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Parsing the Gulf between Africans and African Americans

Sociology Department, McDaniel College, Westminster, MD 21157, USA
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Soc. Sci. 2018, 7(2), 24;
Submission received: 9 December 2017 / Revised: 28 January 2018 / Accepted: 2 February 2018 / Published: 7 February 2018


The rise in African immigrants to the US provides an opportunity to assess relations between Africans and African Americans in college. An online survey of 322 current and recently-graduated college students (including 45 Africans, 160 African Americans, and 117 whites) assessed respondents’ experiences of racism in US high schools and colleges. Semi-structured interviews of 30 students (10 African, 10 African American and 10 white students) supplemented these data. Even within a sociopolitical context of more visible racial intolerance, Black intra-racial cohesion was absent. Although more first- and second-generation Africans (73%) felt that they had been judged while living in the US compared to African Americans (34%) or whites (20%), for 70–80% of respondents, this had occurred only in high school. Despite experiencing these judgments, Africans’ identity related more to their focus on education than their race, reflected in a higher proportion who felt intense family pressure to attend college (65%) compared to African Americans (37%) and whites (39%). Interview data confirmed previous reports in the literature that African Americans lack a sense of connection to Africans, attributed to Africans’ purported sense of superiority and disregard for African Americans’ ongoing struggle to end oppression. These mixed-methods data suggest that intermingling in the college environment has not resulted in first- and second-generation Africans and African Americans sharing a common in-group, race-based identity. We discuss the implications of overlooking ethnic distinctions due to presumptions of racial homogeneity that deprive Black individuals of their uniqueness.

1. Introduction

The number of African immigrants to the US has roughly doubled each decade since 1970 (Oliphant 2017), piquing interest in their acculturation to the US. This steady increase raises the question of the extent to which the 2.1 million African immigrants currently in the US identify with African Americans (Oliphant 2017). The rise in the number of African immigrants provides an opportunity to complement the literature that explores African Americans’ connection to their African heritage. The “elusiveness of tangible African ties”, however, may be less of a concern among African Americans than promoting race-based group loyalty to demarcate “differences from and grievances toward outsiders” who are not Black (Martin 1991, pp. 90–91). Advantages of Black inter-ethnic unity are underscored by the salience of Black-White divisions in the US: “[W]hile blacks may make intra-racial distinctions based on ancestry or skin tone, the power of race as a socially defining status in U.S. society makes these internal differences rather unimportant in interracial settings in comparison to the fundamental black/white color boundary” (Nagel 1994, p. 156).
Prior explorations of Black racial and ethnic identity that are relevant to African-African American relations (e.g., Vickerman 1994, 1999; Zhou 1997) predate significant changes in the US political landscape that occurred when Donald Trump was elected president (in 2016). Trump followed Barack Obama, the first Black US president, possibly reflecting “whitelash” (Kellner 2017). White people seemed to become more comfortable expressing attitudes critical of people of color after the election of Trump; due to Trump-era “invocations of racial conflict and even explicit derogation of African Americans … [m]any whites now view themselves as an embattled and even disadvantaged group, and this has led to both strong ingroup identity and a greater tolerance for expressions of hostility toward outgroups” (Valentino et al. 2018, p. 12).
Despite reports of the rarity of coalitions between Black immigrants and African Americans (Greer 2013; Imoagene 2015; Jackson 2010; Kasinitz 2008; Martin 2013; Mthethwa-Sommers and Harushimana 2016; Rogers 2013; Waters 1999), very little of this literature examines Africans who have immigrated to the US (versus Black immigrants from other areas such as the Caribbean) (Thornton et al. 2017), partly due to the recency of African immigrants establishing a significant presence in the US. This research examines the relationship between two ethnic groups, African Americans and first- and second-generation Africans, to explore the relative roles of culture and ethnicity versus race in the probability of a common in-group identity in a college environment. Within a social context of a rising number of African immigrants and more open disparagement of nonwhite outgroups, we present data from first- and second-generation Africans and African Americans that relate their experiences and perspectives to the tension between intra-racial solidarity and inter-ethnic distinctions that are critical to understanding racial dynamics in the US.

1.1. African Immigrants and International Students in US Colleges and Universities

In 2015, there were 2.1 million African immigrants in the US, accounting for 5% of US immigrants. This number reflects a significant increase compared to 2000 (when there were 881,000 African immigrants) and major growth since 1970 (at which time there were only 80,000 African immigrants who comprised 0.8% of the immigrant population) (Anderson 2017). Given the influx of African immigrants mostly after 1965, they are fewer in number but have an average educational level that is higher than other foreign-born Black immigrant groups in the US (such as those from the Caribbean) (Corra and Borch 2014). More Black immigrants from Africa age 25 and older have earned a college degree (35%) than the overall US population (30%) or US-born Blacks (19%) (Anderson 2015). Furthermore, Black immigrants as a whole excel: they are 12% of all Black undergraduates, but comprise 27% of Black undergraduates at selective colleges and 41% of Black undergraduates at Ivy League schools (George Mwangi and Fries-Britt 2015).
Although first- and second-generation African immigrants are the focus of this study, the number of international students from Sub-Saharan Africa as of 2014, about 31,000, was equal to 4% of the approximately 886,000 international students in the US, a reflection of Africans’ growing importance to the fabric of US culture. Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, and Cameroon comprised the top sub-Saharan African countries of origin of these international students (IIE 2015; Ruiz and Radford 2017). Studies of African international students have relevance to first-and second-generation African students and help complement the scant literature about the experiences of Africans in college.

1.2. Black Immigrant and African American Student Relations

While Black immigrant college students have unique concerns in adjusting to college life (summarized by (Boafo-Arthur 2014)), their relationship with African American students has received limited attention (George Mwangi et al. 2016; George Mwangi and English 2017; Thornton et al. 2017). In a qualitative study of 15 African American and 28 Black immigrant students, both groups of students experienced marginalization on campus. First-generation immigrants, however, reported fewer incidents of racial discrimination (Griffin et al. 2016), despite that at the college level, African students face discrimination not only due to their race, but also their accents and negative assumptions and stereotypes about their countries of origin (Lee and Opio 2011). In addition, bullying associated with these differences is pronounced in high schools, including those that are majority African American (Traoré 2004).
George Mwangi (2016) found that most of her sample of ten Black international students at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU), including some from African countries (Nigeria, Kenya, Senegal, Ghana and Eritrea), lacked close relationships with African American college students, and felt more comfortable spending time with foreign-born peers instead. These students stated that they did not feel as if they were a part of the African American community and as a result, felt like outsiders on the HBCU campus. Only one student in this study (who was Haitian, rather than African) expressed solidarity with African Americans regarding issues of concern such as police brutality, racially disparate incarceration rates and workplace discrimination; the others felt a lack of personal connection to these problems. Instead, Africans’ identity was more based on their country of origin, consistent with previous research documenting that Black immigrants distance themselves from African Americans (see Jackson 2010; Rong and Brown 2001), a phenomenon especially notable among immigrants who have been in the US a relatively short period of time (i.e., first- and second-generation immigrants) (Benson 2006).
George Mwangi’s (2016) sample of international students, “expressed confusion or dissonance regarding the dominance of race in US society”, a perspective based on their view that African Americans “talk about race constantly” (p. 1025). George Mwangi’s respondents also indicated that they were loath to raise any questions about assumptions underlying claims of systemic oppression to avoid offending African Americans. Similarly, in other research that examined the views of a diverse sample of 17 international students, “many participants were surprised to witness the extent to which race and racism are emphasized” in the US (Mitchell et al. 2017, p. 8). Fries-Britt et al. (2014) quote a Nigerian student’s perspective on African Americans’ reaction to racism: “[A]s much as that is part of their history, I believe that we should be able to move past that” (p. 5).
Such differences in perspective about racism could help explain reports of poor communication between Africans and African Americans that were negative according to 72% of Black respondents who comprised a convenience sample of members of the diaspora from African countries, the Caribbean, as well as from the US who were attending a conference or were from four urban universities (Jackson and Cothran 2003). The authors recommend rapprochement and unity between Africans and African Americans: Africans should accept “common ancestry without putting others down by accentuating feelings of superiority. African descendants of slaves must get rid of emotional and mental baggage” (Jackson and Cothran 2003, p. 601). Consistent with these findings, a minority of African Americans (21%) reported feeling very close to Black people living in Africa (Thornton et al. 2017).

1.3. In-Group Racial Identity: Commonality as a Disadvantaged Racial Minority

Understanding the lack of cohesiveness between first- and second-generation Africans and African Americans warrants examination of concepts underlying racial identity. According to the social identity threat model, threats (including racism) that are perceived as directed at an individual’s group, result in disparaging assorted outgroups (such as other racial minorities) to elevate the positivity of an individual’s own group (Branscombe et al. 1999; Hornsey 2008). This derogation of other groups, however, does not occur in cases of a feeling of common identity with another group, as when members of another group are seen as sharing a similar status as a “disadvantaged racial minority” (Gurin et al. 1980). In other words, conspicuous discrimination against one’s own racial group can lead to a sense of bonding with others who are also seen as a “disadvantaged racial minority”. This bonding can promote an in-group identity that prompts positive views and cohesiveness (Craig and Richeson 2012, p. 759).
This common identity appertains when two groups are viewed as having similar ideas, feelings, and interests as well as comparatively lower advantage relative to high status white males, especially when a group is reminded of past victimization (Galanis and Jones 1986). Africans and African Americans, however, have a wide disparity in social and cultural contexts in which opportunity and progress are viewed and have been experienced. Because the notion of “disadvantaged” is culturally relative, some immigrants from African countries may have a perspective that is compared to opportunities and conditions in an immigrant’s country of origin, which could make them less sensitive to racially-based affronts.
In addition, there may be a social class differential given the resources of many Africans with the means to immigrate, especially in cases of “extreme immigrant selectivity”, relevant, for example, to some Nigerian first-generation immigrants (Imoagene 2017, p. 4). In these cases, advantages and social capital of previous generations (called “cultural embedding”) help second-generation immigrants, in a departure from assumptions underlying segmented assimilation in which ethnicity signals subordination (Imoagene 2017, p. 7).
Dominguez et al. (2009) attribute different perceptions of racism in the US to African Americans’ sensitizing their children to white racism (racism that is aptly articulated by Coates (2014) and Prager (2017) in terms of the justice of reparations for African Americans). This “primary lens” (Dominguez et al. 2009, p. 262) in which race and racism are central appears to be less salient among Black immigrants; fewer of them are socialized to be wary of an oppressive ruling class of a different race, and they often arrive in the US with greater capital to concentrate on upward mobility, contributing to their reputation as a ‘model minority.’ Africans’ status as a “model minority” bestows on them an elevated minority status that diverges from contrasting views of African Americans such as those based on unflattering stereotypes about inferior academic prowess and motivation (Adjepong 2017; Greer 2013; Mthethwa-Sommers and Harushimana 2016; Ogbu 2003; Waters 1999).
As voluntary immigrants who specifically come to the US to take advantage of opportunities that are less available in their home countries, they cannot always relate to African Americans, who were largely involuntary immigrants that endured the indignities of slavery, followed by countless and continuing struggles that play a major role in their identity, reinforced by institutional and personal racism. The multitude of ways in which African Americans have been disadvantaged are outside the scope of this paper, but beyond the legacy of slavery, conditions that necessitated the civil rights movement persist (Alexander 2012; Bonilla-Silva 2018). For example, despite reversing legalized racism inherent in redlining and neighborhood covenants that barred the sale of homes to Black people in certain areas (Pietila 2012), the racial gap in wealth persists, rooted in historical disadvantage (Lipsitz 1995; Seah et al. 2017). Furthermore, growing up in a society where the indignities of the infamous 40-year Tuskegee study went unchallenged (until 1972), and with significant white apathy regarding the Black Lives Matter movement (Carney 2016; Robertson and Dundes 2017), African Americans tend to be in touch with how historical oppression informs past and continued disadvantage, e.g., the typical Black household has just 6% of the wealth of the average White household (Shin 2015).
The potential impact of racism, however, is difficult to measure. In a study comparing US born Black and foreign-born Black participants in the United for Health Study, a smaller proportion of African Americans (24%) reported no experiences of racism compared to a higher percent of foreign-born Black participants (41%) (Krieger et al. 2011). These findings relate to speculation about how differences in Africans’ and African Americans’ experiences of racism could be reflected in health outcomes. There is growing interest in whether biological sequelae, such as an elevated cortisol level, could result from the chronic stress of racism called “allostatic load” (Nuru-Jeter et al. 2009; Geronimus et al. 2006) that could in turn drive African American women’s higher rates of preterm delivery, low birth weight, and infant mortality relative to other racial and ethnic groups in the US, including foreign-born Africans living in the US (Dominguez et al. 2009). This area of research has the potential to elucidate the interaction between culture and health that illustrates the crucial role of identity in individuals’ well-being.

1.4. Black Race as Overly Monolithic

There is a lack of recognition, particularly among white people, about differences between Africans and African Americans, for whom the category of “Black” disguises cultural differences (which is also the case for Afrolatinos mistaken for African American (Louis et al. 2017)). With the emphasis on race in the US (Nagel 1994), within-race ethnic differences are difficult for white people to discern which helps account for their assumptions of “pan-Black” solidarity. Furthermore, it is unclear whether white Americans understand that race is not the master status of many recent immigrants.
In addition to persistent white colorblindness (Mueller 2017), including ignorance about country and ethnic distinctions critical to Black identity, there are also manifold within-group differences among African Americans that are commonly overlooked. Regardless of their Black phenotype and their own racial self-identification, African Americans may be deemed “white” by both their peers and white people due to their educational and career accomplishments, dialect, financial status, neighborhood, etc., demonstrating the variety of factors relevant to racial identity (Carbado and Gulati 2013; Thelamour and Johnson 2016). Similarly, common social interests (such as sports or Greek fraternity participation) appear to be more salient than race in the case of predicting collegiate African American male solidarity (Harper and Nichols 2008).

1.5. Africans Identify as Studious and See African Americans as too Focused on Race

According to George Mwangi and Fries-Britt (2015), African students believe African Americans are “too quick to assume that negative incidents occurring on campus … were based on race or racism” (George Mwangi and Fries-Britt 2015, p. 17), that is, too apt to impose a racial lens. African Americans thought their African peers lacked the experience in the US to accurately perceive racism. Africans in George Mwangi and Fries-Britt’s study concentrated on staying on track in their studies, a strategy that involved trying to distance themselves from issues of race and racism. Yet as George Mwangi and Fries-Britt (2015) indicate, a student who “sought to exclude his Black racial identity from his campus experience … was at the same time adjusting to [a] new racial minority status in the United States and being consistently confronted with it” (p. 19). Nevertheless, Black immigrant students did not “naturally develop relationships around a shared Black experience” (p. 20). One respondent stated, “I try to relate to everyone, to be a global student” (p. 20), an attempt to minimize the role of race in acculturation.
This phenomenon extends beyond the college setting. On the NPR program Tell Me More (2013), African American host Michel Martin said: “A lot of African Americans feel that the first-generation Africans look down on them.” African short story writer Tope Folarin, a guest on Martin’s show, retorted that Africans believe that African Americans view Africa as “backward”. Folarin added that Africans see African Americans as “squandering their opportunity” to succeed. Another guest, Arsalan Iftikhar (of The Islamic Monthly), opined that most white people see Africans and African Americans “through the same prism” because according to American identity politics, they cannot see past white and black and ignore a person’s country of origin (Martin 2013).
In the same vein, the academic literature that examines issues surrounding Black students is predominately about African Americans; there are more of them than Africans in US colleges and universities and their struggles relate to the Black-white divide rooted in slavery (Nagel 1994; Vickerman 1994). Nevertheless, calls for diversity in which Black students are recruited by colleges generally ignore the heterogeneity of the Black population, a problem that contributes to African students’ invisibility (George Mwangi 2014). Issues surrounding the diversity of the US Black population is also a topic of concern for the U.S. Census Bureau as it grapples with the complexity of racial identity in preparation for the 2020 Census “to provide accurate and relevant data about our changing and diversifying nation” (Compton et al. 2010, p. 79).
This study provides data about the context for African/African-American relations among college students in order to inform individuals concerned with diversity who are unfamiliar with ethnic differences between the two groups. There is limited research documenting issues surrounding assumptions about African/African American solidarity among college students; for example, pairing an African and an African American as roommates with the expectation that two Black students will find common ground more easily than if either of them were assigned instead to a non-Black roommate gives primacy to race over a surfeit of other factors that determine compatibility. Increasing awareness of the heterogeneity of individuals categorized as Black is key to dispelling stereotypes of Black people that are both inaccurate and ignore individuality.
Rogers (2013) and George Mwangi and English (2017) who decry the dearth of information about non-native or foreign-born Black students’ college experiences, recommend mixed methods. In accordance with these recommendations for this type of methodology, we include both Qualtrics survey data and interview data in our efforts to parse ethnic distinctions among Black individuals in the US. The purpose of our analysis is to illustrate why an individual’s ethnicity should not be subsumed by a broad racial category that obscures substantial within-race cultural differences associated with the complexities of ingroup and outgroup forces.

2. Methods

This study employed mixed methods that allowed the authors to first probe descriptive statistics from quantitative survey data and then compare these findings to qualitative interview data. This process of extracting key findings from both types of data led to a number of salient themes that are then examined in the Results and Discussion sections of the paper.

2.1. Qualtrics Survey

We first launched an online, IRB-approved Qualtrics survey that was available through a link that the first author distributed via email to her high school and college friends. The first author, who immigrated to the mid-Atlantic region of the US from Cameroon at age seven, encouraged these initial contacts in her social circle to forward the link to their friends and acquaintances who were attending or who had attended college in the US. The survey was accessible for a six-month period, from 10 March 2017–10 September 2017 to recruit students both at the end of the spring semester, 2017 and at the beginning of the fall semester, 2017.
While African and African American participants were the focus of the study, the authors also solicited white respondents as a means of determining whether the two groups of Black students were closer in their responses to whites than to the other group of Black respondents. The Qualtrics instrument began with a brief introduction indicating that the short, anonymous survey was designed to assess how culture might relate to school satisfaction in the US and also alerted respondents that questions included the topic of whether they had ever been judged because of their race or culture.
Examples of the Qualtrics survey questions include the following: (1) When you were in school, were you ever judged—made to feel like an outsider, or made fun of—because of your race or country of origin? (answered as yes or no). If yes, did you feel judged in: high school only; college only; both high school and college. (2) Have people in college ever made you feel uncomfortable or offended due to both subtle and/or more obvious reactions to (a) your hair; (b) your skin color; (c) how you dress; (d) how you pronounce words (with the following response categories: often, sometimes, rarely or never). Can college students whose race is different from yours relate to your ups and downs? (with the following response categories: all or most of the time; occasionally; rarely or never). (See Table 1). The survey had an optional question that asked respondents to share any specific incident in which they had been judged: “If you ever felt judged due to your race or country of origin when you were at school, please describe a specific example that stands out to you.” In order to increase the probability that respondents would be willing to take the time to narrate their answer to this open-ended question (that lacked set response options), we added, “This is the only survey question that asks you to describe a situation.”
The quantitative survey data were analyzed using Qualtrics software (Provo, UT, USA). The comparison of survey data from African, African American and white respondents was conducted using chi-square analysis and a difference of proportions test where appropriate. A p value 0.05 was considered to be statistically significant. Qualitative responses to the one open-ended Qualtrics question were examined by the authors to identify major topics and key concepts that were organized by theme in table form (see Appendix A).

2.2. Interview Methods

Following the collection of Qualtrics survey data, the authors conducted the second part of the study that involved obtaining three sets of ten interviews (n = 30) in October and November 2017. After obtaining informed consent for the interviews, the authors and an undergraduate white female student volunteer each conducted interviews of a convenience sample of ten persons, all of whom were assigned pseudonyms. All interviewees were queried in person, individually, in a private on-campus setting and informed that their confidential responses would be helpful in a student-faculty project designed to explore racial identity and the relationship between Africans and African Americans. Interviewees’ responses were recorded with hand-written notes that were later transcribed for analysis.
For the interviews of African students, the first author approached a convenience sample of six first-generation African college females and four first-generation African college males in her social circle (see Table 2 for their country of origin, major and year in college). In particular, this way of recruiting Africans minimized discomfort that can occur when an interviewer’s background is distinct from that of an interviewee, reportedly an issue of concern among African interviewees in particular (Adida et al. 2016).
With the help of an African American male college student volunteer at her institution, the second author recruited a convenience sample of six African American females and four African American males (from a variety of majors, as delineated in Table 3). The white sample was recruited by an undergraduate white female student volunteer who obtained and interviewed a convenience sample of six white females and four white males in her social circle (see Table 4).
Africans were interviewed most extensively, with responses to the following interview questions: 1. What can you tell me about your decision to attend college? 2. What is the nature of any racism you experienced in high school? Did any of these experiences also occur in the college setting? 3. Describe whether you have close friends of another race and indicate if there are any factors that could help us understand the reason for your answer to this question. 4. How would you characterize the relationship between Africans and African Americans in general? 5. Aside from where you were born, what makes you identify as African? African American and white students were asked only a single question: How would you characterize the relationship between Africans and African Americans in general?
The interview questions for Africans were more expansive because as first-generation immigrants, these individuals had issues of acculturation that distinguished them from the other interviewees. These qualitative data helped the authors tease out sensitive and nuanced information, especially about the extent of race-based solidarity versus ethnically-based identity among Black students as well as whites’ awareness of this phenomenon. None of the research participants received any incentive to participate and all students approached agreed to be interviewed.
Interview data were read thoroughly in order to extract and report salient themes and place them within the context of existing literature. Using this mixed-methods approach allowed us to compare trends found to be statistically significant in quantitative survey data to more nuanced interview data.

3. Results

3.1. Demographic Data

Of the 322 total respondents, there were 45 African respondents, 78% of whom were first-generation and 22% of whom were second-generation immigrants. In addition, 160 African Americans and 117 white students ages 18–29 also completed the survey. Most (88%) of those who started the survey completed it. The sample of 322 was predominately female (71%), a larger disparity than nationally, but also reflective of a general gender gap in response rate and recruitment gender bias in which the disparity between Black female and Black male enrollment was larger than all other racial/ethnic groups in 2013, when females constituted 62% of total Black undergraduate enrollment while white female enrollment was steady at about 55% during this time period (National Center for Education Statistics 2016). The age distribution was as follows: age 18 (13%); age 19 (25%); age 20 (21%); age 21 (18%); age 22 (10%); ages 23–29 (13%) (see Table 5).
Respondents were from colleges in ten different states in the eastern half of the US, with the majority (73%) attending or who had attended college in Maryland. Eighty-four percent (84%) of Africans had their immediate family living in the US. About one fifth (22%, n = 10) of those who identified as African were born in the US and were second generation as they had a parent or parents from one of the following African countries: Botswana (1), Gambia (1), Ghana (2), Nigeria (3), Senegal (1), Sierra Leone (1), and Togo (1) (see Table 6). The remaining 35/45 Africans were first-generation Africans, born in the following countries: Cameroon (11); Ethiopia (5); Nigeria (4); Ghana (3); Togo (3); Belgium (1); Côte D’Ivoire (1); Italy (1); Liberia (1); Mauritania (1); Senegal (1); Sierra Leone (1); Uganda (1); UK (1) (see Table 7). About a third (35%) of the first-generation Africans were age 7 or younger when they immigrated; 21% were aged 8–12, and 44% were age 13 or older when they moved to the US (see Table 5). A fifth (20%) of Africans spoke only one language fluently compared to 80% of African Americans and 70% of whites. Africans were more likely to speak two languages fluently (42%) than African Americans (19.5%) or whites (27%) and far more likely to speak three or more languages fluently (38%) compared to African Americans (less than 1%) or whites (3%) (see Table 5).
Nine percent (9%) of those identifying as African Americans (n = 14) were born outside of the US. There was one African American born in each of the following countries: Benin, Cameroon, Canada, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Guyana, Haiti, Liberia, Sierra Leone (totaling 9 respondents) (see Table 8) with 5 born in Jamaica (i.e., 6/160 [4%] of those who self-identified as African American were born in African countries). All but one of the fourteen African Americans who were born outside of the US moved to the US by age 12 (and 64% had moved by age 7). Thus, although some respondents born outside of the US still considered themselves African American, the place of birth and age at which they moved to the US were largely predictive of how most Africans and African Americans self-identified. The category “other” was excluded from our analysis but included one respondent born in each of the following countries: Bahamas, Grenada, Guyana, Togo; 3 were from Haiti and 3 were from Jamaica.

3.2. Judgments Experienced

Africans were more than twice as likely as African Americans to report ever having been judged or made to feel like an outsider in the US due to either their race or country of origin (73% versus 34%), with both groups more apt to report feeling judged than white respondents (20%). For all demographic groups, at least two thirds of the judgments occurred only in high school, with almost no respondents reporting that the judgments occurred only in college but not in high school (see Table 1).
The data reveal that in high school, where the majority of judgments occur, Africans endure comments significantly more often than their African American counterparts in regard to their skin color (36% versus 21%, p = 0.03) and especially how they pronounce words (55% versus 33%, p = 0.006). They were about equally likely to hear comments about their hair or how they dressed (30–36% for both). We do not have data on the race of the persons who made the judgments, but our interview data and the literature suggest that African Americans in large part comprise individuals making these comments or who otherwise convey sentiments critical of Africans (Imoagene 2015; Lee and Opio 2011; Traoré 2004).
In college, there was only a slight drop in the proportion of both groups that was subject to judgments about their skin color compared to high school (36% to 31% for Africans and 21% to 19% for African Americans in high school compared to college, a non-significant difference between the two ethnic groups—i.e., 31% of Africans versus 19% of African Americans). There was, however, a statistically significant drop from high school to college in the proportion of Africans who experienced judgments about how they pronounced words (from 55% to 33% for Africans [p = 0.04]) but the decline for African Americans was not statistically significant (33% to 24%); there was no statistically significant difference between the two ethnic groups in judgments in college on how they pronounced words (33% of Africans versus 24% of African Americans) (see Table 1).

3.3. The Nature of Relationships with Family and Friends

Although few Africans (15%) and African Americans (12%) reported that college students of a different race can relate to their ups and downs most of the time, the situation may be worse for Africans because there are fewer of them than African Americans and African students are generally closer to other African students than African Americans, despite their racial commonality (Pruitt 1978; Trice 2004). This suggests that in the absence of finding comfort in relating to those of a different race, Africans could have fewer individuals to whom they can turn for camaraderie. This could be exacerbated by the greater ability of African Americans compared to Africans to confide all or nearly all to their fathers (13% versus 2%, p = 0.05), and their siblings (36% versus 20%, p = 0.05). While African Americans were also more likely to confide all or nearly all to their mothers (31% to 21%) and to their closest friend (56% to 42%), these differences were not statistically significant (see Table 1). These results could be related to family pressure to gain advanced degrees: more Africans (65%) felt intense pressure to attend college than African Americans (37%) or whites (39%) (p = 0.0007), a phenomenon previously noted (Ogbu and Simons 1998; Knight et al. 2016).
In terms of African/African American relationships, we note the relative paucity of Africans (27%) that have at least one close friend who is African American, a proportion is markedly lower than the proportion of white people (45%) who report having a close friend who is African American (see Table 1). In other words, beyond well-known Black-White tensions, we documented friction between Africans and African Americans that manifests in the likelihood of friendships between the two ethnic groups.

3.4. Interview Data from Africans

The interview data from Africans, all of whom were first generation (and are identified by pseudonyms), illustrate how the intersection of race and ethnicity are compounded to make Africans feel disconnected from African Americans, especially regarding the unambiguous expectation for them to attend college (see Section 2.2 above for the questions):
Imani commented that it is difficult for non-Africans to understand “what it means to be an African girl”. She further explained:
“The food I eat, the clothes I wear, and the way I speak all add to my identity as an African. I don’t consider myself African American because we don’t think the same way and we don’t have the same values. For example, I said earlier I had no option but to attend college but some of my black friends in high school had parents that gave them the option of either attending college or doing something else that made them happy.”
Other African interviewees shared this view of the preeminence of a college education that was also revealed in our Qualtrics survey data:
“My parents said college or I was on my own.”
“I brought it up to my dad once that I did not want to attend college after high school and he almost had a heart attack. Whether to go to college has never been an option in my household.”
“Being raised in an African household, I knew I had to go to college in order to be somebody in life. So, I only gave myself one option after graduating high school which was to go to a four-year college.”
Another theme that emerged in our interview data was the bullying of Africans by African Americans (mostly prior to college since 83% took place only in high school, according to our Qualtrics data). The use of the slur, African booty scratcher, an insult commonly used to disparage Africans and sometimes African Americans (see Imoagene 2015), was reported by 8/45, or 18% of Africans who completed our Qualtrics survey.
Our Qualtrics data also documented that a similar proportion of Africans and African Americans were made to feel uncomfortable about their hair and clothes, while Africans were more likely to have been subjected to comments regarding their skin color and pronunciation of words.
Binta said: “The students in my high school made fun of me for having short hair and an accent, so I went home and told my mother and she gave me one of her wigs to wear. They laughed at me even more. This made my self-esteem very low. At one point, I felt worthless. I have not had any of these experiences in college.”

3.5. Tensions between Africans and African Americans

African interviewees generally expressed a lack of connection with African Americans:
“I was raised in Togo and I live my life based on my culture and principles as an African woman from the motherland. I love to show off my culture—whether it’s dressing, dancing, or advocating for African countries. I am not African because I was born in Africa, but because Africa was born in me. It would be impossible for me to identify as African American because we have nothing in common apart from our skin color.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by Leeda:
“The way I was brought up by my parents and the values and culture they instilled in me makes me completely different from an African American. My language and ethnic group gives me my identity and not my skin color. The only thing we have in common with African Americans is our skin color.”
Harif shares the view that Africans maintain their distinctiveness from African Americans:
I just know in my heart I am African and not African American. There’s no way for me to prove it. I lived in Africa and at home, I was raised like an African, not an African American. It is a shame for an African to act as an African American. For example, talking back to my parents or even sitting down and watching the same television show as them is considered being disrespectful and unheard of, but African Americans don’t really see a problem with that.
Another respondent was also specific about the nature of values that differed from those associated with African Americans:
“My mindset is different from African Americans. We see things differently. An African woman, for example, dates for marriage while an African American dates for fun (though not every African American woman).”
This perceived difference in marriage and dating was also broached by Ashley Akunna, millennial creator and host of Grapevine, an online show consisting of discussion panels of Black millennials (Okwuosa 2017). Grapevine aims to use panel discussions to air concerns relevant to people of color in the US, including those needed to address “real and perceived tensions that characterize relationships between immigrants and African Americans” (Stuesse et al. 2017, p. 245).
Akunna pointed to her identity as a first-generation Nigerian (specifically Igbo), when she shared with viewers that as a child, adults told her to be wary of African American men who could “ruin” her life. Akunna was told, “Don’t date African American men; they’ll get you pregnant and leave you.” Her friends also were warned about African American men: “Stay away from them. Don’t be friends with them. They’re no good for you” (Grapevine 2017a, 15:06–15:10). Akunna told her panelists and audience, “As I get older, I do see a cultural difference: with marriage, with the importance of culture, the importance of learning certain things, education” (Grapevine 2017a, 15:17–15:28). The marriage disparity is supported by national data: almost half (48%) of Black immigrants aged 18 and older are married versus 28% of US-born blacks, a factor that could be related to higher household incomes of foreign-born blacks than US-born blacks (Anderson 2015).

3.6. Tensions between Africans and Whites

Interviewees also indicated a lack of connection to white peers. Harif questioned the motives of white people in his social circle:
“I do not really consider the white people I hang around close friends, but they are cool people to hang around with. It’s so hard to be close with someone who will never understand your struggle. In a way, I feel the white friends I have are my friend to be able to say “I am not racist” because I have a black friend, but that’s a different story.”
Binta corroborates the sense of alienation from white people:
“White people always feel they are better than everyone else. I would say hi but as far as a friendship goes, ummm… NO. I feel we are so different and we just don’t click.”

3.7. Appreciation of Advantages of Living in the US

African female interviewees Ada and Subira felt that African Americans failed to appreciate the opportunity to attend school through 12th grade for free, a feeling of gratitude that they feel distinguishes them from African Americans.
“What makes me African is the four different languages I speak and the way I dress. The struggles I’ve been through back in Africa, including paying for school, even elementary school, separate me from African Americans. This is why I value education the way I do and I believe this is why African Americans don’t value education as much.”
Ada spoke of education as inherently valuable as well as key to pleasing immigrant parents who considered education the sine qua non of success. In fact, college was considered the bare minimum, with graduate education strongly preferred, if not expected, to attain success. She saw African Americans as both bogged down in the legacy of slavery, and unable to understand Africans’ struggles: who they are, where they come from. She believed they tended to be uninformed about the lives of Africans (living in African countries) including how Africans commonly lack “social safety nets like food stamps or Section 8 housing”, and are subject to the whim of “corrupt leaders ruling for as long as three decades” without governmental checks and balances on their power.

3.8. Expressions of the Divide

Millennial Nigerian Grapevine host Ashley Akunna expressed pessimism about the ability for Africans and African Americans to connect as an in-group: “The cultures are so different now … I think people can be respected—respect each other—but I don’t think the gap can be bridged” (Grapevine 2017a, 14:21–14:27). Furthermore, although Akunna mentions the importance of mutual respect, when she references her own background, not only as Nigerian, but as Igbo, she tacitly reminds African Americans that they are cut off from their ancestry due to slavery, an additional factor underlying the persistent cultural divide, and a sensitive topic for African Americans.
References to different values of African Americans were likely related to the stereotype of them as akata, a term Nigerians use to signify individuals who are “wild, rude, impetuous, aggressive and uncultured” (Imoagene 2015, p. 182), referred to obliquely by Chaga (an African male): “The food I eat and the mindset I have makes me African and not African American. I also lived in Africa, so I was raised with values and expectations that a normal African American does not and might never have.”
A Nigerian-American panelist on Grapevine shared that her aunts scolded her as an “akata” when she was being “too American”, while noting that this term is too derogatory and divisive to use herself (Grapevine 2017a, 13:40). There are other media reports of African immigrants warned by parents to distinguish themselves from African Americans. Author Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, a U.S.-born child of Ghanaian parents, grew up hearing insults directed at African children (including African booty scratcher) and gained an early awareness of the tensions between Africans and African Americans, perpetuated by stereotypes of African Americans as poorly educated and violent. Her parents warned her against emulating black Americans, in order to receive better treatment from white Americans (NPR 2017).
These strained relations parallel not only our interview data, but also our finding that 27% of Africans have a close friend who is African American while 31% have a close friend who is white. In contrast only 12% of African Americans and 8% of white students said they had a close friend who is African. In other words, despite sharing the same race as Africans, African Americans are not more likely than white students to have an African friend, while whites are more likely to have a close friend who is African American (45%) than are Africans (27%). This finding, however, also could reflect the variation in what constitutes a “close friend”. Alternatively, it could relate to the social desirability of having a close friend of another race as a badge of open-mindedness that can ostensibly negate future accusations of racism, akin to the “some of my best friends are black” phenomenon (Jackman and Crane 1986).

3.9. Bullying

Bullying was also raised as an issue that affected Africans’ adjustment to the US:
According to Leeda, “When I was in the 9th grade people, made fun of me because of my accent and they called me African booty scratcher.”
Similarly, a male Nigerian living in the US who was a panelist on Grapevine alluded to the long-term effect of bullying: “I’m supposed to like you after your teasing me [growing up]?” (Grapevine 2017a, 10:57–10:59).
African booty scratcher emerged as one of the most common insults, reported by eight Qualtrics respondents, consistent with the common use of the insult to disparage peers with very recent ties to Africa, reported by respondents in a sample of 75 second-generation Nigerian students, all of whom reported discrimination by African Americans (Imoagene 2015).
This slur was the planned name for the Nollywood sitcom, renamed African Time (2017), about a Nigerian immigrant family’s adjustment to life in the US and balancing the desire to acculturate while retaining cultural heritage. The initial title, “African Booty Scratcher”, was deemed “too provocative”, according to the series’ creator and writer Damilare Sonoiki (Egbedi 2017, para. 3). The trailer for the series depicts the son’s struggles with his African name that his peers at school cannot pronounce—and his father’s rebukes when he raises the possibility of using a Western name instead to curb teasing, a plot that likely resonates with many African immigrants.
Subira echoes these themes in her comments about the nature of the bullying: “Most African Americans made fun of my accent and called me names. They went so far as to ask me if I lived in trees or wore clothes in Africa.”
An African male, Eche, shared similar ridicule of Africans: “During high school, people used to ask me if we have shoes and clothes in Africa. In addition, they used to call some Africans in my school names like Kunta Kinte [a character from Alex Haley’s 1976 novel, Roots].”

Bullying Data from Qualtrics Survey (Optional Comments)

Qualtrics comments by Africans paralleled our interview data, including allusions to bullying related to dark skin, African features, associations of Africans with the jungle, primitive conditions as well as taunts about ebola (see Appendix A). Using ebola to disparage Africans (Monteiro and Ford 2016), while not as well known as “African booty scratcher”, is part of the repertoire of insults against Africans. In the Hollywood movie Meet the Blacks (2016) starring Mike Epps, an African and an African American trade abusive remarks in one scene that includes a reference to the African’s “ebola finger”.
Three Qualtrics comments referenced an odor associated with Africans. This type of comment has been previously reported by Africans taunted with insults that they come from uncivilized jungles and smell (even though they also are characterized as intelligent, consistent with the model minority stereotype) (Imoagene 2015; Mthethwa-Sommers and Harushimana 2016). In a study of the relationship between Africans and African Americans at a Philadelphia high school, a student described her treatment by some of her African American peers: “They say negative things. Yeah, like if we walk into a certain room … the first thing a student would say is, ‘Them Africans, they stink!’” (Traoré 2004, p. 361); such comments about “Africans having a bad odor [were] heard over and over again” (Traoré 2004, p. 362). So long as bullying remains prominent, hopes for building a coalition based on shared experience of Africans and African Americans (see Lindsay 2015) must be tempered.

3.10. Qualtrics Comments by African Americans

While assumptions are commonly made about Africans and their lifestyle (e.g., living in huts, near the jungle), African Americans who completed the Qualtrics survey reported racism most commonly in the form of comments about their hair or skin color or intimations that they could not be properly categorized because of an uncertain identity, e.g., not being “black enough”, being called an “Oreo”, or assumed to celebrate Kwanzaa (see Appendix A). These insults had more to do with the relationship between African Americans and white individuals (rather than Africans).

3.11. Interviews of African American Students

African American students were asked to describe their perceptions of and relationships with African students. All ten of the African American student interviewees believed that Africans consider themselves to be superior to African Americans (or “hold themselves in very high regard” in the words of Marcus [African American]).
Grapevine host Ashley Akunna corroborated this sentiment when describing fellow Nigerians as “pompous”. She then added, “I think that Africans in general think that they’re better than everybody else” (Grapevine 2017b, 13:22–13:28).
Tony (African American) expressed frustration that African Americans had suffered under slavery, and then worked tirelessly for greater equality only to have newly-arrived Africans taking all of African Americans’ gains for granted, while holding African Americans in contempt. He said: “They don’t understand what we’ve been through and how this struggle is part of our daily lives. But they want to take advantage of what we’ve accomplished—and then say they’re better than us.”
Two African American female students mentioned frustration that attempts to connect with African roots by adopting African clothing, accessories or hair styles could be labeled cultural appropriation. Angela (African American) commented: “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” Rhonda was offended that Africans seemed to fear African Americans who wore African clothes would be mistaken for Africans, which would somehow taint their image as Africans. This notion that Africans base their superiority on their connection to their known ethnic roots was upsetting to Toya (African American): “Africans don’t think about what it was like for us to be cut off from our roots, and that for some of us, it was because their ancestors sold our ancestors into slavery.”
Jaylyn (African American) spoke about her frustration with the lack of acceptance of African Americans: “We can’t try to get in touch with our own [African-rooted] culture because we’re told it’s just a fad. We can’t be ‘just American’ because white people don’t accept us, and we can’t ‘be African’ because we’re not African enough. It’s a no-win for us.”
Al (African American) talked about the rampant bullying of Africans (something that several other interviewees described as commonplace at their schools). When trying to explain its prevalence, he suggested that “Black self-hate” could be operative in that Black people are socialized to have low self-esteem and that it could be functional for them to displace those feelings onto another Black group. He added, “When we do that [bully others], then we’re not the lowest ones anymore,” a comment that coincides with research on negative associations with the label Black (Hall et al. 2015).
Kimberly (African American) discussed how Africans cannot understand the wounds of slavery. She applauded Oprah Winfrey’s dramatic series Greenleaf for featuring a super-rich Black family, while still reminding viewers of slavery, despite its irrelevance to the plot. During the opening credits of each episode, viewers briefly see enslaved Africans wearing yokes around their necks, with their hands tied behind their backs, linked together with chains—a scene followed by a picture of a slave ship with the caption “plan of lower deck with the stowage of 292 slaves” (Greenleaf 2016–2017).
Cynthia, similar to most of the African American interviewees, remarked that she “loved talking about race” and never gets tired of it because it is so central to her identity. She commented on how her perception of differences in social class explains why she felt a disconnect with the African students: “Some of the Africans here grew up with servants. One student is supposedly a princess. They just can’t relate to the struggles of African Americans. I don’t even understand why they would want come here if that’s how they lived at home.”
James, an African American male, recognized the rift between the two groups, specifically how each group sees itself relative to the other: “Sometimes both sides can look down on each other creating a larger separation. For example, Africans may say they are pure because they come from the original homeland, yet African Americans may say they are superior because of how much more advanced America is than Africa.”

3.12. Interviews with White Students

Most of the white respondents who were asked about their view of relationships between Africans and African Americans thought that among people who are Black, the racial similarity forged a “strong bond;” most did not perceive any significant differences between African Americans and Africans. One female said, “With them both being black, they know the feeling of discrimination and can relate on levels of people treating them different because they are Black.”
Only one of the six white women believed that there were cultural differences that could be difficult to surmount, but she did not know what differences there were. Three of the four white males thought that Africans might take offense if African Americans did not understand their culture or they might feel superior about being a “full-fledged” African, as one male expressed. This type of response reflected the belief among some of the white respondents that African Americans were connected to their African roots. As one female respondent opined: “They both cherish their heritage and find it easier to spend time together, discuss their background and understand each other on a level compared to people without African background.” Another female respondent stated: “They will have a strong bond because the African American is still half African so their friend being a full African can make the relationship more interesting because they can learn about their culture.” This comment suggests confusion about what the label African American denotes. The gist of the comments by white interviewees as a whole is the belief that race has a stronger influence than ethnicity for Black people.

4. Discussion

Although both Africans and African Americans are racially Black, the identity of many Africans is rooted in ethnically distinct food, language, customs, family dynamics, dress, etc. In fact, to demarcate themselves, they may subconsciously use their accents, dress and other customs to reduce the probability that they are seen as native-born Black people who are stigmatized and have limited social mobility (Benson 2006; Kasinitz 2008; Waters 1999).
Based on national telephone survey data from African Americans, Latinos and Asians, Craig and Richeson (2012) predicted that perceived discrimination would result in the incorporation of an in-group comprised of similarly stigmatized minority group members who have the potential to be allies in fighting for racial equality. Citing Black Americans and the LGBTQIA community, however, they note that individuals that are not categorized collectively might instead engage in outgroup derogation, as occurred in another study in which white college women reminded of sexism responded with more, not less, bias against racial minorities (Craig et al. 2012). As a result, expanding an in-group seems to require commonality that is apparent or promoted (Galanis and Jones 1986) lest group discrimination trigger an identity threat that results in outgroup derogation (Branscombe and Wann 1994; Cadinu and Reggiori 2002; Branscombe et al. 1999). Our research indicates that neither Africans nor African Americans see the two populations as having the commonality of being similarly disadvantaged outgroups.
In fact, differences between the two groups are manifested in how many schools have separate organizations for African students (Greer 2013) (e.g., with names such as Africa’s Legacy, Africa United, African Students Association/Organization/Union), all groups that are distinct from Black Student Union clubs that tend to focus on African American interests. This rift is perpetuated by white preferences for Africans as voluntary immigrants in pursuit of the American Dream versus African Americans who are more apt to fight white hegemony (Jackson 2010). Furthermore, white interests in perpetuating a hierarchy of Black people living in the US could contribute to African immigrants’ identity as African more than as Black, rather than feeling solidarity with African Americans (Johnson 2016).

4.1. Prospects for an African-African American Rapprochement

4.1.1. Going beyond the Single Narrative

Africans’ reactions to negative stereotypes about African Americans must be considered in conjunction with inadequate US school curricular coverage of African countries (Jackson and Cothran 2003). As a result of the informational lacuna, distrust is mutual, with African Americans also sometimes distancing themselves from negative stereotypes of Africans (Watson and Knight-Manuel 2017). Our survey respondent comments included negative stereotypes heard in US schools (see Appendix A), insults that reflected very limited knowledge about African countries and contributed to a “single narrative” that Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie decries (TEDGlobal 2009). These views of Africans make them feel unwelcome, like interlopers. In a case study of a Kenyan studying at a US college, the interviewee said that skin color was the only common ground between himself and African Americans. In particular, he believed African Americans perceive Africans as “coming to take away what belongs to us”, as if Africans’ employment results in a zero-sum game relative to African Americans, perceptions that should be dispelled (George Mwangi 2014; Nichols 2016, p. 207).

4.1.2. The Relative Positioning of Groups

Judgments are not the result of animosity towards an individual but rather stem from how groups see their position relative to each other in a way that a group seeks superiority over “subordinates” (Jackman and Crane 1986, p. 481), a phenomenon notable in Dominican identity relative to Haitians (Lamb and Dundes 2017). Our data reveal that both Africans and African Americans view each other in terms of relative social positioning; Africans see themselves as more diligent in their studies and as possessing greater career ambitions while African Americans see Africans as willfully blind and unduly complacent about racism in a single-minded, unapologetic attempt to climb the social ladder.
White individuals contribute to this divide by advantaging Africans due to their discomfort with not only negative stereotypes about African Americans, but also the legacy of slavery and the persistence of social structural inequality that is kept in the public eye with such social movements as Black Lives Matter. White people’s comfort with select voluntary immigrants who are less likely to confront them with their present and past racism also perpetuates divisions among Black individuals in the US, as Black immigrants may be favored over African Americans (Coates 2009; Jackson 2010) including in college admissions (McCleary-Gaddy and Miller 2017). Racial hierarchies allow white people to apply racial labels to nonwhite groups to facilitate their exploitation while promoting the value of whiteness (Lipsitz 2006). Negative stereotypes of both Africans and African Americans are divisive in a way that deflects attention from white hegemony. Applying Jackman and Crane’s (1986) analysis of Black-White relations to the current research, it seems that the uneasiness between Africans and African Americans will not abate so long as both groups see an advantage in subordinating the other group within the context of white dominance.

4.2. Limitations

The Qualtrics sample has limited external validity as it was drawn from the first author’s social circle (from high school and college) which resulted in an overrepresentation of females and respondents from Cameroon (24% of African respondents), distinct from the greater proportion of African immigrants to the US from such countries as Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana (Anderson 2017). In addition, out of necessity, in one of our survey items, we employed the term “African,” even though such an overarching label ignores country-specific heterogeneity. However, we partially addressed this labeling flaw with survey items that added specificity to the category “African” such as the respondents’ country of birth, and the age at which they moved to the US. Another limitation is reflected in the four percent (4%) of African Americans born in Africa, showing the potentially blurred lines between African and African American that is a more fluid concept than what was conveyed in this paper.
In the future, results should be examined according to whether respondents are first versus second generation, a variable that warrants further study although there is reason to believe that both first- and second-generation immigrants often consider themselves African (Ogbu and Simons 1998). The probability that second-generation Africans in the US become “just Black”, however, may depend on the resources that their families bring with them, given how social class and chances for mobility relate to identity (Imoagene 2017). These complexities as well as the possibility for multiple, intersectional identities require further exploration (Capers and Smith 2016), and serve as additional justification for promoting education about the different perspectives of African students that would be helpful for faculty, staff, and students who interact with them (Fries-Britt et al. 2014).

5. Conclusions

Group identity is strengthened by insiders that seek commonalities to differentiate themselves from others. In an atmosphere in which highly racialized and explicitly hostile political rhetoric is less stigmatized, Black people living in the US may be presumed to be a group united by their common race and oppression. Yet this assumption unnecessarily presumes that race is the master status of Black people of various ethnicities. Africans’ and African Americans’ beliefs and actions must be recognized as driven by their own specific experiences and perspectives relative to their ethnicity, not only their race. The expectation that individuals should connect to a single, cohesive macro racial category independent of ethnicity, however, perpetuates blindness to cultural distinctiveness and pride associated with ethnic uniqueness.
Among individuals with a similar commitment to and experience in higher education, we might expect more common ground, shared experiences, and the ability to overlook differences, especially in the post-Obama political climate. Yet unease is not mitigated in the college environment—even in a milieu in which students normally feel a bond, or a sense of group identity (that alumni associations often promote). Our data reveal that intermingling in a college setting does not appear to narrow the divide between Africans and African Americans, which is seemingly a result of the strong pull of in-group identity in which both groups favorably view themselves, often at the expense of the other group.
While it is arguably politically advantageous to unite on the basis of skin color, doing so also ignores group differences critical to in-group identity. It is offensive to any group to be subsumed by another. It is especially frustrating for Africans because not only are they distinct from African Americans, reflecting the intersectionality of race and immigrant identity, but they are also very different from each other: that is, individuals from Cameroon are distinct from those from Ethiopia, etc. (reflecting a serious flaw in the use of the label “African”). In an attempt to assert their individual identity and perhaps to compensate for the feeling of being a cultural outsider in the US, Africans may sometimes project superiority. This may be a phenomenon that is more common among first- and second-generation college students (who comprised the African students studied in this research). Future research on evolving collective identities is needed to help predict at what point African identity might merge with or morph into an American or African American identity.
We should be aware that the common demographic identifier of African American/Black can be construed as insensitive if this nomenclature implies that the two terms are interchangeable, overlooking the importance of ethnic identity. It is imperative to encourage dialogue about similarities and differences that can inculcate mutual understanding and respect among those broadly categorized as racially Black but with important ethnic differences that should not be ignored. Immigrants who hail from over 50 different countries in the African continent are already considered as a monolithic group to a certain extent. Similar to needed updates in census racial classifications, college admission forms could revise the way in which they collect data on race. Although the desire for cross-institutional comparison data may warrant colleges maintaining current racial categories, there is no reason for colleges not to add additional items to reflect greater awareness of differences (not unlike the 2016–2017 academic year changes in the Common Application for college admission that allow more options for non-binary gender identity). By using the United Nations’ five-category classification of African sub-regions (Northern, Western, Central, Eastern Africa and Southern Africa), colleges could demonstrate some degree of recognition of and appreciation for ethnic differences that are completely absent in the generic Black/African American category. This initial step could provide an underpinning for efforts to promote understanding of within-race diversity among faculty, staff and students in colleges and universities.
Furthermore, an overly broad racial classification also minimizes the history of African Americans, their triumphs over oppression and their strides for racial equality for people of color. Similarly, African American culture, emulated across the globe, also merits recognition as distinctive. Overlooking ethnic distinctions due to presumptions of racial homogeneity deprives Black individuals of their uniqueness, a key asset in fighting overly simplified categorization of a heterogeneous racial group.

Author Contributions

Both authors developed and designed the survey, interviewed respondents and conducted the data analysis. Ashly Nsangou solicited respondents for the Qualtrics survey and Lauren Dundes wrote the initial draft of the manuscript. Both authors participated in manuscript revisions.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Appendix A

Table A1. Written Comments from Qualtrics Survey.
Table A1. Written Comments from Qualtrics Survey.
Called African booty scratcher (reported by 8 respondents)
Skin and appearance
My skin color and how dark it was compared to them.
I was made fun of for my dark skin.
Everyone called me ugly cause I was African.
I’ve been told that I’d be prettier if I was lighter skinned and didn’t have a wide, African nose. These comments have been by blacks, Africans, and whites alike on separate occasions.
Kids wouldn’t let me play tag because they didn’t want my skin touching them.
These girls told me I should go back to where I came from because I didn’t belong here.
People always saying that Africans think they are better than everyone and getting dirty looks when I speak about my culture in class.
Talking about my name.
People made animal sounds whenever I walked by because I am African and they equated Africa with the jungle.
I was asked so many times if I lived in a forest or ran with lions. I was teased about how Africans look like animals and are not educated in any way.
Ebola came out and students were telling basically everyone that’s from Africa and go back to your country even though we came here before Ebola even started.
People will say things like: Do you have schools? Do you sleep in trees? Do you live with animals? You stink. They say all Africans smell.
People made fun of the way I spoke and said that I stink and live in trees in Africa.
My freshman year of high school my teacher asked me in front of the class if she was right about knowing that all Africans who live in Africa have a strong body odor and live in huts.
Called: smelling African.
When I was bullied because of my skin color, it made me feel insecure about myself for years afterwards.
People not wanting to be around me because of my color.
This is a high school example: in my dance company, they would call me “the shadow” because I was the only black person on the team.
My sociology professor did an experiment in class that made me feel judged because she expected that because I am a black female, I would sit with the black females when I actually did the opposite. I don’t understand why she was so shocked.
My hair.
Made fun of me because of my hair.
People made fun of my natural hair when I was in 2nd grade. That insecurity carried on until this year when I came to college and I saw a lot of other people with big poofy natural hair. It made me confident enough to wear my hair out, too.
I am half black and half white so my hair is different from if I was all black. A majority of the girls in my neighborhood growing up were black. They would exclude me from some conversations because my hair was not the same as theirs.
I was told I wasn’t black enough.
I was called an Oreo because of the way I spoke.
Being told that I’m not truly black, and that I’m the “whitest” black person they know.
I was called a porch monkey once in high school due to sitting at the lunch table with other people that didn’t usually sit there.
Every time we talked about slavery in history class, the other students would stare at me. Also one of my high school teachers would always say Happy Kwanza to me and another black student during the holiday season but we celebrated Christmas.
Constantly questioned when explaining anything considered “classy” or “upscale”.


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Table 1. Qualtrics Survey Data.
Table 1. Qualtrics Survey Data.
African n = 45African American n = 160White n = 117
Ever judged/made to feel like an outsider due to race or country of origin
χ2 = 76.45; p < 0.001
Where race/nativity-related judgments occurred:
High school onlyNS838171
High school and collegeNS171423
College onlyNS056
HIGH SCHOOL: Sometimes or often uncomfortable or offended due to subtle or more obvious reactions to:
χ2 = 39.68; p = 0.05
skin color
χ2 = 80.69; p < 0.001
how you dressNS333631
how you pronounce words
χ2 = 68.62; p < 0.001
COLLEGE: Sometimes or often uncomfortable or offended due to subtle or more obvious reactions to:
χ2 = 21.28; p = 0.05
Skin color
χ2 = 47.28; p < 0.001
how you dressNS131315
how you pronounce wordsNS332419
As a teenager, could tell nearly all/all to:
χ2 = 17.23; p = 0.05
closest sibling
χ2 = 24.18; p < 0.001
closest friendNS425651
College students of a different race can relate to your ups and downs most of the time
χ2 = 26.08; p < 0.001
Never considered transferringNS353861
Considered transferringNS584533
Did transfer
χ2 = 46.57; p < 0.001
IF considered or did transfer, race was definitely NOT a factor
χ2 = 45.63; p < 0.001
Whites in majority in college
χ2 = 122.38; p < 0.001
“Very happy” with college social lifeNS343041
“Very happy” with college academicsNS304050
Very high family pressure to attend college
difference of proportions p = 0.003
(difference between Africans and the other two groups combined)
Not at all homesick at collegeNS333432
Table 2. Major, Year in College and Country of Birth (n = 10).
Table 2. Major, Year in College and Country of Birth (n = 10).
MajorYearCountry of Birth
Arabic: 11st year: 1Cameroon: 2
Biology: 2Sophomore: 1Ethiopia: 1
Business: 1Junior: 7Gambia: 1
Psychology: 1Senior: 1Ghana: 2
Kinesiology: 2 Nigeria: 1
Social work: 1 Togo: 3
Sociology: 1
Undecided: 1
Table 3. African American Interviewees (all born in US) (n = 10).
Table 3. African American Interviewees (all born in US) (n = 10).
Biology: 11st year: 2
Communication: 1Sophomore: 3
Psychology: 1Junior: 3
Religious Studies: 1Senior: 2
Social work: 1
Sociology: 3
Undecided: 2
Table 4. White Interviewees (all American, born in US) (n = 10).
Table 4. White Interviewees (all American, born in US) (n = 10).
Business: 21st year: 3
Communication: 1Sophomore: 3
Environmental studies: 1Junior: 3
History: 1Senior: 1
Political Science: 1
Sociology: 1
Undecided: 3
Table 5. Characteristics of Total Sample (n = 322).
Table 5. Characteristics of Total Sample (n = 322).
Demographic Survey Data
Number of African respondentsn = 45
 First-generation African78%
 Second-generation African22%
Racial/Ethnic distribution
 Africann = 45
 African Americann = 160
 Whiten = 117
Age Distribution
Percent of Africans with immediate family living in the US84%
Age of first-generation Africans when immigrated to the US
 age 7 or younger35%
 aged 8–1221%
 aged 13+44%
Number of languages (including English) spoken fluently
African (first and second generation)
 One language (English only)20%
 Two languages42%
 Three or more languages38%
African American
 One language (English only)80%
 Two languages19.5%
 Three or more languages0.5%
 One language (English only)70%
 Two languages27%
 Three or more languages3%
Table 6. Second-Generation African Respondents (n = 10).
Table 6. Second-Generation African Respondents (n = 10).
Number of Respondents with Parents from Named Country
Sierra Leone1
Table 7. First-Generation African Respondents (n = 35).
Table 7. First-Generation African Respondents (n = 35).
Number of Respondents from Named Country of Origin
Côte D’Ivoire1
Sierra Leone1
Table 8. African Americans, Born Outside of US (n = 9).
Table 8. African Americans, Born Outside of US (n = 9).
Country of Birth
Benin, Cameroon, Canada, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Guyana, Haiti, Liberia, Sierra Leone

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