New filmmaker Kobina Aidoo explores the impact of immigration on the term African American

Caitlin Yoshiko Buysse | 3/9/2010, 10:46 a.m.
Filmmaker Kobina Aidoo, Ghana native and Harvard alum, examines the complicated relationship between African Americans and African immigrants in his new film, “The Neo-African-Americans.”

“We have to rethink this term,” Aidoo said.

But blacks in the United States have always debated these terms. During the Civil Rights Movement, blacks discarded “Negro” and “colored” — terms coined by whites — in exchange for self-identification as “black” and “Afro-American.” In the 1980s, Jesse Jackson popularized “African American” to emphasize cultural and ethnic roots over skin color.

This debate was renewed as Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan immigrant, emerged as a presidential candidate, raising questions of whether a slave ancestry was necessary to be considered African American.

But for Aidoo, the issue of naming is not just semantics.

After film school, he studied public policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and began looking at racial identity from a policy perspective.

For instance, in his film, Aidoo raises questions about affirmative action. In higher education, immigrants and children of immigrants are hugely overrepresented in the black student population — and the more elite the school, the more over-represented they are. At Ivy League universities, they represent 40 percent of the black student population.

“African immigrants have turned the achievement gap on its head,” said Aidoo.

Affirmative action does not distinguish between African Americans and black immigrants and their children—it groups them together on the basis of skin color—raising the question of whether black immigrants should benefit from affirmative action.

 Labeling has affected other policy issues as well, like African refugees in the United States. In part because the U.S. government does not distinguish between African Americans and African immigrants, it has faced some difficulty finding ways to properly assist these refugees.

At the same time, events like the murder of Amadou Diallo — the 23-year-old Guinean immigrant who was shot by police — prove that African immigrants and African Americans also share many challenges that can be overcome only by working together.

“The police didn’t ask, ‘Are you African American?’ before shooting,” Aidoo said.

Aidoo’s goal is not to endlessly categorize each ethnic group in the black population. His goal is simply increased understanding of the growing diversity within the black community, and to “think, talk and transform.”

He hopes the film, which is now screening across the United States, provides an opportunity for people to examine this contentious issue, to engage in conversation, and to develop mutual understanding. But ultimately, he hopes that these dialogues will lead to a transformed relationship between African Americans and African immigrants — one of unity, not division.