What is it like being a young African person in the diaspora? According to the latest available figures on foreign-born Africans, there are more than 619 000 in France, 1.2 million in the UK and 2.1 million in the US. Given the many stereotypical narratives about Africa, Africa No Filter set out to investigate how these narratives were impacting on perceptions about Africa among diasporic youth, and on their identity and sense of belonging in France, UK and US.
We interviewed 70 18–28-year-old Africans from the USA, UK and 20 from the UK and 20 from France. Participants were either first or second-generation diasporans who were born in the diaspora or had moved there when younger than five. All participants had few or no fixed memories about the African continent and relied mainly on information imparted to them in their host countries.
The research unpacked how young African migrants experience the diaspora, how they define being African, the basis of their belonging, and how they negotiate relationships with other Africans.
The resulting report, Being African: How Young Africans Experience the Diaspora, found that diasporic African youths experience different types of discrimination. They grapple with exoticization in France, microaggressions in the UK, and surveillance and profiling in the US. They also have a unique double heritage that makes them proud of African languages, food, music and history, while also strongly relating to the language and culture of their host country.
And while they’re exposed to many negative narratives about the continent in mainstream media, they were not overly influenced by the stereotypes. Instead, they relied on interpersonal relations and social media, and sometimes travel to the continent, to access knowledge about being African.
Furthermore, experiences of discrimination and recent racial reckonings in the host countries were also driving an increased interest in Africa.
The report was authored by Lusike Mukhongo, Winston Mano and Wallace Chuma. Here are key findings:
- While young diasporans experience different types of discrimination in France, UK and USA, the result is the same: a sense that they do not fully belong in the country where they live. They retreat to their African identity but see it as something to be proud of, nourished, preserved and developed through visits and historical reimagination.
- The ability to speak an African language was the most highly regarded marker of identity for young diasporans – even those who did not speak an African language wished that they could. For example, many participants in America
nsaid that while most of them might not speak an African language, it is important to learn languages such as Swahili, Yoruba, Hausa, Xhosa, Shona, Igbo and others to challenge the Europeanisation of the black tongue that seeks to make Africans ‘fit’ in European societies.
- Recent waves of racial reckoning in the US, UK and France, and the #BlackLivesMatter campaigns have led to young diasporans learning more about their heritage and identity. They have, especially, turned to learning about African history, wearing African clothing and hairstyles, and using African names. Participants’ African identity was also reinforced at home by speaking and hearing African languages, eating African food, and listening to African music.
- Young diasporans experience poor treatment in their host countries, are often marginalized and do not have equal access to government services and resources, compared to other racial groups. However, the nature of the treatment varies across countries: in the UK, Black people have similar experiences of microaggressions, whether they are Black British, Africans, African Americans, Caribbeans or Afro Latinos; in France, diasporans experience exoticisation; and in the US, they live in fear due to police and other racial violence in the country.
- Diasporic youth typically have limited knowledge of Africa but a strong thirst for knowledge, and thus seek information about the continent from a wide range of sources including parents, relatives living in Africa and the diaspora, books and social media. Those participants who had traveled to the continent believed they had a greater knowledge than those who had only lived in the diaspora or moved to the diaspora at a young age, especially with respect to understanding the many diverse cultures across the continent.
- Across the three countries, participants considered global news coverage of Africa to be biased, based in stereotypes, and mostly negative – focused on poverty and political violence – but their views about Africa, and their identity as Africans were not overly shaped by these stories because they were aware of the slant. For example, in the UK, most participants accessed news through BBC, ITV and Sky News, which they believed routinely misrepresented Africa. So, even though the participants paid attention to mainstream portrayals of Africa, they were not easily swayed by them. Nevertheless, they were concerned about the impact of such negative narratives on non-Africans.
- Even positive stories about Africa are perceived to be mainly about individuals, for example, stories about African students winning competitions abroad; successful African inventors; African businessmen and women making money; and a Kenyan woman who takes plastic rubbish and waste and turns it into bricks for housing. This focus on individuals maintains a negative framing of Africa, allowing just a few pockets of positivity.