After Ferguson, one woman urges her fellow African immigrants to see themselves simply as black

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: The unrest this month in Ferguson, Missouri has many Americans, myself included, thinking about where we are as a country when it comes to race and each perspective on that story is shaped by each person's unique narrative. Take Hannah Giorgis - she's an Ethiopian-American writer in New York and she wrote about what she's feeling recently for The Guardian newspaper, saying in part that African immigrants must be Ferguson Strong.

Hannah Giorgis: When I think about what that means to me, it's the idea of being in solidarity with other black people in the US, whether that's people who identify as African American or other African immigrants such as ourselves and people who are immigrants from other places in the African Diaspora. It's the idea of understanding that there's something really important happening right now that does concern us.

Werman: What prompted you to write this in the first place?

Giorgis: A number of things. I've been sort of wrapped up in the idea that this could be either one of my brothers, that this hits very close to home. I've seen a bit of apathy amongst other African immigrants who I know and I kind of started to think about why that might be and a lot of it has to do with where we situate ourselves in the context of US identity.

Werman: Explain that. What do you mean "Situate yourselves" and why does that situation then lead to apathy?

Giorgis: I think that when you immigrate to the United States, there's this race to achieve the American Dream. You're sold a lot of images about prosperity and about becoming the right kind of American and the right kind of American isn't black. You find that out before you come here, whether it's through American media that has all sorts of stereotypes about African American people, or whether it's just through everyday interaction, where people sort of subtly or directly encourage you not to identify with blackness. And so I've seen people shift away from wanting to identify with African American people as both a survival tactic and as a way to assimilate into the "Perfect American Identity."

Werman: Your father immigrated to the US from Ethiopia in the early 1980's, so do you and he see the racial tension in Ferguson differently?

Giorgis: Yeah, absolutely. Both my father and my mother are sort of more apt to believe the narrative around Mike Brown having stolen something and maybe he was a threat and maybe the police officer genuinely feared for his life. I think that some of that stems from a really earnest desire to want to believe that this country to which they've immigrated is as honest as it makes itself out to be. And for me, having grown up here, I see a different side of that.

Werman: Activists and academics will make the point that African Americans have - the historical tragedy of slavery and the struggles that followed, hundreds of years of being treated like animals and that this country is still wrestling with that. Does your father accept that?

Giorgis: I think that he does in a sort of abstract, theoretical way. What's different is that that doesn't feel personal for him and he doesn't necessarily feel that people read that struggle and that legacy onto his body everyday. Whereas, I think for me, I feel people reading that struggle onto my body, regardless of whether or not it's actually true to my personal heritage and so there is a way that I have to grapple with it.

Werman: What do you think the legacy of Ferguson is going to be?

Giorgis: I think of the legacy of Ferguson as one of collective resistance, of talking back to the state and of recognizing that black bodies are worthy of life and that we matter and that regardless of what the state and the media say, that we have a right to assert that and a right to mourn and a right to feel and grieve in the way that all other humans can.

Werman: It's interesting, the kind of police presence, that authoritarian presence in Ferguson. I imagine that may have been kind of the same muscle that your father was fleeing from in Ethiopia.

Giorgis: Absolutely, which is why I don't think it's impossible to make these links or forge solidarity when you think about the fact that a lot of folks who immigrated here left at times when there was heavy policing, heavy militarization. My mom tells stories of times when the government would kill people for suspicion of treason and then charge their families for the bullets. And so when you think about the ways that our lives are just seen as not valuable and as collateral damage, I think that there's a lot of connection there in a way that we could understand that trauma keeps us apart but it could also be the thing that we rally around.

Werman: Hannah Giorgis is, according to her Twitter feed, an Ethiopian-American writer, organizer, artist and awkward black girl trying to make sense of Diaspora. Thanks for speaking with us.

Giorgis: Thank you so much for having me.

Werman: So what do the protests in Ferguson mean for immigrant communities here in the US? We're talking about that right now on Facebook. Just search for our group called "The Global Nation Exchange" and join in on the discussion.