Zimbabwe students discuss ‘being black in America’

Harare, February 15, 2012: Zimbabwean students described being black in the United States as a challenge influenced by historical, regional and generational factors, but which offers international students an opportunity to educate colleagues about their country of origin.

Tendai (left) and Chiwoneso

Tendai (left) and Chiwoneso

“People have no idea where Zimbabwe is and they assume you can’t speak English and don’t know anything…so right from the introduction you have that barrier to overcome.  But generally in that situation once you start talking, people understand you and where you come from,” said Tendai Machingaidze, a student with Albany Medical College in the U.S.

Tendai and Chiwoneso Tinago facilitated a public Food for Thought discussion session at the U.S. Embassy’s Public Affairs auditorium on Tuesday where they answered questions about their experiences as black students in the United States. The event was held as part of Black History Month commemorations and offered prospective Zimbabwean students interested in study abroad the opportunity to appreciate cultural and racial dynamics.

“Being black didn’t put me in a box because blacks come from different backgrounds.  We are diverse in terms of the colour of our skin in America and also being from different countries and races. I did not experience any racism. There is sort of a balance as you go — we all want to know more about others and their different cultures,” said Chiwoneso, a Zimbabwean student in the U.S. since 2005.

The event was held as part of Embassy events to mark Black History Month and to offer prospective Zimbabwean students insights into life in the U.S. 

“Sometimes people explain to you things in such an elementary fashion because you are not from there….  People are fearful at times of things they do not understand,” said Chiwoneso, who graduated with Bachelor of Science in Psychology at the William Carey University in 2009 before earning a Masters degree in Public Health at the University of Southern Mississippi.

There are over 1,100 Zimbabwean students in the U.S., according to the Open Doors report published by the Institute of International Education, a leading not-for-profit educational and cultural exchange organization in the United States.

Each February, the U.S. celebrates Black History Month to honor the struggles and triumphs of millions of American citizens over the most devastating obstacles — slavery, prejudice, poverty — as well as their contributions to the nation’s cultural and political life.

Tendai and Chiwoneso have a combined 15 years studying in the U.S.  According to Tendai, geography and history play key roles in how America reacts to black African students.

“You have to look at history as well in the U.S.…and then it depends on which part of the country you are in, whether you are in the North or the South, because people have had different experiences.  Being black living in the North — in New York or Chicago — is different from being black and living in Texas, Mississippi and some of these other (southern) areas,” said Tendai who graduated with a biochemistry degree from Syracuse University in New York in 2005 and completed Masters of Education degree at Southwestern Seminary in Texas in 2009.

“In the university setting, because there are international students from all over, it’s a little bit easier.  People are more open and are used to seeing people from different countries, different races and cultures.  If you are out working…you have to be able to work with that,” said Chiwoneso who has worked as an intern with different organizations including at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

The students also noted a generational gap in perceptions of black people.

“I had a friend of mine that I met in Texas and she had invited me over for Thanksgiving,” recalled Tendai. “Instead of having Thanksgiving holiday at her parents’ house, it turned out that they changed the venue to her grandparents’ house.  She turned to me and said, I don’t think you can come to my grandparents’ house because my grandparents have never invited a black person,” said Tendai. “I ended up not going but we are still good friends.”

“Generation-wise, young people tend to be a little more open,” said Chiwoneso, who established an international students association during her undergraduate years at the University of Southern Missisippi to promote cross-cultural understanding among students. “I would tell people this is what we eat – sadza — and share experiences from other cultures.” Chiwoneso urged students to get involved in breaking down barriers.

The students explained their view that the barriers are not due to racism but to stereotypes that result from “being different.”

“It’s not racial profiling, it’s attitudes that you face.  I remember I was watching the Olympics and there was a swimming contest. Kirsty Coventry’s race came up…and one of my friends remarked that there was no one representing Zimbabwe because there was no black person, so I had to explain that we also have white people in Zimbabwe,” said Tendai.

The students also emphasized that universities and colleges in the U.S. had programs to ensure that international students do not experience any form of abuse due to their skin color or origin.

“Most American universities encourage diversity…,” said Chiwoneso. “It is a good learning experience — it gave me an opportunity to grow in terms of how you present yourself to people.”

“In terms of their educational policy, students are offered a platform where you can report any racism affecting you.  I didn’t encounter any,” noted Tendai.  ZimPAS© February 2012