Or The De Facto Proxy Of Non American Blacks In Black American/DACS Roles
By Seren Sensei
There’s been a quiet hostility simmering within the Black diaspora.
It is most apparent when discussing media representation. It tensed when veteran American actor Samuel L. Jackson wondered what a Black American — what I call the descendants of American chattel slavery (DACS) — might have brought to the American-charged racism of ‘Get Out,’ and when fellow Brits John Boyega and Iris Elba came to star Daniel Kaluuya’s defense. It arose again with the casting of British actor Daniel Ezra as the lead in the CW’S newest teen drama: a football show titled, ironically, ‘All American,’ and based on the life of real life DACS football player Spencer Paysinger.
It bubbled when a Nigerian pop culture critic attempted to skewer DACS singer Tevin Campbell; burned hotter still when a dispute over an unofficial remix between American-born R&B artist Jacquees and British-Born singer Ella Mai resulted in the formers music being pulled; and boiled full tilt when Cynthia Erivo, a Nigerian Brit, was cast to play Harriet Tubman in an upcoming biopic on the legendary former slave that led thousands to freedom utilizing the Underground Railroad. An online petition requesting the role to be recast with a DACS has garnered over a thousand signatures. Black American/DACS stories of history, especially those of personal achievement or racial angst and woe, have become instant vehicles for success and oftentimes Oscar bait . . . and all the better if the leads are non-American Black people, as a way of sanitizing and fictionalizing American historical atrocities while allowing foreign Blacks to share in DACS accolades.
There are questions on the appropriateness of the regularity with which non-American Blacks are considered the “go-to” in American media for DACS’ roles, as well as in other American infrastructure such as jobs and education. Studies have shown that non American Blacks are disproportionately overrepresented in almost every aspect of American infrastructure and institutions (such as schooling, jobs/income, and the like), because American white supremacist infrastructure — born out of the cognitive dissonance of freedom-valuing yet slave-owning founding fathers — favors non-American blacks to native-borns (Malcolm Gladwell’s landmark 1996 essay, “Black Like Them,” also explores this phenomenon in depth.) Foreign Blacks are privileged with a ‘clean slate’ not granted to DACS, which is doubly offensive considering the common notion that any Black person IN America is considered automatically ‘African American;’ as if the descendants of American chattel slavery have no history, heritage, ethnicity, or culture of our own that we can lay claim to. They get the privilege of being us when they want, and also not being us when they want.
In a Guardian interview, for example, British actor David Harewood insisted foreign Black actors could be better suited for Black American roles, especially those that deal with touchy and/or historical subject matter around racism, specifically because they are ‘unshackled’ from the racial baggage of DACS. But is it appropriate that American history be racially unshackled? Especially when the subject matter specifically deals with race and race relations, as in ‘Harriet?’ Or with a crack epidemic whose effects are still reverberating through the Black American community today, as in the FX show ‘Snowfall’ (which hired an unknown British actor for their lead and then enlisted a vocal coach to teach him an American dialect, rather than hire a DACS actor)? The use of culture as well as cultural opportunities without being ‘shackled’ to the history/historical issues, stereotypes, and oppression that comes along with said culture is textbook cultural appropriation.
In another Guardian piece, many up-and-coming DACS actors have also lamented being typecast in bit part roles, if hired at all, while the awards-garnering, big-budget pieces boast majority foreign leads. As in ‘Snowfall,’ even lesser and no-name stars garner sought-after roles if they are non-DACS. Rare outliers like ‘Hidden Figures’ boast a majority Black American cast, but when Academy Award-winning DACS actor Mahershala Ali has joked about Idris Elba kindly leaving him roles, it’s obviously a noticeable discussion.
Stereotypes that link back to American chattel slavery, such as ‘laziness,’ ‘fatherlessness,’ ‘poor work ethic,’ and ideas about drug use and violent tendencies dog DACS from both white people as well as non-whites, while no such ideals follow the children of Black immigrants. They offer all of the joys of ‘Black diversity’ without any of the troubling American history that comes along with DACS; nor do they grapple with the personal consequences of centuries of trauma, systemic racism and oppression enacted specifically against the native born Black American population. They even provide an opportunity to witness said DACS stereotypes play out from a safe distance: for example, arguments hound comment sections and online posts about the troubling, stereotypical dialogue and ‘caricatures’ of Black American women on HBO show ‘Insecure,’ where three of the four main female leads all boast at least one non-American parent, despite the fact that they are all playing Black American descendants of slavery.
In an era of increased globalization, Black diversity in terms of higher education and especially at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) has also become a priority, with many HBCUs reaching out to and establishing programs specifically for non-American Black students. While ties throughout the Black diaspora are important, some question why this same effort isn’t put into recruiting and mentoring underserved DACS students, despite the fact that non-American Black students outnumber DACS at colleges and universities. Affirmative action programs, enacted to ensure that DACS who were historically kept out of the education system for centuries received education opportunities have often now been twisted in order to give non-American Blacks a leg up. A 2017 protest at Cornell University — which has a mere 6% Black enrollment rate — revolved around the over-enrollment of the children of recent Black immigrants as a way to inflate ‘Black’ numbers:
‘We demand that Cornell admissions come up with a plan to actively increase the presence of underrepresented black students on this campus. We define underrepresented black students as black Americans who have several generations (more than two) in this country. The black student population at Cornell disproportionately represents international or first-generation African or Caribbean students. While these students have a right to flourish at Cornell, there is a lack of investment in black students whose families were affected directly by the African Holocaust in America. Cornell must work to actively support students whose families have been impacted for generations by white supremacy and American fascism.”
Groups that track the enrollment of Black students in colleges and universities do not currently make a distinction between DACS and the children of Black immigrants, nor does the American Census, despite the fact that loosened immigration laws post-Civil Rights era have led to an in influx of foreign-born Black people in the United States. There is a cruel irony in the notion that DACS fought for the civil rights of Black immigrants, and now these same individuals are in all key positions to replace us.
The numbers as determined by the census often decide the allocation of federal funds for issues within racial and ethnic groups, so this lack of accounting for the differences within the Black diaspora effectively amounts to entire groups that did not suffer the effects of American chattel slavery, Jim Crow-era segregation, the War on Drugs or the War on Crime (all organized efforts of structural racism to oppress and disenfranchise DACS very specifically), to be able to reap the benefits of assistance meant specifically for Black Americans/DACS who did and still do suffer the consequences.
The result is that DACS continue to be oppressed by a system that not only prefers white people and non-Black persons of color over us, but also prefers non-American Blacks to us, with foreign Black peoples in America actively contributing to said oppression by utilizing the system to get ahead. White supremacist/colonizer rhetoric of the United States as a ‘land of opportunity’ and a ‘nation of immigrants’ effectively erases both the genocide against the indigenous population of North America by colonizers, and the holocaust of American chattel slavery, as neither indigenous people nor DACS are ‘immigrants.’ It also gives non-American Black groups something of a Get Out Of Jail Free Card on these issues. Who can argue against a claim that non-American Black immigrants are here for ‘a better life,’ regardless of the fact that they have to step over DACS to get it?
Newly formed organizations like ADOSA, which stands for American Descendants of Slavery in the United States of America from 1615-1865, are insisting on a formal recognition of the descendants of American slavery as an ethnic group, and are pushing to be recognized as such on the upcoming 2020 American census. Part of the reasoning behind it is, again, the delineation of resources like government programs: should an affirmative action policy meant specifically to offset centuries of slavery and decades of Jim Crow segregation be available to recent Black immigrants in America, or their children? Different ethnic groups means different cultures, heritages, histories and issues. Is it appropriate to continue slapping a one-size-fits-all Band-Aid on the varying issues of the Black diaspora? Who is, in fact, getting ‘a better life’ — at the expense of others — and who is being left behind?
Many wonder what the difference is in Blacks throughout the diaspora who, in the eyes of white people, are ‘all Black’ and therefore all the same. This viewing of a Black identity through an oppressive white gaze is troubling to say the least. Refrains about police brutality, government infrastructure, institutions, and other forms of white supremacy as ‘oppressing us the same way’ run rampant. But not only is this a false narrative (as, again, studies have shown that racist infrastructure favors non-American blacks over American ones), but it also seems to be an outdated concept that continuously centers the white gaze in a formation of a Black identity and flattens our Black experience into a monolith. Blackness, to state the obvious, is not monolithic. Oppression plays out differently in different areas of the country, of our communities, and across the planet — from the apartheid of South Africa to the lunch counters of Georgia. When it comes to reaping the benefits of a system designed to keep DACS at the bottom, how are we suddenly ‘all the same?’
While the system of racism and the once again rising tide of white supremacy is a common enemy, racism is an octopus with many arms, or, perhaps more appropriately, a shape-shifting hydra with many heads. Alternative methods will need to be utilized for unique instances that apply to different groups of black people, and each will need to be employed differently. The recognition of our differences by way of ethnicity and nationality must be recognized. Until that day arrives, foreign Blacks remain in collusion with an oppressive system of racism and an newly ascendent white supremacy, actively working against their siblings in the diaspora, the descendants of American chattel slavery, and benefiting all-the-while off our struggle.
Seren Sensei (@seren_sensei) is an activist, writer, cultural critic and new media maker. Focusing on finding the bonds between race, politics, and pop culture, she creates race-based video content and also released her first book, entitled So, About That… A Year of Contemporary Essays on Race and Pop Culture, in 2015. She was a 2016-2017 fellow for at land’s edge, an art and activism fellowship program in Los Angeles, and her work has been exhibited in the art space human resources la as well as the Vincent Price Art Museum.