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Beyond Expectations: Second-Generation Nigerians in the United States and Britain

Beyond Expectations: Second-Generation Nigerians in the United States and Britain

by Onoso Imoagene

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In Beyond Expectations, Onoso Imoagene delves into the multifaceted identities of second-generation Nigerian adults in the United States and Britain. She argues that they conceive of an alternative notion of "black" identity that differs radically from African American and Black Caribbean notions of "black" in the United States and Britain. Instead of considering themselves in terms of their country of destination alone, second-generation Nigerians define themselves in complicated ways that balance racial status, a diasporic Nigerian ethnicity, a pan-African identity, and identification with fellow immigrants.  
Based on over 150 interviews, Beyond Expectations seeks to understand how race, ethnicity, and class shape identity and how globalization, transnationalism, and national context inform sense of self.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520292321
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/21/2017
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Onoso Imoagene is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. 

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Beyond Expectations

Second-Generation Nigerians in the United States and Britain

By Onoso Imoagene


Copyright © 2017 Onoso Imoagene
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96588-1


Setting the Context


Titi Ajayi, a twenty-nine-year-old researcher with a PhD, came to the United States when she was twelve years old. She learned to think of herself in racial terms only after her arrival. She experienced "culture shock" because, she said, "it was really my first time of thinking about white. I knew that there were white people and Asians in the world, but I didn't know that people actually called [other people] white. I was surprised that the color white is what you called somebody. That was a foreign thing to me. Because before wherever I lived people were just different, but it was never, you never just called somebody white." Titi continued, "I remember I had to learn, oh, when you say white you mean a person, that's actually a person. That black means a person. So, that was one of the big things I had to learn in the United States." Even as she has learned to think of herself as black, Titi also identifies as Nigerian as well as Nigerian American.

British respondents shared similar stories of racialization. Adex Malik, a thirty-year-old pharmacist, told me he was not treated as racially different when he was a child growing up in Britain. As he put it, "Everything was hunky-dory." But then: "As my friends used to say, when you are young, before the age of ten, you are a cute little boy. But when you become eleven you become a black person." When asked why he thought this happened, he told me: "You begin to get more aware of what is going on and you start to have different experiences at that point. You begin to feel the difference in the way people view you. Before I was no threat to anybody. I was just a little kid." Now, as a black man, he is perceived racially, as scary, hypersexual, and prone to violence: "White people cross the street to avoid me. Elderly white people riding on buses look at me 'funny.'" As a child he "had no full understanding of race," but he does now. Like Titi, Adex is aware that racially he is black while simultaneously identifying in other ways, as Nigerian and African.

These vignettes underscore the importance of ethnoracial contexts in the process of identity formation among the Nigerian second generation. The objective of this chapter, then, is to delineate both the national contexts and the contexts of reception in which the Nigerian second generation form ethnic identities. Next, I turn to a discussion of the predicted assimilation outcomes for the black second generation that flow out of racialization and segmented assimilation theories and their conception of black identity and blackness that the experiences of the Nigerian second generation in both the United States and Britain have led me to challenge. Overall, the focus of this chapter is to understand how history, politics, and immigration shape the national context for black natives and black immigrants and how the composition of Nigerian communities in the United States and Britain impact the assimilation outcomes of their second generation.


When studying identity formation among the Nigerian second generation, the United States and Britain provide an ideal comparison of national contexts. Both are advanced, English-speaking, Western democracies with racially and ethnoculturally diverse populations — populations projected to grow increasingly diverse due to immigration. In both the United States and Britain, racial hierarchies exist, with white people placed at the top as the presumably superior race and black people placed at the bottom. Racial boundaries are normally drawn on the basis of physical markers such as skin pigmentation, hair texture, and facial features, while ethnic boundaries are normally drawn on the basis of cultural markers such as language, religion, and shared customs. Although notions of race as a meaningful biological category have been debunked, as has also racial science, which linked social outcomes to biological traits, race and racial categorization still hold great social and political power in contemporary British and American society. Consequently, race can be defined as "a concept, a representation or signification of identity that refers to different types of human bodies, to the perceived corporeal and phenotypic markers of difference and the meanings and social practices that are ascribed to these differences." Both nations have long histories of racism and discrimination against black people. In the United States, antiblack discrimination has its roots in the ethnoracial traumas of trading and possessing enslaved Africans and legal segregation (Jim Crow). In Britain, the roots of antiblack discrimination are traced to the imperial history of slavery, colonialism, and color segregation. All of these practices were maintained and given legitimacy by the ideologies of white supremacy and black inferiority. The one big difference between the United States and Britain is that African Americans endured slavery and segregation on American soil, whereas black people in Britain are mostly immigrants from the West Indies, Africa, and other former British colonies. For Britain, trade in enslaved Africans and the practice of slavery occurred far away from the British motherland. Even though significant racial progress has been made since the abolition of the slave trade and slavery, with many laws being passed banning antiblack discrimination in public spaces and organizations, black people in both countries still experience significant racial prejudice and discrimination.

Past and present social policies and societal arrangements, such as the persistence of institutional racism in both countries, the ghettoization of inner cities in the United States, and mass incarceration that affects more ethnic minorities — and especially more blacks than whites — have created and maintained significant racial inequality in both societies. Black people on the whole lag behind whites on many measures, including education and health outcomes, employment and labor market experiences, housing and residential segregation, income and wealth, and judicial experiences and sentencing. Despite the prediction of traditional assimilation scholarship, which holds that social mobility is correlated with social acceptance, racism affects even middle-class blacks. In the United States, the black middle class face housing segregation just like the black poor, with the average middle-class black person living in a neighborhood worse than those inhabited by the white poor. Thus the returns on socioeconomic status for blacks in terms of neighborhood quality are much lower than for other groups. In both Britain and the United States, blacks do not perform as well as whites in school, are more likely to be in prison, have lower employment rates, have less wealth, have children as teenagers or out of wedlock, and are less likely than whites to marry. These dreary statistics, when taken together, are evidence of racial discrimination and the deleterious effect of racism on black people's life chances. In short, in both countries antiblack racism still profoundly affects many aspects of black people's lives. And in both countries, the state is rearticulating these racialized ideologies, retreating from policies designed to relieve racial inequality. And in both countries, many whites refuse to see how racial barriers and institutional racism in many sectors such as law and the judicial system maintain racial inequality between blacks and whites. Their refusal to confront these issues also saps the political will to bring about change.

Yet there are key differences between the two countries in terms of how race politics are articulated. While both the United States and Britain have color lines separating blacks from whites, the latter's ethnosomatic stratification system is not as rigid as the one found in the United States. Britain's ethnosomatic stratification system is described as one of proletarian incorporation, where society is not organized along racially constituted lines, whereas the United States has a dichotomous/binary code restricting blacks to one side of the color line. There is no consensus among scholars on whether the U.S. color line has evolved from black/white to black/nonblack or a tri-racial system similar to those found in Latin America, but within this debate, black people are usually understood to be at the bottom of the racial hierarchy. The less strict rigidity of Britain's ethnosomatic stratification system is revealed in the political usage of "black" as a broad category encompassing African, Caribbean, and South Asian groups in postwar Britain up until its reduced usage in the twenty-first century. The term has been the subject of some controversy, but it was used to call attention to ethnic minorities' "outsider" status, their similar proletarian structural position within British society "as workers performing predominantly unskilled and semi-skilled jobs on the lowest rungs of the economy," and to mobilize resistance to their treatment in Britain that is attributable largely to their non-whiteness. Being black was an expression of political solidarity among Africans, Caribbeans, and South Asians. The emergence in Britain of the term black demonstrates the influence of the U.S.-based Black Power movement on British ethnic minorities and their fight for civil rights. Similar political alliances between racialized groups in the United States where they fight under the umbrella term black have not occurred in the United States. While some nonwhites organize politically under the category "people of color," it has been argued that over the course of U.S. history, immigrant groups who have assimilated have done so at the expense, or on the backs of, native blacks. As a result of these differing ethnoracial systems, I expect that British respondents would draw less sharp boundaries between themselves and their proximal hosts than would U.S. respondents.

The United States and Britain hold differing views on the role of immigrants in their societies. Though both nations have long histories of immigration and are top destination countries for immigrants, they hold dissimilar views on the place of immigrants in their national identities. Immigration is part of the charter myth of the United States, which, despite its peaks of nativist sentiment and xenophobia, likes to claim it is a "nation of immigrants" and thus more welcoming to the foreign-born. Conversely, Britons are generally more hostile to immigrants, especially from its former colonies in Asia, the Caribbean, and Africa, with many white Britons perceiving immigration "as being akin to war and invasion." Because of these differing views on immigrants and their role in nation building, my U.S. respondents should feel more welcomed in the United States than their counterparts do in Britain.

In both the United States and Britain, many of the native-born harbor anxieties about the new immigrants in their country: in the United States the fear is of the "browning," or Hispanicization, of America; in Britain the fear is the rise of nonassimilating ethno-Islamic groups and radicalized Islamic minorities who purportedly pose a threat to security and whose communities serve as breeding grounds for domestic terrorists. In Britain, Islam has become the immigration fault line, whereas in the United States Latinos are the immigration fault line. Immigrants who represent these fault lines experience increasing xenophobia and hostility to their presence. Right-wing movements influence the politics of immigration and engender an environment for multiple racisms to occur. In Britain, the National Party runs on an anti-immigration policy platform. In the United States, the Republican Party on the whole and the Tea Party, which leans Republican, oppose any immigration law that includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, which disproportionately affects immigrants from Mexico. This comparative structural analysis of race relations is key to understanding the similarities and differences in the experiences of the Nigerian second generation in both countries. In short, national contexts of reception matter.


There exists a view that that ethnic differences among blacks are of minimal sociological importance. This view is related to the prominence of the ethnicity paradigm as one of the major schools of thought in assimilation scholarship.The ethnicity paradigm emerged as a challenge to the biologistic explanations of race and beliefs about racial superiority and inferiority. Ethnicity theory, which was based on the experiences of white immigrants from Europe to the United States, sought to understand how these ethnic groups were assimilating and becoming American. Assimilation is the process whereby immigrants and their descendants become integrated into, and more like members of, their host society via prolonged exposure to and socialization in their institutions. It can also be viewed as the decline in ethnic differences. The sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant argue that ethnicity theory "operated on cultural territory" and treated "race as a matter of ethnicity," pushing an understanding of race "in terms of culture." This paradigm has been critiqued for promoting an image of an egalitarian society, rather than a discriminatory one, because it is suggested that all groups, irrespective of race, religion, or color, can succeed in the new country and become full citizens depending on their willingness or ability to acculturate. The flipside of this belief is that if a certain group is not doing as well as others it must be due largely to deficiencies within the group — its cultural practices, family structure, lack of goal-oriented identities, attitudes, and so on. Consequently, according to the ethnicity paradigm, the significance of race and institutional racism is underplayed because race and thus racial inequality are reduced to being cultural phenomena.

According to this logic, all black people are to be lumped into a single ethnic group, with race and ethnicity treated as interchangeable. The persisting significance of race, what blackness means in these countries, and the structural barriers imposed by racism that adversely affect black people more than all other groups, including other nonwhite groups who also experience forms of discrimination and exclusion, are underplayed. While the ethnicity paradigm is often employed to ethnicize whites, thus downplaying race when it comes to whites, black ethnic differences are generally treated as insignificant due to race. As Omi and Winant conclude, "The ethnicity approach views blacks as one ethnic group among others. It does not consider national origin, religion, language, or cultural differences among blacks as it does among whites, as sources of ethnicity. ... [T]here is in fact, a subtly racist element in this substitution — in which whites are seen as variegated in terms of group identities, but blacks 'all look alike.'"

Studies using ethnicity theory propose cultural explanations for why black people fail to fully assimilate. These arguments are widely used to explain why African Americans, whose ancestors arrived in the United States long before those of white Europeans, who came in the great immigration wave of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, continue to lag behind according to most socioeconomic indicators of assimilation. Similar arguments are made about British blacks lagging behind other ethnic minorities in education and occupational outcomes. Black people have come to be viewed as having "one recognizable set of behaviors and cultural practices that render them unassimilable": a pathological culture — a culture of poverty — characterized by "a sense of resignation or fatalism, an inability to delay gratification and plan for the future, low educational motivation, low social and economic aspiration, a trend toward female centered families, and an inadequate moral preparation for employment." And in both the United States and Britain, blackness is seen as emblematic of criminality and economic disadvantage.

Many scholars have critiqued this portrayal of black people where blackness connotes poverty and criminality. Some do not reject the conclusion that a culture of poverty exists but argue instead that the deleterious cultural behavior found in black communities is an adaptive response to key structural factors limiting economic opportunities. These scholars point to institutional racism, residential segregation, and the concentration of poverty, poor-quality public schools in black neighborhoods, and a changing economic system in which well-paying manufacturing jobs have been replaced by poorly paid service jobs as key structural factors perpetuating black disadvantage and imperiling upward mobility among blacks.

Despite growing acknowledgment that ethnicity theory cannot satisfactorily explain the challenges to assimilation of nonwhite groups, including blacks, Asians, and Hispanics, many studies on the children of black immigrants operate with the assumption that native blacks possess a deleterious set of attitudes and behaviors. One of the most notable examples of this in assimilation scholarship is segmented assimilation theory.


Excerpted from Beyond Expectations by Onoso Imoagene. Copyright © 2017 Onoso Imoagene. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


1 • Setting the Context: Immigration, Assimilation versus Racialization, and the African and Nigerian Diasporas in the United States and Britain
2 • “You Are Not Like Me!”: The Impact of Intraracial Distinctions and Interethnic Relations on Identity Formation
3 • “It’s Un-Nigerian Not to Go to College”: Education as an Ethnic Boundary
4 • Forging a Diasporic Nigerian Ethnicity in the United States and Britain
5 • On the Horns of Racialization: Middle Class, Ethnic, and Black
6 • Feeling American in America, Not Feeling British in Britain

Appendix A: Notes on Method
Appendix B: Ethnic Identification Information

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