Why is it that Some Black Girls Don’t Sit Together In The Cafeteria?

Updated: Apr 16

These were some of the slurs slung at me by my White and African American peers when I was growing up in the United States of America. There seemed to be a weird disparity between my experiences as a newcomer to the U.S., and the perception of Africans in the western imagination. I was expecting a beautiful welcome from my phenotypically similar brothers and sisters. But instead, I was slapped in the face with questions such as these by my classmates and teachers: “Y’all grow up with lions and tigers?” “Did your family come here as refugees?” “How on earth do you all survive in Africa?”

Most of these notions are generated by the global media’s biased coverage of African nations and people for centuries. The media creates and perpetuates stereotypes, distorting people’s perceptions, and giving a misleading impression of specific groups, particularly Africans. Mass media (social media, television, magazines, and newspapers) is often the primary source of information and entertainment for the majority of people. It plays a vital role in the public’s introduction to, understanding of, and knowledge about various groups.

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Dr. J recommends these books to learn more about the African Diaspora.

Some Black Girls Don't Sit Together in the Cafeteria is a chapter book by Dr. Janet Awokoya that explores the legacy of Afrophobia, the fear and disdain of people of African descent. According to researcher Lucy Michael, Afrophobia is a distinctive form of prejudice and racism that has been inherent in the global portrayals, interactions, and understandings of Black populations. Afrophobia involves the conscious and unconscious process of pathologizing the entire continent of Africa, black cultures, and Black peoples as primitive, uneducated, diseased, and undesirable. The Diaspora Divide (Clarke, 2014) describes the ways in which Black people within the diaspora are disconnected. Historically divided by colonialism and slavery, Black peoples have further embraced these multilayered divisions by harboring internalized racism and Afrophobic sentiments. The centuries of separation and misinformation about the other, and often overlooked cultural differences, often results in friction between African immigrants and African Americans in the US.

African Americans have been a major part of the US population and significant contributors to the development of the country since its founding. Nearly all of these early Black people traced their routes to enslaved Africans who were involuntarily forced to migrate to the United States during the transatlantic slave trade. Black immigrants are used in this chapter book as an umbrella term that refers to those from African nations, Latin America, and Caribbean islands who have voluntarily and involuntarily migrated to the United States for social, educational, political, and economic reasons.

Dr. Awokoya narrates a story that, even though fictitious, is based on her research on the lived experiences of 1.5 and 2nd generation Nigerian immigrants (Awokoya, 2012).

Some Black Girls Don't Sit Together In The Cafeteria explores the experiences of being an African immigrant youth in the U.S. It is a window into the life of a young girl from Ibadan, Nigeria named Oluwaseyi Adebayo, who moved to the U.S. with her parents at eight years old and has to adapt to the new system she finds all around her.

An African is often unfamiliar with or naïve about American race politics, newly discovering the harsh realities of Blackness in the American society, while also being alienated from the larger African American population due to their unique histories, languages, immigration background, and ways of life. The African American students seem to easily sit together at the popular black table in the cafeteria. The Black African student finds that she struggles to blend in, preferring to sit at the far northeast table of the cafeteria.

She encounters emotionally debilitating questions like "Did y'all grow up with lions and tigers?", and "Does your mom swing from trees in the jungle?". These types of questions are constantly posed to her by her schoolmates, particularly her African American peers. The plot clearly depicts how Seyi struggles to blend in with members of the Black Table, whom she considers her people. She finds ready acceptance and possible friendship in Marcus and Kwame. On the contrary, Keisha, a heavyset, dark-skinned girl, and her homegirl, Tyneka, are confrontational and harsh. Unfortunately for Seyi, Keisha is the Queen of the Black Table, so most of the other Black students follow her example. The story also highlights the infighting and violence between Black girls, leaving room for readers to examine the origins of the hurt that exists and continues to hinder the progress of true sisterhood growing within the black community.

The effects of racial and cultural differences on immigrant youths are immense. For Seyi, it seems there is no escape from the bullying. It's there at school, and it's in the neighborhood when she returns home. Significant distinctions in behavior, language, diet, and values are usual points of conflict with her African American peers, even though she sees herself as one of them. For instance, pancakes, waffles, and hot pockets are typical breakfast fare for mainstream America, while ogi and akara, meat pies, and puff puff are the norm for the child from Nigeria. Ogbono soup is a sumptuous delicacy for her, but it’s just smelly "doo doo soup" to her African American peers.

The book also offers an insight into Seyi's African parents' mindset through their advice to her and how they respond in the face of taunts from the African American community (especially Seyi's dad when a group of kids on the street laugh at his sandals). The first generation, who immigrate in their adulthood are more impervious to racial taunts because they are more acquainted with, and therefore more confident of their cultural heritage. Unlike their kids, they are caught in a strange in-between place—neither completely African nor American.

In this intriguing tale, you can’t help but pity and admire Seyi in equal parts. As young as she is, she is saddled with the thankless task of being an ambassador for Africa, correcting widely held media stereotypes about Africans. She even has to educate her teachers and peers because the books and instructional materials "lacked critical, contextualized, and culturally relevant exploration of African cultures and people (pg 11).” The story is designed to give people from all backgrounds a deeper understanding of cross-cultural relationships, specifically intra-racial and inter-ethnic relations. At such a pivotal moment in U.S. history, it examines the institutionalized practice of punishing people for their skin color, country of origin, gender, and other socio-cultural aspects of their identity—things that they have no control over.

Some Black Girls Don't Sit Together In The Cafeteria is written in expository prose that whispers the need to heal from decades of infighting and struggle. Awokoya bravely illuminates the recurrent issues that have plagued and driven wedges between both populations. One thing is certain: forgiveness and peaceful co-existence are unattainable without courageous conversation starters like those posted at the end of each chapter. A unified front is necessary to combat racism, colorism, and all the myriad issues that confront Black people in the US and globally. All Black lives—African or African American—matter.

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