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Negotiating Identity: African Students in British and American universities

Sarah Ladipo Manyika

Africans have been studying in British and American universities in significant numbers for much of this century. To this day, some of Africa's most prominent political leaders, scholars, and professionals, have been educated in Britain or the US. The expectations of a Western educated African are high (both within Africa and abroad), yet to date, there has been little study of these Africans. There is scant knowledge of how students, who come from many different socio-political and economic backgrounds, experience and negotiate those aspects of their identity, which they, or others, define by race, class, and nationality.

Instead, in both the UK and the US, the African experience is often simplistically equated with the local black experience or with the experience of other international students. This study goes beyond these explanations. It uses primary research from survey data and in-depth interviews to understand how African students, who come from many different regions and socio-political and economic backgrounds, experience and negotiate their identities around race, class, and nationality within the US or the UK. The findings from this study indicate that identity negotiation processes are informed by a person's background experiences in addition to the specific contexts of race, class, and nationality in the host country of study. While the data reveal both similarities and differences between student experiences in the UK and the US, the most significant differences emerge around issues of race. In America, the historical legacy of segregation and racism is dominant in the African student experience whilst in the UK, it is primarily the national and class constructs that are dominant in the African student experience.

In addition to these comparative findings, this study provides a unique set of insights around the nature and outcomes of identity negotiation processes. The study reveals the importance that persons attach to the need to “fit in”, to “perform” differently in different social contexts, and to assert an authentic sense of self. While recognizing the dynamic nature of the negotiation processes, this study also examines the various outcomes of these processes, which include multiple identities and changing perceptions of agency. Such observations provide unique perspectives on the tensions and complexities of identities in an increasingly global world.

Workshop topic question under Raciscm and the Academy:

  • What do the experiences of African students’ abroad reveal about European social constructions of race?

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