Ask the White Guy: Is a White Immigrant From Africa Really an African-American?

DiversityInc's White Guy responds to a reader who inquires about the racial identity of a white immigrant from Mozambique. What's in a name?

Ask the White Guy Luke Visconti

An article about a white immigrant from Mozambique, Paulo Serodio, who describes himself as an African American, was forwarded to by a reader who asked, “What is your opinion?”

This is a simple answer: Serodio is NOT an African American, he is a Mozambican American. Since he is white, he is most likely a descendant of the former colonial occupiers from Portugal. If he were Black and recently emigrated, he would be able to identify himself by country or native ethnic group–for example, Macua American.

African Americans are descendants of enslaved people brought here against their will. We must use the broad description of a continent (Africa), rather than the specific description of a country (for example, Mozambique), because American slave owners purposefully broke up ethnic groups and families as a means to break the spirit of the people they enslaved. Since it was also illegal in many states to teach an enslaved person to read and write, it became impossible for African Americans to pass down history from their homeland.

The use of the term “African American” became a popular SELF-descriptor, popularized by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. It is a term of pride, documenting the achievements and culture of a group of people uniquely oppressed and uniquely American.

Serodio is suing the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey for suspending him after he revealed that he identified himself as an African American. By doing so, he wishes to stand on the shoulders of the many African Americans who fought and died to attain freedom, in order to benefit from programs that are in place to redress past wrongs. His court suit is frivolous. His ignorance and lack of sensitivity indicates that he’d make a horrible doctor.

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.

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  • That is so ludacris. If the man comes from Africa adn wants to call himself or be classified as an African American instead of Mr. Serodio, then who cares. Now the word Africa means formerly a slave or uniquely opressed. Sir you are the one that wishes to exalt yourself and company by what you call standing on the shoulders; of all of the so called minorities, which in fact as a whole are more than majority. You are an oppourtunist plain and simple. And more often than not, you and your company, are causing diversity, conflict and hatred.

    • What’s also funny is a few years ago a black European athlete yelled and screamed at an America. Reporter for calling him an African American he said he is neither African nor american.

      I used to work with many South Africans and a few Ugandians and I loved it when a black American claimed African status around them. Where you born in Africa… Your fader, your moder perhaps… No grandparents, great grand parents.. No den you just a black man in America stop fookin calin yoself afrikan.. (I wrote that so maybe you could hear thier accent.). I saw many black Americans get best to hell over calling themselves African to an African.

      You claim a white can’t be African but remember their are pockets of whites who have been in Africa for 300-400 years. To me that’s being from Africa. And a lot of Africans who don’t approve of the current goverment don’t say they are from a specific country just that they are north south or one of many differentiators and African.

      • Luke Visconti

        Yes, and those people can trace their (colonized) country—and the colonizing country they came from. Entirely different than descendants of enslaved people whose identity was purposefully obliterated by slave masters. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

        • Ghanaian/Nigerian American

          Thank you for this response. The original article has also answered a lot of questions for me. The reason why I as an American-born Ghanaian/Nigerian, feel distanced from the term African-American.

  • I was born in the USA, and call myself white, not “european american”. I would not do that unless I was an immigrant from Europe. If I was black and born in the USA, I wouldnt want to be called “african american” because I have never been to Africa. The civil rights movement, thank the Lord, was sucessful. But some people’s quest for a politically correct term has led to a result that in itself, does not make sense.

    • Ghanaian/Nigerian American

      Many unconscious Black Americans share your sentiment. Others o the opposite end of the spectrum choose to call themselves African and not African-American.

  • Are you bloody kidding me? He’s suing the university because after he was ASKED IN A CLASS EXERCISE to describe himself and did so as an “African American”, he was hounded and harassed by other students to the point where his tires were slashed and his car keyed, and the university still denied him protection. He was not in any way, shape, or form “wishe[ing] to stand on the shoulders of the many African Americans who fought and died to attain freedom, in order to benefit from programs that are in place to redress past wrongs.” The man wanted to join Doctors Without Borders to go back to Africa to do charitable work in under-served communities.

    You also provide what’s probably the shoddiest argument I’ve heard in years. “Serodio is NOT an African American, he is a Mozambican American.”
    Sorry, not how that works. If I can, say, call myself a Chinese-American, I can also call myself an Asian-American. If I can call myself a Dutch-American, I can call myself a European-American. It’s a continent. Serodio is in no way, shape or form bound to using your ridiculous personal definition of “African” and certainly never should have been SUSPENDED FROM MEDICAL SCHOOL for choosing to define himself in a technically correct manner. Surely this is something worth keeping someone from helping African children over.

    Finally, by closing with “His ignorance and lack of sensitivity indicates that he’d make a horrible doctor.” you reveal your blatantly skewed and incredibly judgmental agenda that would make everything you said laughable if it weren’t so repulsive. Perhaps the real problem lies with the students who overreacted so severely to this perceived slight that they resorted to harassment, violence, and property damage. But I suppose with your twisted worldview you would see that as a completely justified reaction.

    • Luke Visconti

      A white man from Mozambique usurping the description that exclusively belongs to descendants of the slave trade in the United States IS offensive. He wasn’t from this country, so he may not have understood that. However, after the reaction he received, anyone with a normal sense of self would have done some research to understand WHY he was receiving such a reaction—but that didn’t happen here. Rather than seeking redemption for offending (let’s assume innocently), Serodio dug himself in and made himself a celebrity in the bigotsphere. Serodio has the right call himself anything he wants, but he then has to deal with the repercussions of offending millions of Americans. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • So according to your logic, it is also offensive for a black American person of African descent, who is not a descendent of the slave trade to identify as “African American”, however I doubt that would offend too many people. I doubt many would agree with that, and even then, few would be offended. Even if some people are offended by this man, his comments are not inherently insensitive or offensive enough to warrant suspension from a medical program. He does have a case in my opinion, as to me, this is a form of racial discrimination (I doubt any of this would have happened if he was black).

        • Luke Visconti

          It’s interesting how we get more racist email defending Serodio than on any other subject. In response to your comments: A (modern-day) Black immigrant knows his or her origin—it’s on the passport. Therefore, a person from Nigeria is a Nigerian-American, not an African-American. As far as Serodio being offensive, the medical school had a process and expelled him. He was recalcitrantly offensive. And he sued the school and lost. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

          • So you say he isn’t African American and should use his country of origin but how many times on a document you fill out for a school or government agency do you see a list of every country? They group you by country of origin. And since you say that you have to trace your lineage all the way back to it’s beginning to determine your ethnicity what would someone like me, who has German, African, Bahamian, and Native American bloodlines choose ? You legally have the right to identify as anything you want but i choose to say African American because those features are most dominant in my appearance. Serodio may not look like what we in America perceive as African American and what we’re raised to believe about African American appearance but by continent of origin he is African.

          • Luke Visconti

            No, he is South African. Africa is a continent. South Africa is a country. I’ll point out that, as a white South African, his cause has been taken up by every neo-Nazi and white-supremacist organization in this country. Be careful who you align yourself with. You may also want to re-read the column—I think you missed all the key points. Good luck. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • “usurping the description that exclusively belongs to descendants of the slave trade ”

    I’m shocked that one could make a statement like this with genuine sincerity. By what order, law or code have the exclusive rights to the term “african american” been assigned to decedents of the slave trade?

    You hit on a key point- a person does have the right to call themselves and identify themselves however they wish. However, we as a country still have the protections of the constitution- specifically the first and fourteenth amendments. Being a state college, they are required to abide by the constitution. What we see here is a case of discrimination and racism; he identifies himself using a term generally associated to black american’s and he himself is white. Stating that he is not entitled to identify himself as a white-african american is a violation of his first amendment right to free speech and a violation of his fourteenth amendment right to equal protection.

    This isn’t an issue of “cultural sensitivity” or cry babies whining about having “their title stolen”… it is an issue of rights protected under the constitution, and a state institution violating those rights.

    • Luke Visconti

      There is no “order, law or code” that gives anyone the “right” to African American, but there’s also cultural common sense. For example, if someone called you a jackass, you’d know exactly what they meant, wouldn’t you?

      And that person would have the first amendment right to call you a jackass, wouldn’t they? But the person calling you a jackass would have to suffer the consequences, right? Now I wouldn’t say that “jackass” rises to the fit the description of “fighting words”—and that is a legal description from the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Chaplinski vs. New Hampshire. I think a white man insulting African Americans by insisting on calling himself African American even after any jackass would have figured out he’s insulting people is a great example of “fighting words,” which the decision describes as “by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.”

      I don’t want to hear from you anymore. Go in peace, but go. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • If I understand you correctly, any black person in America that did not descend from slavery is not allowed to use the term “African American”. I am also assuming (based on your article) people should now start referring to themselves as “Country from where they descend + current country where they live). For example, my descendants come from Scotland and Germany. So I should refer to myself as a Scottish-German-American – even though 3 generations of my family were born in America.
    This makes no sense. I am an American.
    The line of politically correctness is stretched too far. If someone wants to call himself or herself “African American”, who cares? Move on with life. Treat people with common respect and move on!
    With all due respect, I think you are making a bigger deal out of this than it deserves. Like I said before, Treat people with common respect and move on.

    • Luke Visconti

      Treating people with “common respect” means that you cannot dismiss their feelings by hiding behind the bogus and often offensive phrase “political correctness.” What you want to call yourself is your business. What I want to call myself is my business. Telling someone that you don’t care about how they describe themselves is an insult to the person who does care. The way you have expressed your opinion is with the imprimatur of the majority. This serves to isolate you from people who are in groups outside the majority and lessens your ability to forge relationships with them.

      This is fine if you’re occupying Ted Kaczynski’s cabin in Lincoln, Neb. But if you work for a corporation or organization where interacting with coworkers (and/or customers) is important, your attitude is corrosive and counterproductive. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • Mr. Visconti,

        In reading the comments posted here and your responses to them, I see a missed opportunity to communicate.

        Descriptors like ‘African American’ are shorthand for complex and personal ideas of identity and culture. They will always fail do to justice to the user’s intent or the listeners capacity for understanding. Arguing over their ‘legitimate’ meaning seems to me a distraction from the more important exploration of whatever topics lead to their utterance.

        Mr. Serodio no doubt identifies with the modern post-colonial African culture he grew up in. That culture will span borders – it’s not completely unique to Mozambique. In a discussion about culture, it would be a disservice to all participants to assume that Serodio’s intent was to diminish the meaning of the descriptor for people with different experience. Perhaps an opportunity was missed to explore what the title means for different people and to find common ground and address unhealed wounds.

        On the other hand, it is also entirely possible that Mr. Serodio was overtly goading the class into a heated exchange. I haven’t read evidence of that intent, so my expectation is that we are all debating from our assumptions.

        As destructive as defensive ignorance is an approach exemplified by your comments, which is to claim ownership and shut down conversation. To shame those who are careless enough to leave their comments open to misinterpretation or, even worse, who have good intentions but are ignorant of the experience of others.

        I implore you, Mr. Visconti, to be more patient and to encourage those conversations that build relationships between diverse peoples (including those who may be privileged, but also recognising that all people can be ignorant of the experience of others). Requests like “I don’t want to hear from you any more.” can only serve to keep diversity isolated.

        • Luke Visconti

          I disagree. I don’t feel it’s an obligation “to encourage conversations” with the aggressively offensive. What you did not see were the many overtly racist posts I chose not to publish. Mr. Serodio’s situation became popular among white-supremacist groups, and at least one of the groups must have organized a communications campaign because many of the posts were so similar as to not possibly be random. You can still see evidence of this if you do a web search.

          Further, you are theorizing about a situation that actually occurred. When Mr. Serodio received immediate feedback that his assertions that he was a “white African-American” were offensive, he didn’t take that “opportunity to communicate,” he dug in and eventually sued the school.

          Finally, when a bloated, combed-over jackass like Donald Trump struts around demanding to see the president’s birth certificate and “mainstream” news outlets like CNN treat it seriously (and Trump isn’t investigated by his business partners for apparently losing his mind), I can say that “diversity” is struggling not to be isolated—and bowing and scraping isn’t the answer to gaining authority to demand equity and respect. As Frederick Douglass once said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • If Serodio identified with Africa and not just with Mozambique, how could he label himself in a way that is respectful of his identity both as an African from Africa and is American identity?

  • Bottom line, i cant tell anyone how to self-identify themselves, and they cant tell me how to self-identify myself. I would challenge Mr. Visconti to go to a group of transgender people and tell them how to self-identify themselves. Some would call themselves female, and some male. He would be acting in a highly offensive manner if he told anyone of them that they couldn’t use either term because some men or some women didnt like it. Likewise, telling Mr. Serodio that he is not African American is offensive to him.

    In this country, we should not be in the business of taking votes to see which side of an issue has more people claiming to be offended. If we did, the civil rights movement would have been squashed upon its first appearance. In striving for fairness, we must be sensitive to every person’s feelings, no matter how much of a minority he may be (in this case Mr. Serodio).

    If i was born in Italy, and came here decades ago, and am now an American citizen, I am Italian American, i can choose to also self identify identify as European American. Mr Serodio has the same right. To deny him that respect is to be insensitive to a person’s right to self-identify in a way that others might or might not like. If anyone was interested in true diversity, instead of a facist-like environment where others control how one’s abilty and right to freely self-identify, they would embrace Mr. Serodoi’s cause for the right of freely choosing how you can express your self-image to others.

    Allowing Mr. Serodio to be discriminated against because others were offended by his presence, would be like allowing Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood to be kicked out of the University of Alabama in 1963 because white students were offended by their presence. We must be sensitive to even the unpopular students.

  • It seems to me that by White Guy Visconti’s definition of an African-American’s as being descendants of enslaved people brought here against their will would totally and completely exclude Barack Obama, whose mother was white and whose black father was a free Kenyan with absolutely no connection to US slavery of the nineteenth Century or earlier.

    Furthermore, it would be equally incorrect for our current US president to refer to all black US residents, inclusive of Haitian-American’s and Jamaican-American’s (as examples), as “African-American” — again using the rules espoused by the White Guy Visconti in his explanation of why Mr. Serodio is not African-American.

    • Luke Visconti

      That’s about right.

      This article, more than any other, attracts foolishness from white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • And who made Luke Visconti or Jesse Jackson the final arbiter of the definition of “African-American”? Words only take on meaning when people come to a general consensus about their definitions. There is nothing absolute or intrinsic about the definition of “African-American,” and though it has a popularly accepted definition, that definition is technically inaccurate and sloppy.

    What I mean is this: simply by looking at the words outside of their historical context, one would logically conclude that “African-American” would mean any American who is from Africa regardless of their skin color (let’s say a non-black Egyptian) just as “Asian-American” would refer to any American who is from Asia regardless of their skin color.

    Why shouldn’t people be allowed to reject a definition of a word because it is poorly defined? Indeed, if most people change their mind on what a word means, for all intents and purposes its definition changes, regardless of what it originally meant.

    • Luke Visconti

      I’d say the person who can command an audience gets to be the arbiter. We have over 300,000 unique monthly visitors, and you’re on my website spewing your half-baked ideas. We’re not equal, nor is your or my opinion equal to Reverend Jackson’s in term of the impact it makes or its perceived veracity. If you don’t like this feedback, I suggest you try your opinions in front of a live audience. Try the Soul Food Chess House restaurant in Newark, and tell us how it goes, big guy. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • “…try your opinions in front of a live audience. Try the Soul Food Chess House restaurant in Newark, and tell us how it goes, big guy” – Luke Visconti, smugly invoking the stereotype of the violently reactionary black US slave-descendant.

        Feel free not to allow this comment–it can be just for you, clown.

        • Luke Visconti

          Clown? Who has tattoos on his face and neck in languages he doesn’t speak, Russ? Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • So…when I travel overseas, I’m not a North American?

    When I go to the website of a company based in Asia, and I have to select my geographical location, I guess I shouldn’t look at “North America” or “The Americas.”

    And I suppose all of those news articles that mention “Europeans,” “European immigrants,” or “European culture” don’t exist, huh?

    I can guarantee you that, when Luke was writing this very article, he first typed “European occupiers.” He then realized that this would debunk his entire argument, and then changed it to “colonial occupiers.”

    Luke Visconti is yet another white guy who thinks he can speak for entire races of people. It’s one thing to have ridiculous views. It’s quite another to criticize other people for having rational views.

    • Luke Visconti

      Hey, Mr. Rational View, nobody refers to themselves as a North American, and if you’ve ever traveled overseas and said you’re a North American, all you’d get are funny looks. But you may be used to that. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

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