Through Nigerian Eyes

Onoso Imoagene, Assistant Professor of Sociology, explores the idea of race and national identity.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

By Abigail Meisel

How do people create an identity—national and ethnic—for themselves?

Often, immigrating to a foreign country means taking on a new identity, a complex process of adjustment and acculturation. When race comprises a part of a national identity, the process becomes even more complicated.

In her new book Beyond Expectations: Second-Generation Nigerians in the United States and Britain, published in February by the University of California Press, Onoso Imoagene, an assistant professor of sociology, explores the idea of race and national identity through a study of second-generation Nigerians in the United States and Great Britain, the two places that receive great numbers of Nigerian immigrants.

“I was quite surprised to find that the national identity of second-generation Nigerians is quite different in the United States and Britain,” Imoagene says. “Nigerians in America really believe in the ‘American Dream’ and feel that they are part of a great tradition of a nation of immigrants. In Great Britain, the opposite is true. There are far fewer second-generation Nigerians reporting that they feel ‘British’.”

Imoagene’s book is a window into the lives of second-generation diasporic Nigerians, and through that window a reader can gain perspective on larger questions about immigration and society today. What is the juncture between race, ethnicity and social class in forming a national and ethnic identities?  What roles do globalization and transnationalism play in creating a new sense of self in the wake of a national diaspora?

Imoagene found that her research concept presented two primary challenges: conceptual and logistical.

“When I was first conceiving of this research project as a doctoral student at Harvard, several professors suggested that there was little research on Africans because Caribbeans were a good enough proxy,” she explains, “I had to really explain to them how these two groups are not necessarily alike because both are black immigrants.”

Indeed, finding second-generation Nigerians as subjects did prove to be difficult, but Imoagene knew where to look. She contacted the Nigerian embassy in London and, with staff permission, sat in the waiting room with her screening questionnaire. She did this every day for three months in London and carried out a similar process, this time for two months, at the Nigerian embassy in New York, in order to find a pool of subjects she sought: people who had been born to Nigerian parents or those who had come to the United Kingdom and the United States before age 12.

She also reached out to Nigerian organizations, particularly organizations for children, as well as churches in both Britain and the United States and several other venues, such as family picnics.She followed up screening questionnaires with interviews.

Among her questions: “What does being British mean to you?” and “Do you think of yourself as an American?”

“On the UK side 20 percent of the people I interviewed would laugh when I asked them what being British meant to them personally. Typical answers were ‘Being British means nothing’ and ‘It means having a red passport’ [enabling them to travel in and out of the country]” Imoagene explained.“If I thought I was going to hear something about dying for Queen and country, I was wrong.”

In the United States, however, her subjects “identified as American and waxed poetic about it,” she said. “They were very comfortable with a hyphenated identity of ‘Nigerian-American.’”

In both countries, the second-generation Nigerians were, as a group, thriving economically as lawyers, accountants, IT experts and in other professions.

Why the difference?

Imoagene believes that one of the reasons lies in history of Great Britain and Nigeria, a former colony.

“British colonial history is an impediment to [this group] forming a British national identity,” she says. “It’s a wound.”

Imoagene hopes that her book will lead to a greater understanding of the issues surrounding second-generation Nigerians—and also an understanding that not all black immigrants are interchangeable.

“Immigrants from differing African countries and from the Caribbean may all be ‘read’ as black by whites native to those countries, but they’re not a uniform group, and each one needs to be studied closely to be understood.”