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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