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Professor Mumbi Mwangi

Home for me is not necessarily a defined location because as an immigrant I have developed the idea of having the concept of home as fluid. For me, home is where I am located at one particular time in my life. I called Kenya home because that is where I was raised and that is where my family is. But at the same time, I also call Minnesota home, because that is where I am at at the moment. When I am in Kenya, I am home. When I am in the U.S, I am home.

Professor Mumbi Mwangi (picture provided by Prof. Mumbi M.)

What I can maybe focus on is how I have struggled to find and to situate my identity in a totally different cultural space. Minnesota was difficult. In Minnesota, I have found myself already beginning to see how I can redefine my identity and it's not so much about changing my identity, but looking to see, “Who am I right now in Minnesota? As an African woman living in Minnesota, which is also predominantly white, who am I in that context?” There are times and experiences that tend to literally just kind of impact you in a way that you go back and say, “Who am I? What am I doing here? Why am I seen as different? Do I want to maintain my differences or do I want to assimilate?”

What I have discovered is that sometimes the process of assimilation might appear like it is a safe thing to do if you are really concerned with the concept of being seen as different. At the same time, out of experience and also looking at other people's lives, assimilation might not give you a full feeling of being accepted. The other option is, do I still want to maintain my differences so that I can be true to my own identity? And for me, I have chosen the idea of really just maintaining who I am.

I am a professor in one of the universities in Minnesota, and I actually have taught in that university for the last 17 years. Some of the courses that I teach focus on issues of gender, which also includes issues of identity, race, and class. One of the things I've enjoyed most is to help my students as I teach them to begin to identify, articulate, and to deal with the concept of difference among many other concepts.

I came to Iowa in January 1998. Coming from Africa to Iowa, and in the middle of the winter, one of the first things I thought was, “Goodness, how can people live in a place that is so cold and still maintain their sanity?” There was a moment that was ingrained in my mind when I realized, “My goodness, I am different.” That time was when I came to Iowa to go to school. I was coming directly from Kenya, I was very new to this place. There was this moment of time where students were moving from one class to the other. When I looked around, I did not see any Black people at that moment. And I realized, I am different. For me, that was really a daunting kind of experience to realize for the first time that you are different, that you are black.

My Blackness became so real, and it is not something I had experienced before in Africa. I was just living my life, everybody in Africa is Black. But coming to a university that is predominantly white, at that point in time I realized I was different.

I just wonder how many people actually recognize the journey that immigrants go through. Even to make sense of where they are, in a new culture, a new context, a new environment. Nobody asks you, “How are you doing? What is your journey?” They just assume that you are just a part of it. That is something that I wanted to highlight. That is something that is ignored. As someone who is different, you are expected to fit in, and nobody is even interested to know, “What are the struggles? What is the journey?” Of course it is a journey, and a journey is not something that you decide on today and reach tomorrow.

I feel that I'm in a better place than I was when I first came, but that has taken years. I think that it’s taken a lot of soul searching. Even trying to redefine my identity, not to fit into the new culture, but more importantly to discover who I am. Because as an immigrant, you're put back in that position of starting this journey of redefining who you are.

I think it is important for people to recognize that the process of immigration is not an easy one. And at the same time to recognize that for anybody to decide to leave their country and venture into this process of immigration, that is a very important and sometimes difficult decision one makes. The process of leaving the space that you have been socialized into and to grow into another place that is totally different. That in itself is very important and a bit of a difficult position because sometimes people think, “Oh, these immigrants are just waiting to come to America.”

As human beings, we also feel that process of dislocation because you are leaving something that was familiar to you and you are now embracing something that is different. And there's a lot of lack of stability in that process. It is very painful to hear sometimes people just say, “Oh, this immigrant, you just come here and assimilate.” But when somebody says that, they are very oblivious of not only the human process in terms of the process of belonging, but also the human experiences of this location. Many immigrants, wherever they are, have to deal with that process of dislocation, even as they prepare themselves to fit into the new culture

Hopes for Community

For my community in Minnesota, I would like to see a change in perspective towards those who are immigrants. Most of the time people tend to see immigrants as people who are coming to disrupt their way of life. I also want people to consider that there could be something good about embracing immigration and people who are coming from different cultures. Most of the time, we are socialized to see different as negative, particularly if you are in a position of power and privilege. You see difference as something that is negative. We might have to literally change that and be able to see how we can embrace the concept of diversity, because there's so much we can actually take advantage of if we had a much more open perception of what the difference is. We might also have to think critically about how we can socialize our children. How are we socializing the next generation of Americans to see differences? Are we still going to tell them different is negative? Or are we going to socialize the younger generation to see difference as something that can be celebrated. Right now I don't think difference is celebrated. We might be making some steps, but I don't think we are there yet. I think we have a lot of work to do to transform our communities and society so that we can embrace differences and be able to accept that.

Interview by Elizabeth Mendez (2021-2022 Storyteller)

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