By Katelyn Skye Bennett | Editor-in-chief
This week, Intersected teamed up with Nyuki Podcast to do our first-ever video interview, posted on our Youtube channel. Nyuki, named for the Swahili word for bee, is geared toward the African refugee diaspora within the U.S. and tackles the “uncomfortable” questions that aren’t necessarily being addressed at home or culturally — like a stinging bee.
The podcast, which has covered topics like women’s oppression, bride price, and parenting, was begun this year by Minani Theoneste and Spany Mburunyeme. It is available on YouTube as well as your favorite podcast streaming service.
Theo is originally from Burundi, and Spany migrated from the Democratic Republic of Congo. They’re both in their mid-20s and have known each other since Theo arrived in Denver as a high school freshman.
Theo and I met to discuss the intersections of race, gender, faith, culture, and immigration within the Congolese and Burundian communities resettled in the U.S.
Acculturating to the United States
The eighth of ten children born to Burundian parents, Theo moved to the United States in 2008 and experienced culture shock upon arrival. His family was put in the resettlement system right away, with no choice but to adjust.
Acculturation was a big challenge for his generation, he said, since he remembered what it was like back home. Children born here have a different experience, albeit with more trouble relating to their first generation parents who are more ingrained in their traditions.
As a young man, Theo battled with his cross-cultural identity, fighting between how life was at a school and at home. Self-expression and asking questions are encouraged in American culture but not necessarily within first generation Burundian families. Sometimes he just wanted to be heard, he shared.
As he began to read, Theo realized he didn’t agree with lots of his culture, like the treatment of women in his Christian Burundian community, where he sees women treated like “second-class citizens.” As a Christian, he couldn’t see how this matched up with the Bible.
“It’s okay to adapt. I personally believe that culture and traditions are supposed to innovate,” Theo said, noting that some traditions are good and others ought not to continue.
Any cultural adaptation, whether of Burundians adjusting to American culture or growing within their community, requires patience, Theo said. However, he also pointed out that some people can’t or don’t want to change in certain respects due to their life experiences, and we must accept this.
Ultimately, Theo stated, “People just want respect and to be loved and heard.”
Race, Gender, and the Problem with “Being Nice”
“When I’m blaming [women] for my weakness, that’s just oppression,” Theo declared before likening race and gender in terms of privilege and power.
“One thing for Black Americans or the Black community is, it’s good to see white people that want to change, that want to change the system, or men that want to change the system. But the issue becomes when we try to tell the victims,” he said.
Theo elaborated, “Instead of me talking to my counterpart, like, ‘Hey, this what we’re doing wrong or this is where we’re going wrong, this is how we at least can do something about it’; instead of going to women and saying, ‘You guys should behave this way, maybe you should be nice to the police officer so you won’t be shot’ — they’re not the problem.
FYI: Being “nice” doesn’t stop the racial biases of the other person from causing harm and even death, as we’ve seen with police time and time again.
“We are the problem,” Theo continued, referencing his male privilege. “And that’s one of the hardest pills to swallow because you don’t want to lose that privilege,” he confessed.
The Divide Between Africans and African Americans
Editor’s note: At Intersected, we typically use the term Black because we’re referring to race. Today’s topic addresses the cultural layers within race, so to avoid confusion, we’ll use the term African American to refer to those who were stolen from their homelands hundreds of years ago.
While Theo has combatted his racial biases against African Americans by educating himself, it’s common knowledge that African immigrants as a whole do not jive with African Americans, and the prejudices go both ways.
The cultural orientation seminars given to refugees prior to their move to the United States, often led by white Americans, were embedded with racism, Theo shared, and parents sometimes reified these prejudices. This education contributes to the divides between African migrants and African Americans. The fact that African migrants know their histories and African Americans do not also contributes to that tension.
On the flip side, Theo shared that African Americans often misconceptualize African migrants as “very uncivilized” or as having poor English skills, for example. Cultural education is lacking in both groups.
When asked what he wished all Americans knew about the Burundian diaspora, Theo said, “We [Burundians] are people. We are educated. Just like everybody, we have a story to tell…We want to see our people and kids succeed. We have the ‘typical’ life goals. We have a beautiful country [of origin] and culture. We don’t agree on everything. We have the same goals as everyone, to succeed.”
This shared desire for a good life yet nuance between individuals even within cultures speaks to the humanity of refugees both here and abroad.
We [Burundians] are people. We are educated. Just like everybody, we have a story to tell…We want to see our people and kids succeed. We have the ‘typical’ life goals. We have a beautiful country [of origin] and culture. We don’t agree on everything. We have the same goals as everyone, to succeed.Minani Theoneste
Generational Difficulties: Survival, Work, and School
The employment barriers faced by Black African parents, often due to racial discrimination rather than ability, impact their life chances and their relationships with their kids. Reliance on public transportation is common, as are one to two hour commutes each way. This also drains resettled refugees, who have little support from the country that received them. Though they have a home, they’re still working for survival.
The distance of many Burundian parents also increases difficulty for young adults as first generation college students, who lack guidance about education and careers.
Theo noticed that his generation, who moved to the United States in their teens, tended to pursue international studies due to their experiences and then be lost in terms of careers upon graduation. Siblings, relatives, and friends who were younger when they arrived have more precision in what they want to study, he observed.
- The Burundian and Congolese diaspora needs people like Theo’s and Spany’s to think critically, give voice to “uncomfortable” topics, keep what is good, and grow in the necessary ways to better care for all community members.
- Africans and African Americans both have work to do to understand and respect each other better. Listening, being curious, and assuming the best about others are good starting places.
- The UNHCR and United States liaisons need to revisit their curriculum and better vet their teachers in order to reduce the spread of racial prejudice.
- America’s current resettlement system has significant faults, and the time and funds given to help refugees adapt are not nearly sufficient.
- The resettlement system was almost demolished under the Trump administration, and the Biden administration has yet to take the necessary steps to rebuild sufficiently. But in rebuilding, alternative resettlement methods might empower newly arrived refugees to better adapt and thrive in this country.
- Employers need to check their racial and cultural biases too.
We’re so grateful to Nyuki Podcast for doing this collaboration with us, and we can’t wait to continue the discussion on their platform moving forward!
Thanks for spending time with us at Intersected. If you care about racial equity and are a fan of our work, we’d love for you to join us! Just subscribe to Intersected in the box below to receive notifications when we publish on this website, and subscribe to our YouTube channel and turn on notifications there as well! Finally, head over to Nyuki Podcast, available on YouTube or anywhere that podcasts play, to hear more from Theo and his friend Spany.