What About My Cultural Anxiety?

There’s nothing so fraught as being the American-born child of an immigrant

Protesters demonstrate near the entrance to a rally that US President Donald Trump will hold later in the evening at the BOK Center on June 20, 2020, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Much has been written about burgeoning cultural anxiety in the U.S., thanks to the political divisiveness of the Trump era. But I’ve come to disagree with the sentiments expressed by many authors.

For many White Americans, there’s an inextricable link between cultural anxiety and White supremacy, and it’s an inverse relationship: White cultural anxiety increases when the traditionally privileged majority senses chipping away of absolute power.

There were no articles about people like me, a firstborn and first-generation American-born Black man who is a direct descendant of a Nigerian immigrant with inextricable ties to other Nigerians in Africa and the U.S.

I am a Black man with a culture: African American. Historical events within my cultural sphere have kept cultural anxiety at the forefront of my thoughts. And I’m not satisfied with how writers and scholars have presented information about cultural anxiety as it relates to people of color. It should be a broader term, encompassing more than just a focus on White fragility. It doesn’t include the cultural anxieties of a first-generation immigrant, who must balance a double identity.

One afternoon, I sat down at my computer and Googled the term “cultural anxiety” — and was shocked to see the volume of information on the topic. I scrolled down the length of the first of countless pages, seeing multiple pieces on White people’s fears of becoming displaced by people of color. However, there were no articles about people like me: a firstborn, first-generation American-born Black man who is a direct descendant of a Nigerian immigrant with inextricable ties to other Nigerians in both Africa and the U.S.

My mind cannot form a definition of cultural anxiety that I feel comfortable articulating. But I can present a picture through my experiences. Shortly after my dad died of cancer six years ago, my mother encouraged me to become a formalized member of the ATU (Amaigbo Town Union), a group of Nigerians in Denver who meet every quarter to reestablish communication and plan for future functions. I resisted at first, but ultimately gave in to Momma’s gentle insistence.

I accompanied my mother to my first-ever meeting in October 2014. Other than the time I spent at the Cracker Barrel in Lincoln, Nebraska, I could not remember when I felt more out of place. Everyone at the meeting, including my mother, was fluent in Igbo, my people’s language. I was not well-versed with the customs, so I wasn’t prepared for the opening prayer and the distribution of the kola nut, ceremonies meant to formally welcome everyone. And as the meeting proceeded — the other attendees leaning in closer to communicate with one another, laughter bouncing off the surrounding walls — I stayed on the periphery, hoping not to be seen or heard.

Despite my anxiety, I kept going to these ATU meetings. I learned slowly. I crawled, then I walked; my mother had to guide her nearly 40-year-old son by the hands. I met a man with glasses at an ATU inauguration ceremony two years ago. He extended a hand and chatted me up. He asked for my name.

“Eze is my name,” I said.

“That is a good name,” he replied. “That means king, yes?”

“Yes, it does.”

“So, where are you from?”

My stomach started doing backflips. “I’m from Amaigbo,” I said.

“Okay, but where are you from?”

I squinted up at him. Hadn’t I already answered the question in the way that I was supposed to? “Amaigbo,” I said louder.

He made a motion with his hands to cut off the conversation. “That’s okay. That’s okay.”

As he walked away, I slumped forward, deflated. I wouldn’t see him for the remainder of the night, but his face imprinted in my memory. I imagined him tittering about the man who didn’t know where he was from. As I left that function, I promised myself that I would not become entrapped again. I’d tell the next Nigerian that I’m from Denver, Colorado — I was born in Denver — and absorb the inevitable correction.

Almost a year later, we hosted a meeting at our home. Mom made sure that the house was in immaculate condition, each photo of my deceased father arranged just so. The fruit and vegetable salads rested on top of the kitchen counter, with napkins, plates, and cutlery situated just to the right of the aluminum basins. Mom had wiped down the coffee table and hid my medications in the cabinets. Extra chairs had been placed around the periphery of the living room space. She instructed me to put the fried chicken on the remaining open area of the kitchen counter; a cooler of rice rested against the base of the counter.

The meeting was to start at 5:00 p.m., but mom and I knew that this day we’d be living on “Nigeria time” — so we expected our guests to start arriving at about 5:30 p.m.

The first knock on the door happened at 5:40 p.m. I lumbered — I weigh 250 pounds — over to the door and opened it. A Black man with a mustache stood on the concrete porch area, his face bathed by the light. He stepped onto the threshold. “Hello, Eze,” he said. He reached out his hand.

I took his hand into mine, and exhaled deeply, relieved because I actually, finally recognized this man after so many misfires. I made ready to address him by his first name.

“Hello, Jude,” I said. “Thank you so much for coming.”

Jude, looking as if he’d just been slapped in the face, maintained his grip on my hand.

“Eze,” he said. And then he said something to me in Igbo. I could not understand one word, but I instinctively knew that he was scolding me.

“I am your senior,” Jude said. “Remember, you are supposed to address me as your Uncle.”

My heart dropped. Way to go, Eze! The meeting hadn’t even started yet, and I already made mistakes. Perhaps a harbinger of things to come?

“I’m sorry, Uncle Jude,” I said. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”

I recovered from my foible and started the meeting off with a competent presentation of the Verdi drink, a symbol of welcome in attendance. The rest of the meeting went off without too much of a hitch. I did my best to follow the agenda.

If you’re a White American whose fear of ascendant non-White Americans has you worried, I feel no sympathy for you. Most of you live in all-White, English-speaking neighborhoods in suburbs and small towns. Your neighborhoods are not being “overrun” by Black and Brown people. I’m going to assume that many of you live hundreds of miles away from states with significant amounts of people of color. You’re not expected to navigate intercultural dynamics within your own homes, and no one asks you to learn another language to fit in.

Your lives are nowhere near as complicated as that of a son or daughter of an immigrant.

I am a teacher, essay writer, survivor, foodie, and politically obsessed progressive. ep2ihenetu@gmail.com

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