Black immigrant panelists share unique perspectives on America

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Race and Immigration panelists answer questions at a Black History Month event on Feb. 6. From left to right, Deborah Alexis, Dumdi Baribe, Tendela Tellas, Sherinah Saasa and Kirstie Stanger. (Rebecca Nissen)

Five immigrant women from Africa gathered on Thursday afternoon in honor of Black History Month to discuss the experience and challenges of being a black immigrant in America.

The event’s keynote speaker was Sherinah Saasa, a Zambia native with a doctorate in social work. Saasa came to the United States to receive an education with the intent to return to Zambia when she was finished. She now lives in Utah and is raising three African-American daughters.

“There is no denying the blessings, opportunities and freedoms America has to offer are immense,” Saasa said. “But there is another side to the story.”

Saasa explained that those who come to America from Africa are faced with three major disadvantages: misperceptions of their homeland, racialization and isolation.

She said the American perception of Africa includes poverty, limited resources and deficits rather than resourcefulness, hard work and innovation, and that these stereotypes negatively affect those of African heritage living in the United States.

“People question my intelligence and undervalue my skill set,” Saasa said. “These misconceptions foster discrimination and impact job opportunities, wages, housing and health outcomes.”

Sherinah Saasa shares her experiences as a Zambian immigrant at the Black and Immigrant Panel on Feb. 6. (Rebecca Nissen)

Other panelists joined in to talk about the issues of racialization and understanding what it means to be a black American. 

Kirstie Stanger is a first-year graduate student studying sociology. She was born in Ethiopia before being adopted by a family from Orem when she was three years old. 

“I started to learn in school about African Americans in this country and how they have been treated very unfairly, and still are,” Stanger said. She explained that while her childhood was mostly unaffected by her race, coming to BYU was difficult because new people did not know her background and treated her differently. 

“I had to start educating myself about why people feel differently about me simply because of the color of my skin,” she said.

Saasa had a similar experience. She said after coming from a country where she was the racial majority, she had to learn what it meant to be black in American society. 

“How does one come to terms that others classify your race at the bottom of the totem pole?” Saasa said. “We see color first and we see people through the lens of color with all the stereotypes that go with that. But I’m not a race; I am a human being.”

Tendela Tellas, a sophomore studying sociocultural anthropology, said despite her family’s Congolese heritage, she has grown to feel very connected to the African American social movements in the United States, including Black Lives Matter. 

“I’m just trying to stand with my black brothers and sisters in making America more equal,” Tellas said. “I love standing with the Black Lives Matter movement no matter who tells me that I shouldn’t or can’t.”

Deborah Alexis, the panel’s moderator and current president of the BYU Black Student Union, agreed. Alexis lived in Haiti until the fifth grade when she moved to the United States with her parents.

“To be black in America is to face a lot of these systematic issues,” Alexis said. “Being in America I become black, so I can recognize that the movement has meaning for me.” 

Alexis also expressed gratitude to African Americans who have fought for civil rights and equality throughout America’s history.

“I wouldn’t be able to be at this institution today without the work of African Americans who have laid the foundations for me,” she said.

According to the Federal Census Bureau, one in 10 black Americans is an immigrant today, as opposed to one in 100 in 1970. This rise in an African immigrant population, along with recent travel bans and other immigration issues, has created a need for more of these conversations, Saasa said.

The panel was sponsored by the David M. Kennedy Center’s Africana Studies Program. Leslie Hadfield, the program’s coordinator, encouraged interested students to look into a minor in Africana studies. 

“Our goal is to address these very relevant issues here on campus and hope we are making a difference,” Hadfield said.

From left, Rachel Weaver, Grace Soelberg and Tendela Tellas listen intently to panelists. (Rebecca Nissen)
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