At a young age, I was welcomed to American culture through television. America seemed like a wonderland of hope and success. Although I’d never been to or met anyone from America, I had so many high expectations. The cars, the people and the money were shown constantly, and I believed that every American was incredibly rich and successful. When I finally came to America in 2012, I wasn’t surprised that it was just like the movies. The cars, the people and the money were all there. But why was America so disconnected from everything else?
It’s an understatement to say that America is less accepting of different cultures, but back in Senegal and different countries in the world, it’s the complete opposite. When I went back this summer, my cousins and family members watched shows from different countries and learned about different cultures and their lifestyles. It was awkward for me to then come back to America and have someone assume that I lived in the desert because they watched a tv show about it. I have always been bombarded with ignorant questions since my journey here, thinking that people were just being mean. Now I realize that people truly don’t know. My hope that America was exposed to the variety of cultures I was back in Senegal quickly fell.
After seven years of my residence in Athens, the first day I watched a video about Africa was in my seventh grade world history class. I was excited to show everyone what my real culture was and how it wasn’t stereotypical. I was hoping that it showed how Africa was innovative and not everyone was poor. What I wanted to happen sadly didn’t and I remembered everyone’s eyes on me. I was embarrassed because now everyone thinks that I took a two mile walk across the jungle just to go to school. As an immigrant, people’s perceptions of you are reliant on what they see in the media. After that, questions like “Did you swim to America?” or “Do you have water at your house in Senegal?” became more prominent. It made me angry. What I remember about Africa was taking a ten minute walk with my sisters from our apartment to my preschool. We were normal people just as Americans were.
I’ve only been able to see lower-class Africans on American television, yet I grew up only seeing rich and successful Americans on our TVs in Senegal. The most well-known types of depictions of these Africans were shown in documentaries and youtube videos. The worst ones came from the videos where the typical white man with a savior complex went to the poorest parts of Africa and gave them money and food. What I saw was a man trying to seek validation and praise for having basic human decency and doing a good deed. It’s obvious that these Africans he was exploiting were uncomfortable and wanted their privacy. The comment sections are filled with pity against these people and praise for the man.
These types of videos start a multitude of stereotypes and miscommunication. For example, a common phrase that American parents use is, “Eat your food, people are starving in Africa.” This is true, but it seems as though the starving people of every other country have been forgotten about and Africa is the only place where starving people exist. Hearing these remarks made me feel not only embarrassed but angry for being embarrassed. Being African is my identity, but in America, it became an insult.
Not only does American media show misconceptions of Africans, but the stereotypes of African Americans are worse for someone like me. I look and sound American but I’m also African. The discrimination that African Americans face every day affects me and also the harmful stereotypes that Africans face. I felt like I was stuck in the middle and had to take damage from both sides even though we are all the same. Coming from a place where everyone looked like me, then walking into my first day of American elementary school where kids already started ridiculing me for my darker skin color, I felt so out of place. Being that we were only six years old, I believe that little TV representation had a part to play in these misunderstandings. The Lion King is and will always be an iconic movie. The music and the graphics were up to par but because we were just kids, I got questions like “Did you have a lion in Senegal?” and “Did you eat bugs?”
The first day of the new school year was always the worst part of the year. My least favorite part was introducing myself to the class. Transitioning to an American environment at such a young age, I was always confused about who I am. When I tell others about my culture, no one seems to understand. There’s not enough African representation in America that isn’t stereotypical. Americans often see thick accents, loud behavior, or uncivilized villagers.
I started to feel ashamed of my culture and wanted to suppress it. I landed on the idea that no one would ask me ignorant questions if they didn’t know I was African. Because of this, I started adopting the American way of life. I didn’t tell my teachers and classmates that I was African. When I had to, I became uncomfortable thinking that they would have a negative reaction to it or mock me. I adopted a more American accent, I stopped celebrating my culture and I stopped eating Senegalese foods. Now, I long for my culture, yet feel so far away from it.
After 10 years of living here, television’s representation of African people has improved, shows like Black Panther or Queen of Katwe showed Africa in a new light. But we still have a long way to go. The better representation that debunks harmful stereotypes can allow children, especially immigrant children, to feel more welcome. When settling in America, the bullying, colorism and mocking that I endured was already enough without knowing the language or knowing anyone on top of that. No child should have to experience this feeling if we have open minds and simply educate each other.