As protests rock the US following the death of African-American George Floyd in police custody, Kenyan journalist Larry Madowo writes about the racism he has experienced in the country.
In my first week in New York City last summer, I was invited to dinner at a friend’s penthouse on the wealthy Upper West Side.
I picked up some fruit for her and arrived at her building carrying a plastic bag.
The front desk sent me through an open courtyard to the back of the building, past residents’ garbage bags and into a surprisingly dirty lift.
When I got off upstairs, my host opened the door mortified, all the colour drained from her face.
“My racist doorman thought you’re a delivery guy and made you use the service elevator,” she explained as she apologized.
I have worked in the complicated racial hierarchies of South Africa and the UK and have travelled around the world, but it still stung that an American butler did not think accomplished white people like my friend and her husband could have a black dinner guest.
That early micro-aggression forewarned me that America may be the land of opportunity for many, but it would still reduce me to the colour of my skin and find me unworthy.
It did not matter that I am from a black majority African nation, people who look like me here have to negotiate for their humanity with a system that constantly alienates, erases and punishes them.
In Kenya, I may disappear into the crowd, but in America I always have a target on my back for being black.
A day after investment banker Amy Cooper called the police after a Harvard-educated black man asking her to follow park rules and leash her dog, a white policeman knelt on George Floyd’s neck for so long it eventually killed him.
I was heartbroken.
As protests broke out nationwide to demand justice for Floyd and the countless other black people who have been killed by police, I held my breath.
How could I grieve for someone I did not know? How could I own a pain I had not lived, as an African “fresh off the boat” in America? I wondered if I would be appropriating the African-American struggle at a convenient moment.
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Then I saw a video shot at a protest in Long Beach, California, that was clear about allegiances.
“The best way that Africans in America can support African-Americans is to stand with us, and to understand that we’re all the same,” said a protester.
I asked Tom Gitaa – a publisher of Mshale newspaper, which serves African immigrants in the Midwest of the US – what he made of the protests, subsequent riots and looting that began in his city of Minneapolis.
“Many of us didn’t grow up with some of these civil rights issues in Africa so sometimes our understanding is not there.
“But with issues like police brutality and discrimination at the workplace, we’re running into a lot of the same things African-Americans have experienced over the years,” said Mr Gitaa, who moved to the US from East Africa about 30 years ago and whose American-born 24-year-old daughter has been one of the people making their voices heard on the streets.
There has always been tension between Africans and black Americans.
My friend, Karen Attiah, and I unpacked some of it in The Washington Post two years ago when the superhero film Black Panther came out.
She is the paper’s Global Opinions editor, a daughter of African immigrants – born in the US, but deeply connected to her parent’s home continent.
‘Black men are most mistreated’
Protesters with African flags or with signs in languages from the continent have also been spotted at events in different parts of the US.
“People of colour, especially black men, are the most mistreated, misvalued and misunderstood community on this planet,” a tearful Jada Walker told a crowd of marchers outside the Dallas City Hall in Texas.
She worried about what awaits her two-year-old nephew who has special needs when he grows up.
“How is a cop going to treat him when he stands 6ft 8in like his father, is not communicative and looks like someone they’re looking for?”