Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Confronting U.S. Racial Categories: Somalis in Columbus, OH

by Nahla al-Huraibi, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

I am conducting in-depth interviews with Somali immigrants in Columbus, Ohio to examine gender impacts on the Somali Muslim family integration patterns into the Anglo-Judeo-Christian American mainstream. In regard to the Somalis' perception of racism in American society, one of the main themes that reoccur in the participants' narratives is the cultural shock they experience when confronting the new classification systems in the host society. These systems are loaded with hegemonic meanings that situate non-whites and immigrants in a subordinate identity. Being both non-white and immigrants, Somalis are struggling to respond to negative stigmas associated with both identities in the U.S.

Many Somali immigrants have expressed their confusion at finding that on a daily basis their skin color may determine how many white Americans treat them. Back home, Somalis’ system of differentiation is totally different than how race is defined in the U.S. In their homeland, the system of differentiation is a cultural and social one that is based on tribalism, in which some tribes or clans are seen as higher than others due to their occupations or social behavior, as opposed to physical features like skin-color. As one of my female participants stated:

We were brought up in cultures where we are not used to racism; we have never been exposed to racism before we came here, and even now unless it is blatant and vulgar, you don't recognize it, because you have never been exposed to it, you don't know the symptoms of racism; you don't know how to interpret it; you don't know what it has to do with you as a person, or with your color, or with what you are wearing (referring to the hijab; Muslim women's headscarf). Also, because we came from a culture, where Somalis no matter how poor they are…they don't think anybody can look down at them. Somalis are very proud, but it is not false pride; it is you recognize my humanity, I recognize yours. So, now they are shocked when they come to the American shores and they are filling the entrance forms and people are classified along racial lines. They say, what is this? This is the first time in our lives we are asked what race you are. That confuses them, because you know Somalis are a mixture; they are Asians, they are Africans. There are so many intermarriages in the Somali society between Africans, Yemenis, Omanis, and Indians. Race has never been relevant to them.

In light of the notion that identity is "context-dependent", two points need to be discussed:

• Can the Somalis' positive self-definition survive in the American racialized context where the color-based system of classification is a primary source of social stratification?
• Can the Somali immigrants participate in redefining the meaning of racial categories in the U.S. away from the normative black-white dichotomy to a situation of multiple and hybrid identity categories? Will they also contribute in transforming the meaning of blackness from skin-color categories to culturally and nationality-based ones? (Kusow, 2006)

Thanks for your input, your comments will help me in my data analysis!

1 comment:

  1. The situation of the Somali immigrants in Columbus is a vivid example of how social context impacts one’s identity. Our identity is composed of multiple affiliations and different affiliations became more relevant (or are even created) in different social contexts. Hence Nahla’s example of the Somali immigrants shows eloquently that we can not personally decide what our identity is. Even if skin-color is not a relevant identity-marker for someone (i.e a Somali immigrant in Nahla’s research), she can not escape from it in an environment, where skin-color is used as a shortcut for giving decisions from friendship to employment. So it seems to me that we can not escape being labeled by the outer society and this labeling affects our self-perception (identity) irrespective of our prior beliefs.

    Obviously this does not mean that one needs to accept the negative perceptions of the outer society as they are. These perceptions or labels need to be reinterpreted and redefined by those who belong to the categories. And the best way to raise one’s voice in this redefinition process is to become effective participants in the public debates and political decision processes, despite the bitter reality that venues of democratic participation are usually less accessible to the marginalized.

    Hence I think we need to work for the creation of venues for the representation of the marginalized in the society (e.g. creation of caucuses in social movements, workplaces, and/or other political bodies), in order to live in a more democratic polity. Creation of such institutional mechanisms might assist the Somali immigrants to redefine and reinterpret the negative labels that the society uses to classify them.