Many immigrants enter the United States yearly in hopes of beginning a new and better life for themselves and their families. They bring their dreams and desires hoping to turn them to reality here in the United States. They may not be fully aware of the extent, manifestation, and seriousness of the adjustment issues ahead of them. Certain factors such as discrimination, language barriers, cultural changes and customs affect their transition. This transitional process, acculturation, is a process by which ethnic and racial groups learn and begin to adapt to the cultural values and practices of the dominate culture (Berry, 1980). Immigrants undergo changes in a wide variety of areas. Some of these changes include physical changes (a new place to live, and different housing), biological changes (different sources of nutrition, and unfamiliar diseases), political changes (different types of government and political procedures), economic changes (different types of employment, requiring different types of knowledge and skills, and types of education), cultural changes (acquiring a different language, and approaches to religion), and social changes (inter group and interpersonal relations as well as different types of dominance) (Nwadiora, 2007). There is no doubt that confronting these changes can be a very stressful experience for immigrant individuals.
The immigration of Africans to the United States has increased during the past fifty years (Nwadiora, 2007). Adjustment difficulties along with the negative racial and discriminatory experiences of these immigrants upon their arrival necessitate some comprehension regarding their acculturation. As compared to Hispanic and Asian immigrants, African immigrants in the United States have been considerably less researched. However, the first half of the decade has witnessed an upsurge in studies of the socioeconomic conditions of black immigrants in the United States (Butcher, 1994; Dobdoo, 1991; Kelmijn, 1996; Model, 1991, 1995). Much of this work has involved a comparison of American and immigrant blacks and has either defined the latter as one homogenous immigrant entity (Chiswidk, 1979) or focused mainly on Caribbean immigrants (Butcher; Kalmijn; Model). Missing from this discussion are Africans who, second only to Caribbean immigrants, comprise the largest influx of blacks to America (Reid, 1986).
As these population become part of the U.S. society, there is a great need to understand how these individuals/families adapt to the U.S, the problems they encounter during the process, and the assets they utilize to cope with those problems. Therein lays the significance of this study. The specific aim of this study is to develop a conceptual and theoretical framework concerning the acculturation processes of black African immigrants and the impact it has on their well being. This chapter briefly introduces the background of the study, statement of research problem, rationale for the study, the research question, theoretical frameworks, the definition of terms, the assumptions, the justification, delimitation, and the organization of the remainder chapters of the study.
Background of the Problem
According to Nwadiora (1996), in the process of leaving, many immigrants left a country they loved, a way of life they enjoyed, and loved ones who gave support and meaning to their lives. Therefore, as people living outside their homeland, the loss they feel is profound. Many have lost their self-confidence, the opportunity to use their abilities, and many of the activities with which they felt comfortable. Upon their arrival, they have had to redefine their personal identity based on the color of their skin and on a philosophy that is not part of their upbringing. The African philosophical tradition and outlook is similar to that of Mexicans, and it is significantly different from that of the European or Western world. While Western tradition focuses on individuality, uniqueness, and difference, the African tradition emphasizes communality, group membership, and similarity. In a study of African American and Latino American College students, Kenny and Perez (1996) found that secure attachments to members of immediate or extended family were positively correlated with mental health.
Kenny and Perez (1996) recommended that such finding might well be expected in students whose cultural values stress the importance of collectivism, family and interdependence. In addition to the aforementioned physical, biological, political, economical, cultural, and social changes immigrants undergo, immigrants of African descent, in particular often encounter more problems and difficulties than are typical for any new immigrant group as they are triple minorities (Bryce-La-Porte, 1993). Not only are they foreigners who speak a different language, but they are also black (Bryce-La-Porte; Pierce & Elisme, 2000). Having to resolve and deal with all the subsequent changes resulting from relocation can overwhelm black African immigrants and lead to psychological, spiritual, affective, and cognitive consequences.
There are no reliable adequate statistics available to show the prevalence of depression in the various African communities around the country. However, few studies do show that cultural conflicts and discrimination (a major component of acculturation stress) do heighten psychological stress levels, and cause depression among black African immigrants (Constantine et al., 2005; Faur, 2007; Gee, Ryan, Laflamme, & Holt, 2006; Kamya, 1997). Giorgis (1996) noted that various professionals who work closely with Ethiopian communities have observed an increase in depression and suicide. Alcohol and drug use have also become a way of self-medication (Giorgis).
Too many Africans, nevertheless, also suffer from a cultural taboo associated with seeking help for psychological problems. Most African cultures tend to hold a negative view of mental illness, in contrast to attitudes toward physical illness. Thus, most immigrants seek help only when bad feelings manifest themselves into physical pain and their desperation reaches crisis proportions (Constantine et al., 2005; Giorgis, 1996). Most of the time, the individuals that seek help present a special challenge to health care providers. Aside from language barriers and the inherent difficulties of interpretation, there are problems that arise from cultural differences as well. All of these factors complicate treatment of the few that seek service even more. Therefore, the need to identify culturally embedded and culturally sanctioned interventions based on the immigrants’ worldviews, values, and beliefs, to assist them in mitigating both potential and actual cultural adjustment difficulties is essential and profound.
The problem to date is, the social science and social work literature have not kept pace with documenting and analyzing the experiences of the African immigrants in the United States despite the known challenges immigrants face during the process of settling into and adjusting to their newly adopted homelands (Darboe, 2003; De Voe, 2002). Kamya (1997) indicates that there is no research that examines stress and coping among African immigrants or takes into account the care and well being of these immigrants. In order for counseling professionals and resources centers to provide appropriate interventions for this population, it should be a prerequisite they understand their culture, their experience, and how these experiences affect their daily lives. This study address this problem in the research literature by examining the acculturation experiences of black African immigrants including stress factors and coping strategies by using the voices of the immigrants themselves.
Statement of Research Problem
African immigrants are becoming a part of the U.S. society in great numbers. Although several authors have written about the need for cross cultural understanding, acceptance, and support among helping professionals who work with clients from different cultures, little literature is available on the psycho-cultural well-being of black African immigrants (Augsburger, 1986; Mcgoldrick, Pearce, & Giordano, 1985; Padilla, Wagatsuma, & Lindholm, 1985; Pedersen, 1985; Sue, 1990). This knowledge gap is problematic because many African immigrants are experiencing mental, emotional, and physical health problems due to acculturative stress. Moreover, human services agencies face the challenge of developing treatment models and services that are more sensitive and responsive to an ethnically, racially or even religiously different population. Because service providers lack the understanding and the research background, they are inadequate and less competent to fully address problems and to serve the targeted population.
Purpose of the Study
Rosso and Lewis (1999) stated that details are needed to explain acculturation differences between ethnically diverse individuals of migration and minority individuals of descent. Moreover, they argue that recognition of particular types of acculturation-specific challenges, which are important to specific groups at particular stages of immigration, will be an important source of information in furthering our understanding of the acculturation process. In order create a resolution for the identified research problem, this research will conduct an exploratory investigation of the unique experiences of black African Immigrants residing in the United States. By specifically providing a forum for the voices of black African immigrants, the primary purpose of this research is to reveal and give insight to the struggles black African immigrants face during the acculturation process.
It will further illuminate light on how these stress factors impact the well being of black African immigrants. It also intends to identify protective factors or effective coping strategies that this population posses to buffer adjustment difficulties. The second purpose of this research is that the findings can be utilized by service providers to increase their understanding about black African immigrants, amplify their awareness about immigrants’ experiences and how those experiences affect their daily lives, inform agencies and health professionals of the kind of services needed by this population, and hopefully design resources that are culturally competent.
What is the role of acculturation and stress factors among black African immigrants?
Acculturation theory is the conceptual framework used in this study to understand the experiences of black African immigrants. This framework helps to clarify the individual and social changes that occur when two distinct cultures come in contact and interact with one another. This theory aims to understand this interaction, possible changes that take place as a result of the interaction, as well as the changes that occur in human behavior (Sam & Berry, 2006). Though the definition of acculturation theory has evolved over the years, the theoretical model of acculturation used in this study regards acculturation to be a long, non-linear, and multidimensional process.
Berry (1986) identified three stages in the acculturation process. In the first stage, immigrants first encounter the new culture and identify differences and similarities as well as encounter the challenges. In the second stage, the dissonance between the two cultures becomes evident instigating a process of giving up or reshaping some original values and patters. Immigrants attempt to adapt some values and patters of the host country, but this process varies between people depending on age, social environment, and personality. For example, young people are quicker to adapt to new norms as opposed to their parents. In the third stage, adaptation takes place which is when immigrants develop various ways to reduce conflict (dissonance of the two cultures). For instance, immigrants learn the language of their new culture, including its norms (Berry).
Acculturation consists of two distinct dimensions: adherence to the dominant culture and as well as maintenance of the culture of origin (Ryder, Alden, & Paulhus, 2005). However acculturation should not be coined with the term assimilation which constitutes a disconnect from native culture and a complete immersion into the dominant host culture. Rather, Yu (1984) defines acculturation simply as the process of adaptation to a new culture. Lum (1996) professes acculturation to be a complex and long term process entailing learning, reevaluating, and coping with both the original and the host culture. Berry et al. (1991) defines acculturation as the change that occurs at an individual and group level when they come in contact with another culture. More importantly, Gibson (2001) writes that different groups adapt to cultural changes in various ways, and that the acculturation process is strongly influenced by structural and contextual factors in the receiving country. It is then becomes imperative to have a theoretical model that considers not only the psychological and behavioral changes of the individual but also the environmental forces impacting the person.
The individual aspect consists of the individuals’ history, psychological process of the immigrants’ experience, and the types of meanings individuals attribute to those experiences (Vega, 2004). Individuals can also choose to acculturate to some domains and not others. For instance, they can acculturate to learning the language of the host country, new work habits but fail to adapt to religious practices or some cultural values of the host country (Arends-Toth & Van de Vijver, 2006). The environment dimension of acculturation includes the political, social, and economical characteristics of the host country such as discrimination, language barriers. The host country sets the parameters, for instance, the availability of and access to housing, education and employment, and social attitudes and policies toward minorities (Berry, 2002). These polices and resources influence and at times limit the decision making process of immigrants. Failure to consider the political, social, and economical environment affecting immigrants can result in a misinterpretation of immigrants’ behaviors and attitudes, leading to the attribution of deviance to immigrants’ cultural characteristics and coping behaviors (Rudmin, 2004).
Application of Acculturation Theory
When African immigrants emigrate to the United States, the hardships they encounter is attempting to reconcile with the cultural differences as well as attempting to learn new ways of life in a foreign place, which entails a number of obstacles such as language barriers, social barriers, financial constraints, prejudice, discrimination and etc. The greater the differences and impediments are, the stronger the stress becomes. However, immigrants try to cope by modifying old patterns and taking on new norms. The experience of adjusting and coping with a new environment (acculturation) is an on-going process in which immigrants strive to adopt. They stay connected to their native culture while participating and adapting values of the host culture. They try to strike a balance in order to reduce conflict and be nurtured by the two cultures. They hold on to (from native origin) and adapt to (from host country) whatever they think is beneficial to their well being. As much as this acculturative process is driven by individual changes, the social contexts in which immigrants live in also dictates how well they are able to adopt. For example, black African immigrants live in an environment where the color of their skin can impact access to education, employment, housing, and other opportunities, as well as endanger their emotional and mental health, making the acculturation process extremely difficult. Therefore documenting the experiences of black African immigrants sheds light on how both the individual and environmental dimension interact to influence the acculturative experience of immigrants.
The life mode is a part of the ecological theory, which takes on an adaptive view of human beings in their continuous interaction with their environment. The life model plays a vital part in trying to understand immigrants’ acculturation experiences. This model focuses on the interrelation interaction between people and their environment (Payne, 2005). The relationship between the two is reciprocal, one influencing the other. The premise of the life model is people experience life stressors, transitions, events and issues that disturb their balance with the environment. This causes an unexpected disturbance in their capacity to adapt to their environment (Payne).
As a result of the aforementioned challenging changes, the life model states that immigrants undergo through two stages of appraisal of the stressor and the stress. First, they judge how serious the disturbance is, and whether it will cause harm or loss or be an obstacle. Second, they will seek at measures they might take to cope and resources they have to help themselves. They will try to cope by changing some aspects of themselves, the environment, or the exchange between the two. Among the resources immigrants have in order to cope include, the capacity to form attachments, their confidence in their ability to cope, and their sense that they have relevant skills and can get help from others (Payne, 2005). The life model also states that the goal of social work is to restore balance between people and their environment by improving people -environment relations, nurture human growth and development, and improve environments so that they can support human potentials (Payne, 2005).
Application of the Life Model
In migrating to the United States, African immigrants must reestablish their homes, social networks, and educational and work circumstances in an unfamiliar environment. It is reasonable to predict that this type of transition would instigate great adversity and put immigrants in a vulnerable position. However, even in the face of great adversities, immigrants demonstrate resilience. The fact that immigrants show better health outcomes in contrast to their U.S. born counterparts acts as a testimony to the way they manage to pull their assets and resources together in order to deal with the presentable challenges. As the racial and ethnic composition across the United States diversifies, social workers have to increasingly work with clients from various backgrounds. To efficiently fulfill this duty, social workers have to understand the historical, cultural and social backgrounds of the immigrants in which they work. In this case, they have to be aware of the unique experiences black African immigrants face as they attempt to make a new life in the U.S. as well as be mindful of the service needs that consider their world views, values, beliefs, lifestyles, and languages. The life model offers social workers a promising framework to use in assisting immigrant families. They can better understand the environment stressors that increase the vulnerabilities of immigrants to the potentially harsh experiences of adapting to a new country. They will also be in a better position to provide safety nets, and help clients empower themselves.
Definition of Terms
The following terms are used throughout this research:
Acculturation: According to Yu (1984), acculturation generally refers to the process by which immigrants adapt to a new culture. Lum (1996), on the other hand, defines acculturation as a complex, long-term process involving learning, reevaluating, and coping with both the original and the host cultures. Berry and her colleagues (1991) define acculturation as the change that groups and individuals undergo when they come in contact with another culture. Based on these definitions, this study approaches acculturation as a process that entails adaptation, learning, reevaluating, coping with both original and host cultures, and managing change. However, it is important to note that acculturation is not synonymous with assimilation.
Low Acculturation: Adherence to one’s home cultural values and practices (Breslau et al., 2007; Burnam et al., 1987).
High acculturation: Assimilation to the host country and less retention of cultural values and practices (Breslau et al., 2007; Burnam et al., 1987).
Acculturative Stress: According to Nwadoria and McAdoo (1996), acculturative stress is defined as “psychocultural” stress due to cultural differences found between host culture and an incoming culture signified by a decline in the physical and mental health status of individuals or groups undergoing acculturation. Berry defines this simply as the stress that is directly linked to the acculturative process: one way to think about this is that acculturative stress is the result of stressors that the individual(s) would not have experienced if not undergoing the acculturation process (Berry, 1997).
Discrimination: The Merriam-Webster online Dictionary defines discrimination as “treatment or classification based on class or category, rather than individual merit: prejudice outlook, action or treatment (Faur, 2007). Though most of the time discrimination is associated with the behavior of a prejudice, for the purpose of this study, discrimination is not only related to discriminatory acts but also negative attitudes and prejudice.
The assumptions of this study include:
There is a sparse of research documenting the acculturation experiences of black African immigrants (stress and moderating factors).
Black African immigrants fall prey to various stress factors due to their ethnical and racial background, which can be detrimental to their emotional, mental, and physical health.
When black African immigrants maintain their cultural values and practices as well as a connection to their origin, it functions as a protective factor in mitigating acculturative stresses. It provides comfort, a sense of belonging, and social support. Thus, these immigrants have a much better overall health outcome in comparison to those who have assimilated or those who lack a connection to their cultural origin.
In his study of the acculturation experiences of international graduate students, Buddington (2002) states that the social work profession has contributed little knowledge to an in depth understanding, conceptualization and testing of hypotheses on acculturation. The major significance of this study is that it attempts to make a theoretical contribution to the social work literature as well as to the broader literature. The mission of social work profession is to protect and enhance the welfare of all individuals especially those who are a vulnerable minority. This mission is embedded in values that promote cultural competency, social justice, dignity, worth of individuals, integrity, and service (NASW, 2009).
This research then becomes instrumental in helping professionals increase their knowledge about an overlooked population. It sheds light on the living experiences of these immigrants, and will equip social workers, psychologists, and other professionals to offer better services that takes into account African immigrants’ world views. Furthermore, a heightened awareness assists to offset the stereotypes and negative perceptions that instigate prejudice and racism against black African immigrants. Awareness and acknowledgment will further open doors to create resources and use asset mapping in order to improve the quality of life for this particular population. This study may also be a stepping-stone for future researchers who might develop an interest in doing further studies.
This study is strictly exploratory and qualitative in nature, and does not provide statistical information. One of its limitations is it presents a small sample, which makes it difficult to make generalizations. Although it attempted to spread out and gather representative participants from all parts of the continent (East, West, Central, and South), it is too small to make any generalization even for a population of one country let alone a continent. However, it still provides a window of opportunity to glance at the unique experiences of a population that has been somewhat invisible in the literature arena.
This research has five chapters. The first chapter introduced the study, the background, statement of the problem, and the purpose of the study. It also highlighted the study’s research question, relevant theoretical framework, and definition of terms. It then concluded with sections on assumptions, justifications, and delimitations. Chapter Two is a review of the relevant literature that establishes the framework for the study. Chapter Three introduces the methodology, a description of participants, the procedures used to gather the data, interpretation and analysis methods, and the plan for the presenting the results. Chapter Four presents the results of the study. Chapter Five offers a summary of and conclusion to the study as well as discussion of recommendations and implications for social workers.