One Hair Salon Shows Rift Between ‘Africans’ and ‘African-Americans’

I sat still in the black swivel chair as my hair stylist carefully dipped the ends of my braids into boiling water.

I was at Djene Hair Braiding, an East Harlem salon run by West African women, a place that had always had the feel of home ever since I moved to the United States from Nigeria seven years ago. It was something of a sanctuary for me.

But during one of my regular visits in March, that comfortable feeling was shaken by an ugly confrontation between an African stylist and a customer that reminded me of the wide cultural gulf between African and African-Americans.

Business cards hanging on the wall at Djene Hair Braiding in Harlem. Braiders largely rely on the cards, and word of mouth, to gain new clients. Aileen Perilla/NYT Institute

Across from me sat a young woman video-chatting on her phone with a friend as the stylist began working on her hair. A few minutes later, the customer, whom the stylist believed to be African-American because of her lilting New York accent and brash attitude, abruptly decided to leave. The stylist said she overheard the customer and the friend discussing a cheaper place to go and the confrontation escalated into yelling.

“Speak English, you keep talking that African shit,” said the customer, in response to the stylist’s speaking Mandinka, a shared West African language, to the other stylists.

The customer angrily put on her coat and shuffled out of the shop, one lone braid dangling as she tried to take it out herself. The hair braiders kept talking as she left.

“They think we don’t understand them,” said a stylist, pointing to the retreating customer.

It didn’t take me long to realize that the argument I witnessed had nothing to do with hair at all. It was a display of a tension between Africans and African-Americans that I knew existed, but had never seen in such a jarring way. As debates about immigration and who belongs in the United States often focus on the Southwest border, the difficult relationship between African-Americans and African immigrants is often overlooked.

Months before I witnessed the exchange in the shop, President Trump had used the remark “shithole countries” in reference to the African continent. Mr. Trump also said that Nigerians, like myself, who come to the United States, would never return to our “huts” back home if we were let in.

The president’s tirade revealed deep-seated misunderstandings about who people from African countries are, as did the exchange at the salon. It occurred to me that some Americans, both black and white, had accepted many of the tropes about Africans as uneducated and unsophisticated.

Friends have relayed their experience moving from Nigeria to American suburbs and being taunted by their African-American peers with slurs like “African booty scratcher” and being asked about living in huts or their familiarity with lions and jungles.

But Africans aren’t the only ones who are misunderstood.

Diarra, one of a dozen braiders at Djene Hair Braiding in Harlem, works on a client's hair. Aileen Perilla/NYT Institute

In my first year of college, I often corrected people when they assumed I was African-American. In response, I would say “I’m just African, not African-American.” For me, this was a matter of practicality. I had one passport, which was green, not blue, and was issued by my home country. For that reason, I didn’t feel comfortable taking on the hyphenated identity. Years later, it occurred to me that my hesitation might have also stemmed from what I was made to believe it meant to be African-American.

As a child, I inferred that even though Africans and African-Americans looked the same, we couldn’t be any more different.

What Africans and African-Americans held as the central beliefs that guided them, their cultures and work ethic, were fundamentally different. Africans were exceptional — we had moved to countries that were not our own and excelled. We opened businesses, went to Ivy League schools and didn’t rely on government assistance. The burden of being black wasn’t ours to bear, and we didn’t sympathize with African-Americans because their problems were not our problem.

As Africans, we had also accepted tropes of who we thought African-Americans were — lazy and most likely to be criminals — and the hostility I perceived in the salon was a reflection of that.

For Tenin, a 36-year-old hair braider who asked that her full name not be used, there’s more nuance to the relationship between both parties. The prevailing tension is not anger, in her view, but a lack of understanding each other.

The confrontation between the customers and hair braiders at the shop “doesn’t hurt because of what she said, it hurts because of what she doesn’t know,” Tenin said.

Shante Johnson, a Harlem native who frequents the braiding shop, acknowledges the chasm between Africans and African-Americans. Ms. Johnson, 41, is a mother to two daughters, and said she finds herself trying to correct assumptions about Africans with her daughters.

“I hear my kids and their friends say stuff and the first thing I say is, ‘Excuse me, where did you come from?’” Ms. Johnson said. “You really don’t know. We came from the same place that they came from,” she added, pointing at the stylists in the shop.

When I visit the shop now, I look out for small cracks that point to the larger foundational issues and I often remember the last phrase the stylist uttered to the customer as she walked out on that fateful Saturday.

“Come back,” said the stylist. “You don’t know you’re one of us?”