I left Nigeria 25 years ago—but America just sees me as black

It stings, but doesn’t surprise.

No criminal charges were brought yesterday against the New York City police officer who tussled with a black man and the latter ended up dead.

I wasn’t even mildly surprised.

By now, I know better. I moved to New York 25 years ago and spent most of that time as a reporter covering the city. I have investigated stories on corruption and the misuse of funds that have resulted in some serious consequences for people, including getting fired.

The death of Eric Garner—placed in a chokehold by an officer in a fight over loose cigarettes— was caught on video, though. I saw it and knew nothing would happen. Perhaps I am jaded.

Journalists hold up the mirror to our societies. We don’t have to like what is looking back at us.

New Yorkers have reacted with demonstrations. More than 30 people were arrested yesterday. More protests are expected today. Thousands are tweeting and Facebooking their fury.

America is having another racial moment. I’ve covered these before. And yet I’m still left wondering why, in 2014, black men scare the bejesus out of white police officers.

I suspect most Africans of my generation aren’t conscious of race until we have this awkward dance with her after we’ve settled in the first world.

Growing up in Nigeria, I was an Asaba man first. My ethnic identity was a source of pride. While I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, I wasn’t Yoruba.

And Lagos might have been home, but Asaba was and is where I come from.

For me, and those of my ilk, our whole identity is wrapped up in our ethnic identity. You are a Yoruba, Ibo, Hausa or Fulani first, then Nigerian.

But once you set foot in America, you are Black.

It’s a shock to the system but then you get with the program, assimilate or remain fiercely African.

Or Nigerian. Not just the catch-all “black.”

I was just beginning my career around the time of the vicious Rodney King beatings at the hands of white police officers, also videotaped, and the riots that followed in 1991. I can still remember the shooting death of an unarmed African son, Amadou Diallo in 1999 in the Bronx. Forty-one shots fired, and none of the shooters, all Caucasian, got any jail time.

Even after Diallo, in 2000, Patrick Dorismond, a dad of two, brushed off an uncover officer who inquired about drugs, was shot killed outside a bar in midtown Manhattan.

That officer got off with no criminal charges.

It was 50 shots that were fired at Sean Bell in 2006 on what was to be his wedding day. At least the shooters lost their jobs.

I didn’t grow up with the indignities that my African-American brothers endure daily—but they came eventually.

I’ve learned to put white fear in its own box when coded language like “angry” is used to describe hard working black professionals.

It really stings, but it no longer surprises.

It’s not just an American issue. Years ago, I walked past a blonde guy in a bar in Amsterdam. Instinctively, he reached back to grab me and held me—making sure his wallet was still in his pocket before letting go. This was in supposedly enlightened Europe.

It stung, but didn’t surprise.

Just last week, a young Liberian woman had to school much older white people in Britain that the entire African continent isn’t infested with Ebola. That she had to ask them to check their white savior complex in 2014 was shocking to me.

I spoke on a panel about newsroom diversity right after Ferguson erupted. I told the large group of New York University students to embrace all the things that made them different, whether it was ethnic diversity or ginger hair.

One student asked me what needed to be done to make changes in our world.

I responded that I thought it the responsibility of the powerful, the majority, white folks in general, to embrace and demand fairness for those who are not like them.

And it doesn’t have to involve money. Or maybe, it does have to in these cases.

New York City has paid millions in taxpayer dollars to settle civil cases of the families of minority men that police have killed. We all deserve better than what we are getting. Black lives matter and should be everyone’s concern.

I’d like to be pleasantly surprised soon.

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