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Michael Rain: What it's like to be the child of immigrants

Filmed:
662,554 views

Michael Rain is on a mission to tell the stories of first-generation immigrants, who have strong ties both to the countries they grew up in and their countries of origin. In a personal talk, he breaks down the mischaracterizations and limited narratives of immigrants and shares the stories of the worlds they belong to. "We're walking melting pots of culture," Rain says. "If something in that pot smells new or different to you, don't turn up your nose. Ask us to share."

- Digital storyteller
TED Resident Michael Rain communicates ideas through written and visual stories. Full bio

I remember one morning
when I was in the third grade,
00:12
my mom sent me to school
with a Ghanaian staple dish called "fufu."
00:16
(Laughter)
00:20
Fufu is this white ball of starch
made of cassava,
00:22
and it's served with light soup,
which is a dark orange color,
00:26
and contains chicken and/or beef.
00:31
It's a savory, flavorful dish
00:33
that my mom thought
would keep me warm on a cold day.
00:35
When I got to lunch
and I opened my thermos,
00:39
releasing these new smells into the air,
00:42
my friends did not react favorably.
00:45
(Laughter)
00:47
"What's that?" one of them asked.
00:49
"It's fufu," I responded.
00:52
(Laughter)
00:54
"Ew, that smells funny.
What's a fufu?" they asked.
00:55
Their reaction made me lose my appetite.
00:59
I begged my mother to never
send me to school with fufu again.
01:02
I asked her to make me sandwiches
or chicken noodle soup
01:06
or any of the other foods
that my friends were eating.
01:10
And this is one of the first times
01:12
I began to notice the distinction
between what was unique to my family
01:14
and what was common for everyone else,
01:20
what was Ghanaian and what was African
01:22
and what was American.
01:26
I'm a first-generation American.
01:28
Both of my parents are immigrants.
01:30
In fact, my father, Gabriel,
came to the US almost 50 years ago.
01:32
He arrived in New York
01:37
from a city called Kumasi
in a northern region of Ghana,
01:39
in West Africa.
01:42
He came for school, earning
his bachelor's degree in accounting
01:44
and eventually became an accountant.
01:47
My mother, Georgina,
joined him years later.
01:50
She had a love of fashion
01:53
and worked in a sewing factory
in lower Manhattan,
01:55
until she saved up enough to open
her own women's clothing store.
01:58
I consider myself an American
02:03
and an African
02:06
and a Ghanaian.
02:07
And there's millions of people
around the world
02:09
who are juggling
these different classifications.
02:11
They might be Jamaican-Canadians
or Korean-Americans or Nigerian-Brits.
02:15
But what makes our stories
and experiences different
02:22
is that we were born and raised
in a country different than our parents,
02:25
and this can cause us to be misunderstood
02:30
when being viewed through a narrow lens.
02:33
I grew up in New York, which is home
to the largest number of immigrants
02:37
anywhere in the United States.
02:41
And you would think growing up
in a place like New York,
02:43
it would be easy for a first-generation
person to find their place.
02:46
But all throughout my childhood,
02:50
there were these moments
that formed my understanding
02:53
of the different worlds I belonged to.
02:56
When I was in the fifth grade,
a student asked me
02:59
if my family was refugees.
03:02
I didn't know what that word meant.
03:05
He explained to me
that his parents told him
03:07
that refugees are people from Africa
who come to the US
03:09
to escape death, starvation and disease.
03:14
So I asked my parents,
and they laughed a bit,
03:17
not because it was funny
but because it was a generalization.
03:20
And they assured me that they had
enough to eat in Ghana
03:24
and came to the US willingly.
03:27
(Laughter)
03:29
These questions became
more complex as I got older.
03:31
Junior high school was the first time
03:34
I went to school with a large number
of black American students,
03:36
and many of them couldn't understand
why I sounded differently than they did
03:40
or why my parents seemed
different than theirs.
03:44
"Are you even black?" a student asked.
03:48
I mean, I thought I was black.
03:51
(Laughter)
03:53
I thought my skin complexion settled that.
03:54
(Laughter)
03:57
I asked my father about it,
and he shared his own confusion
03:58
over the significance of that
when he first came to the US.
04:01
He explained to me that,
when he was in Ghana, everyone was black,
04:06
so he never thought about it.
04:10
But in the US, it's a thing.
04:12
(Laughter)
04:14
But he would say, "But you're African.
04:16
Remember that."
04:19
And he would emphasize this,
04:21
even though many Africans in the continent
would only consider me to be
04:22
just an American.
04:27
These misconceptions
and complex cultural issues
04:29
are not just the inquiries of children.
04:32
Adults don't know who immigrants are.
04:35
If we look at current trends,
04:38
if I asked you: What's the fastest-growing
04:40
immigrant demographic
in the United States,
04:42
who would you think it was?
04:45
Nine out of 10 people
tell me it's Latinos,
04:47
but it's actually African immigrants.
04:49
How about in academics?
04:52
What's the most educated
immigrant demographic?
04:54
A lot of people presume it to be Asians,
but it's actually African immigrants.
04:57
Even in matters of policy,
05:02
did you know that three
out of the eight countries
05:04
in the so-called "travel ban"
05:06
are African countries?
05:08
A lot of people assume those targeted
Muslims only live in the Middle East,
05:09
but a lot of those
banned people are Africans.
05:14
So on these issues of education
and policy and religion,
05:17
a lot of things we presume
about immigrants are incorrect.
05:22
Even if we look at something
like workplace diversity and inclusion,
05:26
if I asked you what
gender-ethnicity combination
05:31
is least likely to be promoted
to senior managerial positions,
05:34
who would you think it was?
05:38
The answer is not Africans this time.
05:40
(Laughter)
05:42
And it's not black women or men,
05:43
and it's not Latin women or men.
05:46
It's Asian women who are
least likely to be promoted.
05:48
Capturing these stories and issues
is part of my work
05:53
as a digital storyteller
05:56
that uses tech to make it easier
for people to find these stories.
05:58
This year, I launched an online gallery
of portraits and firsthand accounts
06:02
for a project called Enodi.
06:07
The goal of Enodi is to highlight
first-generation immigrants just like me
06:10
who carry this kinship
for the countries we grew up in,
06:16
for the countries of origin
06:21
and for this concept called "blackness."
06:24
I created this space to be a cyberhome
for many of us who are misunderstood
06:27
in our different home countries.
06:32
There are millions of Enodis
06:35
who use hyphens to connect
their countries of origin
06:37
with their various homes in the US
06:40
or Canada or Britain or Germany.
06:43
In fact, many people
you might know are Enodi.
06:47
Actors Issa Rae and Idris Elba are Enodi.
06:50
Colin Powell,
06:53
former Attorney General Eric Holder,
06:55
former President of the United
States, Barack Obama,
06:57
are all the children of African
or Caribbean immigrants.
07:00
But how much do you know about us?
07:03
This complicated navigation
07:06
is not just the experience
of first-generation folks.
07:10
We're so intertwined
07:15
in the lives and culture of people
in North America and Europe,
07:17
that you might be surprised
how critical we are
07:22
to your histories and future.
07:25
So, engage us in conversation;
07:28
discover who immigrants actually are,
07:31
and see us apart from characterizations
07:33
or limited media narratives
07:36
or even who we might appear to be.
07:38
We're walking melting pots of culture,
07:41
and if something in that pot
smells new or different to you --
07:44
(Laughter)
07:47
don't turn up your nose.
07:49
Ask us to share.
07:52
Thank you.
07:53
(Applause)
07:55

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About the speaker:

Michael Rain - Digital storyteller
TED Resident Michael Rain communicates ideas through written and visual stories.

Why you should listen

Michael Rain communicates ideas through written and visual stories. He is the creator of ENODI, a digital gallery that chronicles the lives of first-generation Black immigrants of African, Caribbean and Latinx descent, and the co-founder of the emerging tech startup ZNews Africa, a Google, Facebook and Microsoft accelerator member that builds mobile app, email and web products.

Rain's creative and commercial work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, NBC News, Upscale Magazine and the Harlem Arts Festival. He has moderated panels and delivered remarks on entrepreneurship and digital media at major events and conferences at the US Department of State, Harvard Business School, The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University and the NYU Stern School of Business.

Rain earned a BA in Political Science with a concentration in International Relations from Columbia University. He is a 2017 TED Resident and a fellow at the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is Ghanaian-American, a lifelong New Yorker and Brooklyn native.

More profile about the speaker
Michael Rain | Speaker | TED.com