Things have calmed down in the Twin Cities between Somali immigrants and American born black people, but the tension generated when Somalis first landed here has by no means been completely resolved. It’s two worlds and the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood simply isn’t shared just because both groups have the same skin color. Think Italian immigrants and American-born Irish conflicting, ages ago. Same thing, only different.
In 2001, news outlets reported that, at Roosevelt High School, Somali and African-American youngsters had taken to regularly brawling at school. The fighting subsided, there was peace in the valley and one can be reasonably confident there won’t be a repeat of outright violence without some extraordinary incident sparking things off. Make no mistake, though. Tensions remain. It’s evident when Somali cab drivers refuse to pick up black American passengers. It’s evident when black American shoppers at department stores refuse to take their purchases to a Somali cashier and, instead, will gladly stand on a longer line.
Correction coming: This article originally characterized Riverside Plaza as “a housing project that, having disgorged African Americans wholesale, stands in a neighborhood that’s almost exclusively Somali today, with a few Hmong tenants here and here.” Fredda Scobey, of the Riverside Plaza Tenants Association, assures us that isn’t an accurate description, and we will insert a more accurate description of the history of Riverside Plaza as soon as we are able to verify some historical information.
Ali Warsame is executive director at East African Economic Development. His office is in the Brian Coyle Community Center on Minneapolis’ West Bank, across the street from Riverside Plaza.
Warsame noted his people aren’t the only ones to have a hard time arriving in America, saying “Every new immigrant goes through this.” He acknowledged, however, that American blacks broke ground on which Somali immigrants stand. “African American have gone through a lot of the struggles,” he said, adding that Somalis were not aware of black history in the United States. “We didn’t know the African Americans basically paved the way. And we [came] to this country without having to go through all of the same trouble.”
Warsame singled out an unsurprising ingredient in the alienation between Africans and African Americans. Mainstream media. “[It] showed us all the African Americans who were misbehaving,” he said. “The TV and the paper, most of times you get negative information.”
The result? A sense of superiority. The attitude African Americans most commonly hold in contempt when dealing with Somalis. “If you only rely on that information, people being jailed by the police,” he pointed out, “you are going to end up very soon believing African Americans are bad people. That’s what happened when we were new to [America].”
Mahmoud El-Kati, African-American historian and scholar, has spent a career studying and conveying the realities of African American and African life. He is of the opinion that whatever tensions remain are to be addressed but aren’t necessarily worth losing sleep over.
“There isn’t a huge conflict between African Americans and continental Africans,” El-Kati said. “It isn’t life-threatening. Not a major fight. People are not up in arms.” Placing things in the perspective of history, he stated, “This has been going on quite a while. Black people are staple Americans [and] have been here since the beginning and have lots and lots of people come here. From Africa, Asia, Europe. We were here when Poles and Italians came here and there was some accommodation. [Friction] is going to go on. I’ve had bad experiences with African individuals, been insulted and so forth, but it doesn’t make that person representative.”
He doesn’t see African-American attitudes toward Somalis as being all that different from what Ali Warsame said about media-induced perception. “A lot of it’s based on preconceived notions or the absence of an intelligent encounter. The first [thing] black people know is a generality. Not a thing about Somalians. Some of us couldn’t even spell it. Couldn’t find it on a map. This is a new reality that has emerged within the last 20 years or so, if that long. We don’t know, some of us, any more about Somalis or any other Africans than what we’ve seen in Tarzan movies.” Another stumbling block, he added, is “the other side of romanticism. Others of us look at Africa in the light that our ancestors were kings, an unreality that we have to straighten out.” El-Kati summed up, “It’s complex. We are not amoeba.”
It would, of course, be a very good thing were relations between the populaces not to explode all over again. Somalis are here to stay and American blacks who have a problem with that would do well to work on solving it. Or simply get used to being in a bad mood whenever the subject comes up. And Somalis who insist on looking down their noses might consider reappraising those to whom they condescend.
Toward that end, in the interest of at least sustaining a truce if not hopefully establishing actual peace, Ali Warsame and Mahmoud El-Kati come to the same conclusion. Information and communication are key. After all, the more you know about people and the more you interact with them, the more capable you are of seeing them as human beings and not just “the other”.
“A lot of Somali leaders in the community, including me”, Warsame reflected, “[came to] realize mistakes that were made. That we should initiate some sort of [forums] that could reconcile the differences between these two communities.” He noted that though there have been panels and roundtables, including a series that once took place at Lucille’s Kitchen in North Minneapolis and was broadcast over KMOJ, he’d like to see more of them and, importantly, have dialogues occur not just between leaders. “I hope that can extend to the families and the kids. And the elders.”
El-Kati concurred, saying, “I’m glad to see people are interested in creating some engagement, ’cause that’s what’s going to resolve things.”
A vital factor is understanding culture, not so much for Somalis as for African Americans. African Americans, indeed, are lifelong Americans and, as such, a great deal of their culture is readily accessible. One example is how widely hip-hop has spread. It is commonplace to see, just like suburban white kids, Somali youngsters dressing hip-hop style, talking hip-hop slang. On the other hand, Somalis are, by their traditions, insular and not particularly welcoming of outsiders.
“Somalis,” Warsame acknowledged, “came from a very closed culture where they do not interact anyone but themselves.”
This, of course, makes it hard for anyone outside their community to get to know them. This is more the case, however, for elders than for the youth, who, rather than living as strangers in a strange land, prefer to be part of the life they see going on around them.
A sticking point, Warsame said, is dating and marriage. “Some Americans are surprised when a Somali person says our girls cannot be married to an African American. That sometimes can ignite tension. Maybe African Americans take that as looking down. ‘How come your lady cannot marry me? I’m as good as a Somali man.'” He hastened to add, “It’s not because of anything to do with discrimination.”
In fact, it’s a matter of religion. Somalis are Muslim and Muslim women are not permitted to marry Christians or anyone else outside their religion unless that man first converts and becomes a Muslim. You will, of course, find couples here and there who depart from convention, but not many. Warsame sees even this as subject to change. “Just ten years ago, you would not have seen any marriage at all between a Somali and an African American,” he said. “Time changes things. In another ten years it will be still different. In times, a lot of things will improve.”
It’s undeniable. Familiarity, to turn the old saying around, breeds consent. Not just in romance, but in life at large. And change, as social change often does, can be expected from the young.