This past Saturday, more than a thousand Nigerians and other Africans strutted down 10 blocks of Second Avenue from East 54th Street in the annual Nigerian Independence Day Parade. The group that gathered on the damp, cold morning to commemorate the 54th anniversary of Nigeria’s independence from Great Britain seemed oblivious to the growing xenophobia on U.S. soil, where the populace appears to be increasingly wary of being around Africans.
The parade took place on the same day New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport began implementing the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s enhanced Ebola screening. The five U.S. airports slated for special screenings (JFK and Newark-Liberty International in the New York area, along with hubs in Chicago, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C.) account for more than 94 percent of travelers from the most affected countries, which are clustered on Africa’s west coast.
As one Nigerian American recently remarked by way of an excuse for skipping this year’s Independence Day festivities: “I’m not sure it’s wise to be around so many Africans in one place. One word: Ebola.”
While these fears are largely baseless, they are symptomatic of the behavioral-immune-system theory proposed by British Columbia University professor Mark Schaller, who maintains that in the face of infectious diseases, people are “less keen than usual to be in the presence of anyone who seems ‘foreign’ or ‘different.’ “
“People have the right to be scared,” says Solomon Bakare, president of the Organization for the Advancement of Nigerians, the group that stages the annual parade as part of its effort to improve quality of life for the Nigerian community in the United States. “Nobody knows what’s going on with the virus — it’s like a guessing game.”
While the OAN doesn’t keep track of parade attendance year by year, Bakare says fewer people turned up for the 2014 event. Conceding that it’s impossible to definitively pin the low turnout on any factor, he’s quick to dismiss Ebola as a deterrent. “There was nothing like that,” he says. Rather, Bakare suggests, folks simply “weren’t patriotic enough to defy the weather.”
Every year Nigerians and other Africans — including celebrities, political leaders, and business tycoons — travel from Africa to New York to celebrate Independence Day here. While they are almost certainly not carrying the disease, they now face the specter of a new and pernicious stereotype about the continent. Worse, some of the prejudice comes from within the community of African immigrants.
Bakare tells of a Nigerian friend who refused to have any physical contact with him after he returned from a recent trip to Nigeria — a nation that is now, by most accounts, entirely Ebola-free. “It doesn’t bother me, because it’s coming from even our people,” Bakare jokes.
Some have cast Ebola xenophobia in terms of racism, but it seems clear the fear of an infected other exists within the minority groups themselves.
Nonetheless, there were no surgical-type masks to be seen at this year’s parade, no hands shielded by gloves. As attendees danced to Afro beats, mingling with Liberians, Guineans, and Sierra Leoneans who’d arrived from the continent appeared to be the least of their worries.