“I’m as American as anyone else”
By Duane Bourne
EDITOR’S NOTE: Public affairs and communication professionals most often are the people who craft the message of organizations to the public creating a need to be conversant about diversity so they can assure communication is culturally relevant and positive to a wide range of diverse audiences. This column is the result of an assignment in Public Affairs Communication in the online master’s degree program in the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.
Samuel and I are friends who met more than 20 years ago at Stony Brook University. We both grew up in neighborhoods not far from each other in Brooklyn, New York, and somehow found ourselves living in opposite ends of Virginia. Samuel works in a leadership position encouraging student success at Virginia Tech.
We are both first-generation Americans of Caribbean descent. This identifier may or may not be an important distinction as you read on.
Samuel and I had not talked in a little over two years, but I could not think of any better person to have this conversation. One of seven children, Samuel emigrated from the Bel Air enclave of Haiti’s capital city, Port-au-Prince at age 10. He spoke no English.
That’s where we will begin.
“I had to learn to survive,” said Samuel, recalling his first experience going to junior high school in Virginia.
Unlike the immigrant experiences of today, where English-as-a-second language curriculum is offered, “I was thrown into the regular population and had to figure out the language – sink or swim.
“Immigrants regardless of where they’re from learn how to survive,” he added. “Those challenges might be overlooked. I mean I used to think the kids in the neighborhood were foreigners.”
They were if you really think about it. But the quip prompted a quick response.
“How do you identify yourself?” I asked.
“They see a Black dude”
Samuel launched into a story about how he and his older brother, Daniel, were looking at the most recent Census form. For years, Blacks had been identified as Black of African descent or African American. Today, the form recognizes most ethnicities of the African diaspora.
“I just put Black, African American,” he said. “When I am walking down the street, they don’t see Haitian. They see a Black dude. I am just a Black dude.”
Yes, Samuel is more than just Black man. He writes poetry, listens to smooth jazz while reading, craves solitude and never asks me for directions. He’s also an educator who holds two master’s degrees and is preparing to defend his doctoral dissertation in educational psychology. He would agree that some who only see his outward appearance might miss his remarkable journey filled with varied experience. As a result, they might miss the richness of his diversity and the commonalities they can draw from it.
Samuel also would agree that being a Haitian kid is a big part of his identity, but he made another point that could be easily missed. His immigrant story is much like those of other families who came to the U.S. to pursue better opportunities. He speaks with a noticeable accent, mostly Creole and a smidge of east Brooklyn. Just because he came from what most might consider an impoverished island does mean he only sees the world through those lenses.
“I am just as comfortable listening to kompa as I am listening to hip hop,” he explained. “On one hand I speak French and Creole; on the other hand I’m just as American as everyone else.”
The point he’s making is that identity forces people to fit themselves into certain boxes, and the people around them to do the same.
“In today’s political correctness if you don’t highlight my identity, somehow you are dismissing my identity,” Samuel said. “We spend a lot of time doing that.”
The fact remains that most only see diversity as race, varied abilities, sex and sexuality. It’s more nuanced than that for people who emigrate here. There is a sense of duality most cannot relate. Famed author and sociologist W.E.B. DuBois addressed the idea of double consciousness among Blacks in some of his works. This is important in the context of the issues immigrants face, and one that Samuel acknowledged.
But it is also a conversation that is tough to approach when he engages students on diversity and inclusion issues at Virginia Tech. He explained that how he identifies himself is indeed how he identifies himself. While these differences are important, it is only part of the picture.
“We put so much emphasis on the differences that we don’t see the common things,” he said.
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 The name is changed to protect the family’s privacy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Duane Bourne is media relations manager for Huntington Ingalls Industries, the nation’s largest military shipbuilding company and a provider of professional services to partners in government and industry. He brings 20 years of progressive communications experience to this role. Bourne crafts communications and media plans to support milestone events, such as ship christenings, and high-profile visits for Newport News Shipbuilding division. A graduate of Stony Brook University, currently he is pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.