Neither Here Nor There: Perspectives on Identity by the Young Eritrean and Ethiopian Diaspora in America

November 4, 2009

African Vs. African American Vs. Black Vs. Habesha – “What” Are We Again?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Habesha Diaspora @ 12:27 am
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marathon runnermarathon winners

Background info:  For those of you not into sports or who are disconnected from the Habesha community and somehow missed it, two Habeshotch won the NY marathon this past Sunday.  Ethiopian runner Derartu Tulu and Eritrean born runner  Mebrahtom Keflezighi were the female and male winners respectively.

Mr. Keflezighi immigrated to the U.S. at age 12 and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1998.  He represented the U.S.A. in this race as well as during the 2004  Olympics where he won the silver medal.  According to Wikipedia, the silver medal was the first placement by an American in the event since 1976 and the NY marathon win represents the first American win since 1982.

To the point of this post:  So a colleague and I have a twitter account (we call ourself “cultural health”) and recently gained a follower who has a blog by the same name as our twitter account.  He asked if we would be interested in writing for his blog and so I went to check out his page.  The first time I saw it I was quickly drawn in and enjoyed what I saw.  Then yesterday I took a look again and saw his latest post is called “African American Wins NYC Marathon.”  I had this immediate viceral reaction and I actually said out loud, “He’s not African American!!!!!”  And with that I was drawn in to the long standing debate of culture bound racial constructs…a debate that no one side will ever win just because it is just that…a “construct”:

con·struct: n. (knstrkt):  1. Something formed or constructed from parts.  2. a. A concept, model, or schematic idea:  a theoretical construct of the atom.  b. A concrete image or idea: “[He] began to shift focus from the haunted constructs of terror in his early work” (Stephen Koch).

The problem with “A concept, model, or schematic idea?”  Each person could potentially define it differently.  For example:  ask 5 people to describe the construct of love and you could get 5 different answers.  Since love is not an actual physical thing that everyone can look at and which exists in of it’s own right each person can have a different view of what it is.  Now if you had 5 people looking at the same table they are likely going to give you 5 very similar descriptions.  However like love, race (as scientists have shown) is a social construct rather than a concept that exists in it’s own right.

As controversial a construct as race is, I am not sure why I was surprised when I got to work, opened up the New York Times online and found this article on how many Americans are rejecting the title “American” winner for Mr. Keflezighi.  Here are some of the words cited by the article:

The online postings about Keflezighi were anonymous. One of the milder ones on Letsrun.com said: “Give us all a break. It’s just another African marathon winner.”

A comment on The New York Times’s site said: “Keflezighi is really another elite African runner by birth, upbringing, and training. Americans are kidding themselves if they say he represents a resurgence of American distance prowess! On the other hand, he is an excellent representative of how we import everything we need!”

In a commentary on CNBC.com, Darren Rovell wrote, “Nothing against Keflezighi, but he’s like a ringer who you hire to work a couple hours at your office so that you can win the executive softball league.”

Keflezighi said on Monday that remarks about his heritage were not new. “I’ve had to deal with it,” he said. “But, hey, I’ve been here 22 years. And the U.S.A. is a land of immigrants. A lot of people have come from different places.”

The NYT article presents these reactions as racist but I am not sure that all people who agree with the above do so based on racist views.  Let me share my experiences.  I am American by papers but I would never consider myself American despite culturally being so assimilated that I could “pass.”  I remember being in Sri Lanka in 2005 and being asked where I was from.  My first instinct was to say Ethiopia but I quickly learned to add that I currently reside in the U.S.A.  It was interesting to note the questioning looks turn to nods of understanding when that last bit was added because they knew what “Americans” look/act like but had no idea what an “Ethiopian” was supposed to be like.

So here we have it.  Many Americans don’t consider him an “American” runner, both Ethiopians and Eritreans herald him  gladly despite his official citizenship status, but politically correct society says he has to be seen as an “American” athlete.

As this book project continues to ask – who is it that gets to define you again?

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7 Comments »

  1. I completely disagree on most of your view points. I respect your opinion but my opinion is the opposite of yours. How Eritreans and Ethiopians emigrate to the United States and to other countries is very different. There might be one common ground which is we all leave our birth country for a better life however for the most part Eritreans emigrate because of war and fear of their lives. It has been like that staring in the mid 70s. The fact that Eritrea became independent country didn’t change any thing. On the contrary, Ethiopians move not because of war or fear of their lives; they emigrate just like any other person who emigrates from Austria or east German. Most Eritreans like myself have given up about Eritrea long time ago and they don’t bother about moving back even if things change for a better. The story of Meb is the story of most of young Eritreans. Meb run away from Eritrea for fear of his life. Do you think he is going to represent Eritrea? If he does, that would be a betrayal to his colleagues and his coaches. He discovered his talent for running when he was a young teenage at his high school in San Diego and he developed his talent at UCLA. I can’t just believe that you don’t find Darren Rovell article as a racist, bigot and bias. At what point do you become American? If you emigrate here at age of 15, 12, 5, 2 or born here or if you can trace your family all the way to 1800? I always say, if you live in this country more than half of your life, I think you officially are from here. Is Meb African American? Well, he is African-American (a hyphenated African American though).

    Comment by Superman — November 5, 2009 @ 9:35 pm | Reply

  2. This reminds me of the time i asked the XC coach in high-school if i could run on the team. The try-outs consisted of 1 question: “Are you Ethiopian?” Little did he know my Ethiopian @$$ couldn’t run worth a @#$&. I think my first 5K was at 28 minutes. lol. It took 2 years of training to make it to the varsity team.

    Comment by Habesha Diaspora — November 6, 2009 @ 9:43 am | Reply

  3. Welcome Superman – thank you first for being willing to express your perspective and thank you second for doing so in a respectful way.

    In response to your comment, first let me say that Ethiopian migration trends have been varied. Pre-1974 it was mainly the elite who went abroad for educational purposes most of whom returned to help their country. From 1974 to 1991 there was a drastic change in that there was an exodus of asylum seekers and refugees similar to what you describe in the Eritrean community. For the most part people left the country by foot (to Sudan, Djibouti, etc.) and over time they were then accepted all over the west as refugees. Since 1991 this has gone down significantly (we’re back to willing immigrants as you described). As you are aware, the Eritrean refugee migration continued past that point, though, due to conflict between our two countries despite Eritrea’s independence in the early 1990s.

    To share a bit about me, my family left Ethiopia in the early 80s as asylum seekers with definite founded threat to our lives had we not been able to find a replacement “home.” It was a long, traumatic, disorienting journey that I will not go into out of respect for the privacy of my family. Similar to what you mentioned about people not going back to Eritrea even if things get better, I think this is why my parents did not take my sister and I back once it was safe to do so.

    My family will forever be indebted to the USA for allowing us to come here and eventually giving us citizenship. In a way I feel like “my country” (Ethiopia) and it’s government at that time failed my family and millions like us. For that there is a sense of, i don’t know, anger and sadness with how things occurred. Yet, as grateful as I am to America for the education and other opportunities it has provided me I feel part of my right here is to say “thank you for all the opportunities, i will be a contributing citizen of this land, but I thank you for the opportunity to define myself and my identity as I see it fit me.”

    As American as I appear on the outside, I am a culmination of Habesha, Dutch, & American life experiences. To be truly honest means I am none of those and all of those at the same time, but my core no matter how small is my Habesh/Ethiopian beginning. For the longest time I called myself “homeless” secretly because i felt thrown away by two countries and grudgingly taken in by a third. A third country where people at times see me as a second class citizen because of my skin color or where I originally came from. As the NY Times article showed, a country where some people aren’t even going to want to claim people like us sometimes.

    Let me get to my point (and the purpose of this project for me personally) – because so many of us came to this part of the world under such different and at times traumatic experiences, because the reception here isn’t what most of us anticipated, and because the life here is harder than most of us expected it to be (at least at first) it is that much more important for us to have a sense of peace and completeness with how we see ourselves and our identity. It is important for us to think through this and come up with something that we connect to and have no problem defending. I feel you have reached that with your identity and I believe I have gotten there with mine over many years. Even if I disagree with your identity I will never tell you you’re wrong because I don’t know what your experiences have been. What I found interesting about the NY Times article is that the writer included how many different people see Mr. Keflezighi (blog responders, researchers, a Cuban Athlete) but nowhere does Mr. Keflezighi himself state, “I am __________.” In fact he gives a rather roundabout answer in a way Habeshotch have gotten used to addressing personal matter when they don’t necessarily want to reveal their true feelings:

    “Keflezighi said on Monday that remarks about his heritage were not new. “I’ve had to deal with it,” he said. “But, hey, I’ve been here 22 years. And the U.S.A. is a land of immigrants. A lot of people have come from different places.”

    My point – no one has a right to say who our people are. Only we are allowed to define ourselves even if we disagree amongst ourselves.

    I hope to hear back from you, Superman. What do you think?

    ~Mahlet

    (PS – hyphenated African-American is a whole other can of worms :))

    Comment by Habesha Diaspora — November 6, 2009 @ 10:19 am | Reply

  4. Wow…..Superman,

    First of I don’t know where you get your facts but you are dead wrong when you said “Ethiopians move not because of war or fear of their lives; they emigrate just like any other person who emigrates from Austria or east German” I hope that was some kind of miss print or something. As Mahlet said I do appreciate your honesty but I think you should get your stats polished before you make a bold statement like that. I don’t want to go into specifics because I think Mahlet did a great job on the descriptions and statistics of Ethiopian Immigrants. Just like Mahlet I left Ethiopia as a very young age for a reason that was very dangerous for my life as well as my families lives. I actually don’t see why the reason of leaving your country should be a factor in this conversation.

    Getting back to the main topic in hand I actually applaud Meb for running the NYC marathon representing the US instead of Eritrea. I made somewhat a similar decision a few years back. I played tennis all my life and went to college in a tennis scholarship and after college I was fortunate enough to experience a brief professional success in the Satellite tour(the minor leagues of Professional Tennis, LOL…). In that brief time I always chose to have US as my country when I field out the forms for the tournaments as I was entitled to do so because I am a US citizen. I never even exercised the thought of representing Ethiopia in anytime when I was filing out those forms. This doesn’t make me any less Ethiopian or it doesn’t mean that I don’t love my birth country but it showed that I am showing the appreciation and the respect the US deserved. I have trained and developed my skills in the US this was my way of showing and saying thank you to all the coaches, all the friends and tennis partners I have had through out junior tournaments, college and now the professional circuit. It is true that Meb’s accomplishments are a lot bigger than mine but I do understand as a fellow athlete why he chose to represent the US instead of Eritrea.

    Mahlet,

    I’m glad you didn’t go into the (hyphenated African-American) discussion, you are right that is a different animal. 🙂

    Comment by Henock — November 6, 2009 @ 12:23 pm | Reply

  5. Henock, if you read the first blog carefully, you would know why I brought up leaving your home land country. Some amateur prick who goes by Darren Rovel who writes for CNBC decided to bash against Meb (Marathon winner from last week)in a derogatory way. Obviously, you missed the whole point of the blog and you only paid attention to only one sentence on my comment. Hey, this is a blog and I am allowed to throw some bold statements without you knowing my first and last name.
    Mahlet, I wouldn’t say that I have settled with my identity. I am still in a limbo but I have come a long way. The funny thing is I was never confused about my identity till I was a mistaken identity by some one else. I was dumbfounded when this black dude in college called me a taliban. My smooth, light caramel complex skin and nice curly hair was mistaken for a Middle Easter guy. Then I had a white roommate who called me a nigger. WTF. That was back in the day when I was very young and naive. May be because I am too sensitive and I cared too much. I know who I am and I don’t need to explain to any one about my identity. You can identify me as Eritrean, American, Habesha, black man, african man..(I am all that). How people choose to identify me is not going to prevent me from making a living, earning a good money, voting, and living the American dream (whatever that is).

    Comment by Superman — November 6, 2009 @ 7:54 pm | Reply

  6. Gentlemen – I think your underlying point (that Mr. Keflezighi can run under what ever flag he chooses) is one and it is well taken by me.

    Superman, you bring up a good point about “I was never confused about my identity till I was a mistaken identity by some one else.” Every time someone tells me who I am rather than asks me they fuel this irritation in me. I think I would be much more open to other thoughts if people asked rather than assumed or worse yet labeled.

    By the way – Do you have a link for Darren Rovel? I’d love to read what he had to say…or maybe i need to leave it alone so i don’t go on another rant…

    Comment by Habesha Diaspora — November 10, 2009 @ 9:56 am | Reply

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