Almost 17 years ago, on a bumpy, pothole-filled road in the middle of Lagos, Nigeria, my father got an international call from a tech company called Microsoft. He had been selected for the software developer position he had applied to — he had gotten the job. Over the course of the next couple months, he packed up all of his belongings, moved into a tiny apartment in the suburbs of Seattle. His wife — my mom — and I moved to Seattle a couple months later.
When my mom tells the story, she always talks about how she didn’t move to Seattle until after my dad did — “I wanted to make sure it was a real thing,” she always says. “And not just some trick.”
She says it like a joke, and it is, but it also sort of isn’t. My parents are especially cautious people. They are used to being tricked, always ready to jump from one place to the next. When I was little, my dad drilled into me the importance of having checklists for things, of making sure that everything that needs to be is squared away. My mom would buy me math workbooks for Christmas, sit next to a timer and give me sheets and sheets of algebra problems to compute in less than one minute. My parents built an ethos of excellence around themselves — they came to America by checking every box and looking around their shoulder every second; they made sure that they were the best, and that this was an obvious fact.
About a week and a half ago, in an Oval Office meeting, President Trump asked: “Why do we want all these people from shithole countries coming here?” He was referencing, of course, immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries. And while what he said was obviously shocking, and perfunctory articles expressing shock followed soon behind, and while I almost didn’t even write this piece because I thought that I was too far behind the news cycle for it to even matter, I think that it’s important to understand the assumptions underlying this statement.
When I was in first grade, my best friend’s parents were from the U.K. They had moved to America only a year earlier, also to work for Microsoft. That’s how my best friend and I had bonded — “both of our parents have funny accents!” we giggled. But even then, I remember thinking how strange it was that even though our parents had both flown from far away to get to where to they were, they acted so differently. My friend’s parents did not possess the same frantic energy that mine did — her mom cut off the crusts of her sandwich for packed lunch, my mom gave me spelling quizzes on my drive home and made me pack my own school lunches. My Nigerian-American friends’ parents were the same way — we all watched as our parents worked hard, and then harder; made us work hard, and then harder.
And when I was small, I didn’t understand what we were proving to people, who we were proving it to. But as I grew up, I began to put the pieces together as people asked me if my parents rode lions in Nigeria, assumed that I wasn’t as smart as them because of the color of my skin or talked slower to my parents after hearing their accent because they thought it would take them longer to understand. I understood when my president called the country my parents are from a shithole.
Implicitly, my parents understand that the word “immigrant” doesn’t really mean “someone who arrives from another country.” It means “someone who arrives from a country that we are uncomfortable with.” It means people who come from across oceans with black or brown skin, who speak different languages and eat different foods and believe different things and come from shithole countries. They are assumed to be lesser.
And so my parents have always made sure they check all the boxes. It is the closest guarantee they will get that the world understands they are not what everyone so easily believes that they are. This is work — physical, emotional, mental — that immigrants who look American (read: white) simply do not have to do. It is why the immigrant pilgrims who came here centuries ago are painted in broad-brushstroke glimmering portraits as fearless travelers who Made It in a new land, but my people like my parents are spoken of disparagingly as backwards imbeciles who clawed their way out of shitholes and came to America with the sole purpose of sapping citizens’ incomes.
In December, President Trump said that Nigerian immigrants, after seeing America, would never “want to go back to their huts.”
When my mom read that in The New York Times, she laughed.
“Why is that funny?” I asked. “You didn’t live in a hut in Nigeria!”
My mom kept on laughing. “Let him think that we all live in huts,” she said. “It means he’ll never come to Nigeria.”
For a split-second, I paused; I thought about going on an angry tirade about how American racism is so prevalent, it can extend beyond borders, clenching its grip across the globe. But then, I looked at my mom, whom I love so dearly, and my face broke into a wide smile. I laughed with her. I laughed because it was funny; because I, too, hoped that he would never go to Nigeria.
But in retrospect, that joke makes me a little bit sad. Because it is a joke indicative of the life of immigrants of color in America. One of laughing off casual racism, working hard and then working harder to become accepted in a country that barely wants them. And it is a life that is undeserved. My parents — and all immigrants — deserve better.
Contact Adesuwa Agbonile at adesuwaa ‘at ‘stanford.edu.