ALIEU B. SANNEH
GRADUATE STUDENT, University of Missouri-St. Louis
August 9, 2017
Comparing the differences between race in the United States and ethnicity in the Gambia.
Race and racial policies is a hot topic of discussion in the United States. Like many other challenges this country faces, race stands out as one the most polarizing aspects and continues to raise concerns over the way in which minority citizens are treated in the United States. I am not from here; I grow up in the Gambia a small country located in West Africa. I must also admit that my understanding of race and racial policies in this country have been limited prior to my emigration to the United States. In 2014, I obtained a visa and came here to pursue graduate studies and having been here for almost four years. I am able to recognize that, in every society there is a system of categorization that is unique to its demographic composition. While in the United States the characteristic of race is in the form of White and Black, Latino etc. In the Gambia ethnicity is based on tribal affiliation and people identify themselves as Mandinka, Fula, Wolof and Jola, etc. Therefore, it would not be judgmental for me to argue that social identification based on racial background, in favor of my own Gambian ethnic categorization, is a negative. The meaning of race may be different as well as ethnicity across different societies, but similar in that, these are all various forms of demographic identification. However, what is concerning in the United States is that racial categorization comes in the form of policy which appears to favors one aspect of the population over the others, whereas in the Gambia all ethnic groups, despite of their differences are all treated the same and have equal rights and opportunities regardless of ethnic background.
My first encounter with race was when I was on the flight travelling to the US. I was given a form which required me to provide my background information. The flight attendant had informed me that this information was needed by US Immigration at the airport. As I looked through the racial categories listed, I saw none that really captured my true identity. I began to wonder who am I in this new society and where do I really belong? I figured it out before the immigration officer shouted the answer; “You are Black/African American”. I accepted this new identity without further question. Moreover, having had to go through long hours flying from my country to the US, and this, the first time on such a flight, I was tired enough and wasted no time in embracing my new identity.
In the Gambia, most people’s ethnic identities are recognized through their surnames. It can also be confusing because some surnames are shared between or among different ethnic groups. My surname is Sanneh and even though my ethnicity is Jola, it could also be Mandinka. In the Gambia, despite our ethnic differences, we have figured out a way to get along. We do not let tribal identity get in the way as a people of one nation who share a common identity. Perhaps this is one aspect of the ethnic solidarity, tolerance and understanding that the almighty America can emulate from the little Gambia in building racial harmony. Admittedly, I may be simplifying a complex issue such as race which I will argue is rooted in a historical factor that is central to the evolution of the United States. However, if the mark of US history is to be meaningful and not just only about narrating past events, we must learn not to repeat the same mistakes in the future; this would be a crucial step in moving forward towards racial harmony and combating social injustices against minorities in the United States. This was one of the reasons why I chose to pursue an internship with Anti-Defamation League here in St. Louis — to have a first-hand experience on aspect racism and racial policies through education and advocacy as well as to assist in many small ways to combat racial hatred.
The historical evolution of the Anti-Defamation League, and the organization’s work in the world of advocacy.
The Anti-Defamation League is a non-profit organization founded in 1913, dedicated to stopping the defamation of the Jewish people and to securing justice and fair treatment to all. ADL has a nationwide presence; its staff is committed to education and using various forms of advocacy to encourage acceptance and discourage hate. The Anti-Defamation League has a historical origin that greatly respects the Holocaust. This was an event that resulted in the systemic and brutal killing of approximately 6 million Jews by the Nazi Regime in Germany under the leadership of Adolf Hitler. This led to a military intervention by allied forces in World War II, and it is debatable as to whether such intervention was necessary to stop the killing of the Jewish People. Was it a human rights approach, or was there political motive in an attempt to collectively confront Hitler’s belligerence against other sovereign states? This will be subjected to an open to debate, and as Karen Aroesty, the ADL regional director once shared, “When we talk about the Holocaust, much of early education around it referenced a historical perspective, namely what happened during World War II, ignoring the specific horrors of death which happened to the Jewish people who were then thought to be a separate race”. I agree with Karen, and I will share that understanding of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism through a narrow historical lens has resulted in many people underestimating the real threat faced by the Jewish people. Even though Jews to some extent can claim privilege in their social standing as white, that shouldn’t ignore the fact that there are people out there who are anti-Semitic and want to kill Jews simply because they are Jews. The recent act of vandalism of the Jewish cemetery in St. Louis and in some parts of the country, as well suspicious bomb threats targeting the Jewish community centers across the country “is not fake news”; this makes the work of ADL and similar agencies fighting to combat hate crime much more relevant. This is true for this fact — if someone hates the Jews so much so that he/she is willing to desecrate cemeteries where they are buried, there is no question that given an opportunity such a person is willing to kill them for being who they are as a religious people.
My internship journey to the ADL and activity experienced
My first encounter with ADL was at the University of Missouri in St. Louis where I was assigned as a teaching assistant for a class called “The Politics of Hate, Differences and Social Justice” offered in collaboration with the Anti-Defamation League and its education program, the A World of Difference® Institute. Tabari Coleman, the Institute’s education director, facilitated alongside Professor Adriano Udani. Both have taught me important theoretical perspective about race and the dynamics within which it plays out in American society. Therefore, knowing that my knowledge is limited on the issue of race, I decided to pursue an internship with ADL this summer to expand my understanding about racial policies through the lens of this organization. I couldn’t be happier to have had the opportunity to work with this great organization and help in my small ways to support advocacy efforts.
At ADL, I have worked on a number of project proposals, one of which was the Early Childhood Initiative, a program specifically designed to provide anti-bias learning for children through their early childhood educators. The goal of the program is to assist caregivers, early childhood educators and families in creating and sustaining anti-bias early childhood programs. It takes specific work to create homes that appreciate diversity at an age when the seeds of prejudice among young children begin to take root. In addition, I have also assisted in drafting a proposed amendment to Missouri’s racial profiling statute, aimed at reducing police officers from racially targeting minority drivers in traffic stops. The proposal follows the original statute, enacted in 2000, which requires every police department in the state to annually issue a report to the attorney general and provide information on traffic stops. The data would indicate whether a search was conducted for every stop and if contraband was found during the search. In addition, the proposal seeks to consolidate police and community partnership through the creation of a committee that comprises of members of the society and law enforcement agents to encourage dialogue about the aspects of policing and ways in which it can be improved to better serve the society. This is the section of the proposal in the Bill with which I strongly identified, and in the State of Missouri which has recently been the focus of racial tensions in the wake of police shooting of an unarmed teenager, I consider it necessary as a way to help bring police and the community together to bridge the gap of mistrust, especially between the black communities and police officers.
Finally, my experience at ADL has been great and I felt a natural connection to the people I have worked with. Everyone was nice and both Karen and Tabari have given me the freedom to explore and independently think for myself without compromising standards. As someone with an academic background, this is a natural environment. I will thrive and I enjoyed every moment I had with ADL. However, as I round up my activities with ADL to go back to school, I know this will be a happy ending of my official of engagement with the organization, but certainly not my commitment to the mission and foundation of the Anti-Defamation League. I will stay true to myself and continue to fight in my small ways to advance the cause of social justice, to combat anti-Semitism and stop the defamation of the Jewish people. As I think through my encounter with some working in the Jewish community, one among many who stood out was Sarijane Freiman, one the docents at the Holocaust Museum & Learning Center here in St. Louis who said that, “We may all have a different form of worship, but if you take every faith to its essence, you will realize that there is something all of them share in common, which is thou shall not kill, thou shall not hate”. The key to understanding this powerful expression will be premised on our ability to accept one another. After all we are all human beings. We may disagree with each other’s ways of life, but if we can find a way to reconcile our differences, we may find common ground on which to love and not hate, to support one another to live and let live.
Special thanks to Karen Aroesty the regional director of the ADL, Tabari Coleman, the educational director as well Tasha Kaminsky, the director of development for all their friendship, support and encouragement during the course of my internship.