Finding your identity is hard, but finding your identity as a first-generation immigrant is a whole other battle according to this week’s guest, Michael Rain. Michael is Ghanaian-American. He has over one million views on his TED Talk where he tells a story about his childhood and trying to find his identity. He also started ENODI, a digital gallery highlighting the lives of first-generation people and immigrants of African, Caribbean and Latinx descent. Today, Josh Martin interviews Michael about how to discover your identity in a society so prone to stereotypes and how taking care of your mental health can help lead you to find your identity.
Listen to the podcast here:
Finding Your Identity Through Storytelling With Michael Rain
I’m with Michael Rain, TED Resident and Founder of ENODI. I listened to your TED Talk and it’s pretty epic. I like the concepts of the story of fufu and your experience growing up. Something that everyone can identify with to some extent is this question of identity and classification. In your particular case, being the first-generation son of a Ghanaian immigrant. Am I black? Am I African? Am I an academic? Am I a nerd? Am I an athlete? Am I a jock? A lot of these conversations are important and worth having. The more we can share our experiences in that, the more we normalize humanity and what it’s like to be alive.
Of all of those classifications, I think being a nerd is probably the earliest recognition for me. Nerds are cool now. It’s a differentiation between being a nerd and a dweeb. I’ll choose nerd or identified as being one.
I’d love for you to share your fufu story and the thoughts that made you feel at the time, but also what you’re able to reflect touching on what you discussed in your TED Talk. I think that’s important to share to give some context.
What it was like when I experienced that or why did I put it in the talk?
What your experience was as you described in the TED Talk and then your reflections that you had looking back on that experience? Maybe who informed you to be in the work that you do.
In the talk, I shared that my mom who would pack my lunch would pack food that she served at home for me to go to school with. She sent me to school with fufu, which is like this ball of starch. If you think of like mashed potato but a little more connected in the soup that she put in a thermos. It was still hot and I would open the thermos. The aroma of it would come out while other friends of mine would have chicken sandwiches and all these other American things. They reacted not so favorably to a food that they’ve never seen before and didn’t recognize. It made me feel different and ashamed at that thing.
I didn’t immediately tell my mom not to send me to school with this food. I would just not eat it. She later discovered that I would leave it in my lunchbox and it would be in my lunchbox rotting. She would ask me why I wasn’t eating lunch. I would share that with her. She would send me to school at lunch and finally, she gave up and gave me money and I would just buy lunch. Looking back on this story, it was one of the first times I started to make a separation between what’s American and what’s Ghanaian. Even what’s black that I honestly never thought about until after I graduated high school. That was the first time I thought about all those separations because I went to a very diverse high school where most of the students were first-gen immigrants from all over. I thought of America that way until I more experienced America after high school. I’ve met people whose families have been in America for generations and then the differences in many things with that.
Let’s bring this back to this idea of classifications and your experience. You told us your story about your fufu and your mom. What was that realization like when you were able to recognize that America isn’t full of first-generation immigrants? You mentioned that you went to a school with a lot of black Americans. This is something that I’ve experienced in my education in grade school. You talk different. Your behavior is a little different, “Are you even black?” That’s the one thing that stuck out to me that I identified with during your TED Talk. “The last time I checked, I look pretty black to me.” I’m curious about what your experience was in facing that and in identifying or working through that classification.
That’s the number two thing people talk to me about with my TED Talk is that particular thing. It’s interesting how so many people identify with this whole “Are you even black?” thing, even whether they’re a black immigrant or not, what that is in the confines of what people think. I don’t know why you experienced that question. For me, it was how I talked. It was my family and things related to that. I don’t know if I settled what I thought black was until even maybe not much long ago because it has meant many different things. This might not be the correct sociological or anthropological way to think about it, but I think of black people as black first, then all the other things are distinctions.
Whether you are from the Caribbean or the continent or wherever. People who can trace their ancestry to those tribes on the continent in the 1500 and 1600s, that’s what I associate as, but a lot of people don’t. You can go to Ghana and they’ll think of you as American. They understand that you’re black, but to them, you’re American like anyone else’s American. They would even classify me as American. It depends on how I approach it, but people see it in all of these different ways. I take it less personally.Many people struggle with identifying as 'black' even when they're black immigrants. Click To Tweet
It’s important to discuss and to understand. I can say for myself you brought this up on your TED Talk, this idea of these generalizations and stereotypes of what is black supposed to be. I speak very proper and I pronounce my R’s. Am I talking a different way? Do I sag my pants? Do I wear a belt? Do I wear a button-down shirt instead of a graphic t-shirt? FUBU versus Dockers? The way you dress, the way you look and the way you talk. What do you like to do? Are you a good student? Are you a bad student? Do you get good grades? It’s one of those things that’s important to identify what informs those things and those sentiments. That’s definitely more than enough content to fill up a library. Dispelling some of those myths or generalizations, the one thing that stuck out to me in your TED Talk was the classmate that you had in grade school assumed that you were a refugee from Africa. He brought that back to your parents and they laughed. I’d love for you to touch on that.
I would come to my parents with all of these questions and they laughed a lot. It was only later on that I understood the humor in it. To them, people seeing Africans as these caricatures like they’re refugees, they’re from war-torn stuff, they live in huts and all this feed the children stuff. I would see pictures of my family in Ghana and they were in houses, drove cars and other things. It was a huge disconnect. That continues even now with adults.
That’s something that’s worth introduction on. It’s not just a kid thing. This is something that plagues our society.
In fact, the only reason I use the kid stuff early on is because people can laugh about it and we could have humor, but if I talk about the other things that we experienced based on this, then it’s not such a warm story to tell. I can’t unpack all of that in my eight-minute TED Talk. It comes up a lot as an adult, even with anything that you’re building. Around that time, that was when the President made that comment about Africans coming from “shithole countries.” That’s what he said. I think it was the same week or within the same two weeks that H&M had that controversy around the picture of the young gentlemen with the shirt saying, “I’m a monkey,” or something like that.
The conversations I was having with my peers were like, people outreach that Trump is saying this or this H&M campaign. People tell us this when we pitch investors about Africa related businesses or whatever, just in conversation or events that I go to. These stereotypes are inbred that we’re not shocked at all that people are doing things. It’s ingrained and people don’t realize that they’re stereotypes because you don’t get to hear from other African people, immigrant people or global people. You get to hear from them in a box. That’s part of the issue.
That’s something that you’re looking to do through your ENODI projects. I’m curious to learn more about that and then also to get back to your TED Talk and how you crafted that. Something that we discussed in our call and something that you discussed in your TED Talk is this concept of storytelling. How do you tell a story to begin to address these issues or create a conversation? I’d love to touch on that as well.
I was in the TED Residency program. Twice a year, TED invites around twenty innovative people to spend fourteen weeks at TED headquarters. You get a desk and a space to work on part of your work, to maybe collaborate with some of the people in your cohort and then work on a TED Talk. My cohort was on a small side. There were only fourteen of us in it. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do to talk on. I wanted to do about ENODI and this idea of first-generation people not being considered by all of these different identities they belong to.
Crafting it was tough because there are multiple audiences to consider. There are the people that you’re speaking about that you want to feel validated and heard, then there are people who need to be educated on what you’re talking about. I wanted to balance that to not alienate the people who are like me and not alienate people who don’t understand. Stories are the best way to do that. Even though someone might not have had that food story, they can identify with being sent to school with something that embarrassed them as kids by their parents or something that made them feel different.
In preparing for that, I went back and jotted down all these memories I had that I had forgotten about in some cases, then expanding them into stories. I pick the ones that worked and then trimmed down from there. That was my approach with that and trying to get different ideas out before I got into all of the statistics and data that I assume bore people. I guess they were captivated after I got them with the fufu. I’m glad there was some humor to it because I initially didn’t realize how funny it was until I practice it in front of my cohort and their reaction made me feel like, “This could work.”
The ENODI project is something I created specifically for first-generation of immigrant people. Anyone who grew up or was born in a country different than their parents and was raised in that country, and who also identifies black as the third component, these three identities you juggle. A lot of my personal friends are Haitian-American or Dominican-American to capture our experiences. Even though the first iteration of ENODI was just getting anyone who’s a first-generation or young immigrant who’s growing up in a country different than their parents.
The talk reinforced that because I’ve gotten messages from people on every continent except Antarctica, but from Australia, Holland, Japan to Iran who identify with the stories or were immigrant parents raising a child in a country different than they grew up with. A woman sent me this great message about how she’s more thoughtful about what the lunch she sends her daughter to school. It’s been awesome, but surprisingly there’s not a lot of room for us to discuss those identity balances or being a part of all those different things.
Is that something that ENODI attempts to address?
To create that space because there’s so much that we have in common because of that. Those are the people that have the most in common with. If you were born in the US and your parents were not and you were raised here, it doesn’t matter whether they’re from Iran, China, Japan or Germany. It’s the same stuff around food, around your parents coming from a collective society and you’re this individual America thing. Even down to maybe it’s a stereotype thing, but the focus on education and how that’s so prevalent in your childhood. It’s so much in common.
That’s what I like about ENODI because you seem to tackle two issues. You create a forum for people who have shared these experiences of being a first-generation immigrant from whatever country they may be from. They don’t even necessarily have to be from America or arriving in America. Any experience is a framework that informs that. Also, you provide a resource for those who might not have those experiences to learn about a specific culture or specific experience and they might be able to identify with it in their own way.
Identify it with people in their lives. This woman tells me that she had a deeper conversation with a friend of hers after seeing my talk because it opened up all these issues or things that she didn’t realize she might have experienced. It was a good conversation. That’s the point because somewhere along the way we end up crafting our identity so we can avoid conversations. How I ended my talk, I want people to have conversations. That’s the only way to get rid of those stereotypes or those issues if we can talk to each other.
I’m interested in the work that you’re pursuing. You have the ENODI on the web. You have the photographs and you have the stories along with them and you’re looking to bring that to audio. What’s the plan there? I remember you’re talking about the power of audio and it being extremely accessible.
The plan is to launch a podcast. I’m doing a lot of the conversations with anyone who is juggling these identities. I’m talking to them about their life and their career, how they grew up, what food they were sent to school with? It’s been amazing because people bring up things that I haven’t thought about. Sometimes they bring up things they haven’t thought about as therapeutic for them in a way. We get those stories out there and get more people who can identify with that out. Hopefully, in the long-term I can encourage people who fit that categorization who are more famous to share those stories.
Because people don’t get to hear about that juggle a lot from famous people. They get identified as something and there’s this richer part of them that they may or may not share or explore. That’s the goal. Even some of the people. I would love to talk to Eric Holder about what it was like growing up at the side of Jamaican parents in Queens and how that’s affected how he grows up or how he sees his country. There are a ton of people who do it. I don’t want to limit it to that but there’s this intersection between immigrants in entrepreneurship that I want to talk about because most people don’t know this. Almost half of the Fortune 500 companies were founded by an immigrant or a first-generation person. That’s quite impactful, particularly when we have discussions about walls and stuff like that.
It’s part of the rhetoric. You can’t have immigrants coming in and taking our jobs. That’s what they say. You’re able to say half of the companies in the Fortune 500 are founded or started by immigrants. That’s a lot of job created. I liked some of the other facts that you dropped in your TED Talk. You mentioned how African immigrants are the most educated demographic. They’re also the fastest-growing demographic. What does that mean for you personally and why do you think that isn’t being discussed? Because a lot of people do think Latinos are the fastest-growing immigrant demographic. Is it a proximity thing? Is it relevant or on trend? Is that why it’s come up more often? Why is it such a big deal to have Mexicans come across the border but they’re not the largest population of immigrants coming to America?
It has to do with the boxes that we put people in. Let’s say the most educated immigrant demographic, most people don’t know it’s African immigrants because when Africans come to America, they’re just black. Nobody acknowledges what that blackness means and how that can be different. That’s why we don’t know that. There’s a focus particularly on Mexican immigrants or Latin people generally because they’re here in the larger numbers. I guess there’s a bigger fear around what that impact can be. This is why I’m appreciative of this space to talk because a lot of media doesn’t open up space for other people to even talk about it. We’re talking about immigrants and nobody’s talking to African-Americans.Somewhere along the way, we craft our identities so we can avoid conversations. Click To Tweet
Even though I mentioned that in my TED Talk about the Muslim ban, everyone’s talking about people from Arab countries, but a good number of those countries were African countries and no one was talking to African immigrants. I know a lot of African immigrants who have been impacted by that bias and prejudice around Muslim people here in New York. There are certain train stops that people whose bags are constantly being checked because of how they appear and the assumptions made about their religion and what they might be connected to. Those are not the conversations that spaces being made for in any media. This is not a critique of mainstream media. Also, a lot of black media doesn’t create a space for other black people.
You mentioned the three out of the eight countries with the immigration ban are African countries. That’s something that I’m looking to tackle in a way. That’s something identified with when you mentioned leveraging technology and storytelling. Being able to provide people a voice and a medium to talk about their stories, to educate their fellow Americans or fellow humans on planet Earth. Everyone’s a person. They’re living their life. They’re human like the next guy or woman. That’s important to share because there aren’t those outlets. I’m curious you talked about maybe getting some larger names involved with your ENODI project. Have you ever considered video?
Yes, I have. Videos would be super powerful. I champion audio because I think it’s the most inclusive form of digital storytelling for three reasons. It’s easier for people to access globally because it requires less data than video. People are more likely to understand the language than to be literate and reading an article. Audio can give you more context than a photograph can. That’s why I’ve been focused more on audio. I learned that one of the best ways to build empathy with people is for people to listen and not necessarily see because I guess seeing my introduced biases that audio doesn’t. You might remember this from Frontiers, but listening is way more developed in our eyes. The range of what we can hear is vastly more developed than our sight is.
I didn’t take Frontiers. I was in engineering school, so I took a bunch of calculus and figure X for mechanical engineering. I probably should have been in Frontiers because I found out the hard way that I was better suited in the college than in the engineering school. I ended up studying anthropology. Engineering school didn’t work out for me. I should have known better because I was one of the seniors in my year. My freshman year took me aside and said, “What are you doing?” You go to college, take your courses, the workload and being able to speak your way out of an issue or through an issue, as opposed to finding the gravity on some country, space and earth. I don’t even know what kind of math we did, but we’re doing these quadruple integrals where there is a right and a wrong answer.
I lost interest in math and calculus. I was like, “This is where I want to stop.”
What was your college experience like?
It was interesting. I was what they would call an adult student. I went to GS at Columbia. I had that break between high school and college because my first love was music. I wanted to be a songwriter. I pursued that and discovered all these things about the music business that people are only now discovering whether through these lifetime documentaries and realize that was not an industry for me. I was a bit older when I went back. I had some life experience. The stuff I was learning in the classroom had context and I enjoyed college. It gave me this freedom to figure out what I wanted to do. Columbia is still Columbia. It’s a very interesting place. I don’t know how it was for you.
Columbia was hard for me.
It’s hard for everybody. That’s one thing I love about Columbia. It doesn’t matter what’s your background before it. I’m talking race, ethnicity or wealth. That place is going to challenge you.
A big part of my experience and something that I’m not sure what the culture is like at Columbia now, but it’s always been ranked highly as one of the most stressful schools in the country, if not the most stressful.
In the last several years, it’s number one. I think it’s Forbes or Fortune that does this list.
Mental health is a big issue. Also having these forums to be able to have these frank, open, honest and vulnerable discussions about student experience and the stresses that people might be facing. I don’t know what they’re doing there now. The most difficult part for me was knowing that I was struggling internally and then not being able to see. Everyone else looked like they were having a grand old time. Others were struggling. It was visible but it wasn’t something that people wore on their sleeves, which is probably a human thing more than anything or culturally. Columbia being such a prestigious institution, everyone’s very well to do academically to be able to attend the school. I’m not sure what’s behind that, but I’d be curious to explore.
You never took Columbia up on any of those mental health resources?
No, I didn’t even know they had mental health resources. I’m sure they did. That was not on my mind. I’m thinking I have to figure out how to write this paper, get some sleep and rest to recover after the workout early in the morning and go to all these classes and then study after that. I tried to have some semblance of recreation time for myself and trying to manage all of that. My time management was terrible. I started using a calendar pretty religiously. I’ve been slowly developing my system.
I don’t know where those offices are, but there they were on the seventh floor. It was interesting because you would go up and wait for your appointment and then you’d see other classmates. It was like you were both, “You too?” I felt less weird or alone that I’m doing this thing. It definitely wasn’t generally discussed on my circle. Only the people who I identified or saw on that seventh floor. Other than that, nobody talked about it. A ton of people were using those resources and got things like more time to take exams and all this stuff that I wish I had known about.
I had to the lie, “I’m sick. I can’t do it. I need some extra time for this paper.” I didn’t go the more reasonable route and seek help. I’ve been trying to address my mental health, well-being and working through some of the issues that I faced personally. I started seeing a counselor.
Did that change your life?
Absolutely. That’s a big deal to be able to talk through problems with someone who’s trained to talk and work through issues that you might be facing in life. I think it’s important to be able to normalize that and have a conversation.
That was one of the benefits of Columbia for me because that was the first time I saw a therapist and it changed everything.
I wish I would have known, but it’s all part of the process, growing pains.After your first time seeing a therapist for your mental health, everything changes. Click To Tweet
Was knowledge of it the only reason you didn’t take that up?
I’m sure I would have found an excuse to not go.
Why not? I’m curious.
I would say that my stress relative to the stress that others might be facing or my parents or grandparents might have experienced in this country. Trying to do a test and they’re trying to make it home safe, whether it’s in Louisiana or somewhere in the South or wherever it may be drinking at a different water fountain. I’m at Columbia, I’m good. I’m not worried about it. I think that informs a lot of it, especially in the African-American community or however you identify with that community, being a person of color and your experiences. They’re a little tougher than passing a midterm exam. That is what informed that for me. Realizing that there might have been these obstacles that I may have faced because of something that I don’t necessarily have control of, but I’m also a human too. I still have this human experience beyond that. That is not everything that informs a lot of the things that I do and the way I experienced the world. Ultimately, we’re all human.
There are many barriers to it, but I’m glad you’re doing it. We’re all human and it allows you to unpack all of these things that are messing with your mind. For a lot of people, it’s like a chemical imbalance thing too. It’s going to take a while for us to think about it in terms of all of our other health. We hadn’t touched on religion, but that’s a huge reason at least why a lot of African people don’t go. As a first-generation people, we might not talk to our parents about it, but we go.
That’s good to know. The more you know, everyone could use a little help sometimes. It’s important to feel comfortable enough to seek that help and seek that out. Who would’ve thought that would’ve been a part of this discussion?
It is tied to identity though. Who we are or who people perceive us to be is a large part of all of our experiences, no matter who we are. It causes us some pain or dysfunction, who doesn’t?
We need to bring a mental health expert on this show. If you’re a mental health expert reading, I’d love to have you on the show.
I know someone I could recommend. She was in the TED Residency, the cohort before me. She did hers on mental health, particularly in the black community. It’s a tragic story because her younger brother committed suicide. She’s an advocate for it in our communities.
It’s real for everybody and it’s okay for it to be real. I think it’s better when it’s real because at that point you can begin to address what’s real as opposed to what’s not. Michael, I’m very happy to have you on the show. TED Resident, Founder of ENODI. I’m excited for what’s next with this podcast project you’re working on. Hopefully, I’ll be able to be a resource for you in some way. I don’t know how that will be, but I’d love to help out if I could.
I might have you on as a guest to talk about your experiences with black immigrant people and what you thought of it from your vantage point.
Thank you, Michael. I appreciate you.