When people see me they often assume I am Black, which I proudly am. But I am also a second-generation Nigerian of the Igbo tribe—and that means reading Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is a rite of passage, I make a mean jollof rice, and I can’t wait to rock a stylish Ankara print dress and gele to the next Naija party.
By 2040, one in three children in the United States will grow up in an immigrant family. Currently, more than 3.5 million Black children in the U.S. have at least one immigrant parent hailing from Africa (like my family), the Caribbean, and Latin America.
But when Black immigrant students go to school, they report feeling treated as a monolith, racially categorized based on their physical appearance. The result: kids feel like they don’t belong, so they often struggle to persist in class.
So, what do we do about it?
First, acknowledge that everyone, no matter who you are and where you grew up, has a culture—and that shapes how you interact with the world and vice versa. Teachers who recognize students’ varied cultural backgrounds show that they do not have to choose one norm—home or school—over the other.
Seeing people for who they are helps you notice things—like the way immigrant children are constantly adapting to new environments. For example, some may act as language brokers: they translate and interpret information between peers, family, and teachers. Taking pride in this skill helps immigrant students forge stronger ties with both their home and school cultures, which can boost their academic performance.
Being inclusive—and not assuming that the White experience is the
norm—builds authentic supportive relationships and fosters a sense of belonging. When I was in high school, for example, my AP English literature teacher purposefully crafted a reading list with women authors and writers of color to reflect the diverse backgrounds of the class. She also encouraged us to draw connections between the readings and our own cultural experiences without making us feel like we were the spokesperson for our cultural group.
Don’t use skin color as the only indication of cultural background. Check yourself before you wreck yourself (cue Ice Cube) and acknowledge that people are more than what meets the eye.
Do get to know people. When you approach new people with genuine curiosity and intellectual humility, they will often happily tell you about their history and cultural background. If you’re a teacher, you can start the conversation by sending out an “About me” to students and families, then ask them to reciprocate. Also, be open to learning from your students. By inviting them to be co-creators of the learning environment, immigrant students will feel more connected, supported, and valued.
With humility and gratitude,
Adaurennaya “Ada” C. Onyewuenyi is an assistant professor of psychology at The College of New Jersey and directs the Identity Development across the African Diaspora Lab.
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