, as well as black and white Americans. Their world is not comprised of just two segments (one ethnic and the other African American) from which they have to choose. Instead, they face a myriad of daily identity choices among a whole range of groups that are also divided by class and religious boundaries.

In more recent years, scholars have begun to reject "the hegemony of assimilation," to use Lamphere's (2016) phrase. Rather than dichotomously categorizing the identity choices of immigrant youth into American versus ethnic, these studies explore the bicultural, dual, and hybrid nature of immigrant youth identities--even in large metropolitan areas. For example, Kasinitz and his colleagues (2008) challenge the segmented assimilation concept by showing that most non-white immigrant youth in their New York study do not fit into any of the three trajectories but instead claim a hybrid or hyphenated identity that integrates aspects of their parents' culture and American culture in helpful ways. Similarly, an edited volume by Nibbs and Brettell (2016) considers a variety of social spaces (including friendship networks, transnational spaces, and social media) that shape immigrant youth identities, enabling them to retain their cultural heritage while gaining acceptance in their host communities.

Building on these studies, this article does not seek to reject the segmented assimilation concept so much as to reframe it by examining the situational and hybrid nature of identity for African immigrant youth within one ethnic community in a small US city. The assimilation literature provides essential information on how structural factors and immigrants' human capital shape the diversity of immigrant youth experiences, which should not be discounted. However, what is missing from the concept is a greater understanding of how immigrant youth often navigate multiple segments of US society simultaneously and exercise agency in combining their home culture with the host culture. In addition, the segmented assimilation model risks categorizing all US minorities as lower class, which completely disregards the possibility that some might identify with middle-class African Americans as well as their ethnic community. Lastly, religious identities, which can matter more to people than racial and ethnic identities, can provide another avenue for assimilation. Therefore, I examine how African immigrant youth create hybrid identities at the intersections of their racial, ethnic, class, and religious identities.

Toward a Theory of Hybrid Assimilation

As the 21st century progresses, it is time to update the segmented assimilation concept with a more representative theory of hybrid assimilation, which considers the complex and often messy process of navigating multiple identities simultaneously. In the words of Stuart Hall (1992:310): "Everywhere, cultural identities are emerging which are not fixed, but poised, in transition, between different positions; which draw on different cultural traditions at the same time; and which are the product of those complicated crossovers and cultural mixes which are increasingly common in a globalized world." Hybridity goes by many names, including...

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