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May 14th, 2009
04:27 PM ET

Can a white guy be African-American?

A Mozambique native - who's now a U.S. citizen - is suing the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

Paulo Serodio says he was harassed and then suspended from med school, after something that happened in one of his classes. During a discussion about cultural diversity, the professor asked everyone to 'define' themselves.

Paulo said he was "white, African, American" - and that didn't sit well with some people. (By the way, Paulo says "the people who were offended were not people of color.")

According to the lawsuit, Paulo's professor chewed him out, he was assaulted, his car was vandalized, and fliers mocking him were hung up around campus. A bunch of other stuff happened, including a school-ordered psych eval and a disciplinary hearing.

Then he was suspended for a year.

The lawsuit seeks his reinstatement at UMDNJ, and monetary damages.

Oh, and the reason Paulo went to med school in the first place? He wanted to work with Doctors Without Borders.

Filed under: Kyra Phillips • On TV
soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. Isaac Holloway

    Yes a white guy can be african american. Black and African American are not synonyms as this article shows. The institution made an error in their association with African American with the Black experience of slavery segregation jim crow and all of those ugly things that occurred and are still occurring in this country as a result of your skin being dark.

    May 14, 2009 at 4:33 pm |
  2. Jack Medley

    Um, yeah. There are white skinned African-Americans. I have always thought the term, African American to describe the color of ones skin type to be "black" as idiotic. That's like saying all European-Americans are white. For a country that likes to put labels on others, we sure don't do a good job of it.

    May 14, 2009 at 4:36 pm |
  3. Jasmine J.

    I know plenty of white african americans, and I'm black american and not african american. My family has more ancestry than Africa, and I think it's ignorant for people to think of black as soon as they think of African American.

    May 14, 2009 at 4:41 pm |
  4. Linda Finch

    You are what your DNA says you are. GEEEZ this is supposed to be med school. I'd feel a lot safer if our affirmative action doctors of the future could please be encouraged to focus on medicine?
    Rancho Cucamonga

    May 14, 2009 at 4:53 pm |
  5. Laura Tynes

    If this man is not a white africian american please tell me what he is.
    White or Black , if he was born in Africa what would that make him.
    In the eyes of people they see what they want to see and come to their own conclusions but the fact remains, this man is a white african american.

    May 14, 2009 at 5:05 pm |
  6. Jay Hirschhorn

    DNA – Not sure what that means.
    But – Can we also figure out who are Palestinians. Prior to 1948 the WORLD considered Israeli Jews – Palestinians.

    May 14, 2009 at 5:25 pm |
  7. MDM

    I was a classmate of Paulo at NJMS and I would like people to know that there are two sides to every story. He wants you to believe he is the victim where as I witnessed the numerous incidents that supported his suspension by displaying his own overt racism and disregard for the viewpoints and feelings of others. The issue at hand had nothing to do with Paulo identifying himself as an African American, but rather was based on him telling a black classmate that she did not have the right to call herself that term because she was not born in Africa. He proceeded to publish an article in the school newpaper belittling the significance of African American history and slavery. In addition, he wrote that most blacks had no right calling themselves African Americans, as they have never been to Africa. Numerous rebuttals did follow but students were also acting on their right to freedom of speech as he did in his article. Furthermore, he went on to make a racist joke in a student wide email, refering to a "lynch mob" being after him. Please do not give this grown man sympathy without seeing the otherside and the lack of empathy he has shown for his actions. Honestly, considering the large population of blacks in the Newark, would you really want him treating that community based on his own blatant bias?

    May 14, 2009 at 5:55 pm |
  8. Nonulio Wetela

    A lot of people in America live under the idea that all Africans are Black and they forget about people like Paulo. Of course a white person can be a white African American and Paulo is one of them. Paulo's self definition is as simple as the words themselves: He is a white person, therefore WHITE. He is African, therefore African, and he became American. I think his self definition is fair and nobody should feel offended. If Paulo cannot define himslef in these terms, then how should he do so? There are many other examples of white African Americans, such as Maria Teresa Thierstein Simoes-Ferreira Heinz, who is also a Mozambican native. I am Mozambican and people often categorize me as African American which is something I conisder as incorrect because I am simply African/Black and in no real way American. I hope that I will not be forced or induced to change the way I define myself, as all or at least most black people in America are called African Americans, which in certain cases can be considered offensive as well.

    May 14, 2009 at 6:34 pm |
  9. Sara

    The school's deplorable actions are typical of an ignorant society. Africa is full of white people who have lived there for many generations. They are africans and they are white.

    If I were from Canada, I would call myself canadian. It's only natural that the white guy from Mosambique would call himself African.

    May 14, 2009 at 6:47 pm |
  10. Ronald J Kriel

    In 1947, Sinclair Lewis published "Kingsblood Royal," a story about Neil Kingsblood's attempt to find royalty in his past. Instead, he discovers that he had a negro ancestor. At that time, if an individual was 1/32nd or more negro, they were considered negro (remember, this was 1947 and "Black" had not yet come into vogue). Here is the acid test for ethnocentrism, if one who is 1/32nd black is to be considered black, then, how about one who is 1/32, or more white? Shouldn't these individuals have an equal right to consider themselves, and be considered, white? Hence, I submit that it is perfectly logicial that an individual may consider himself to be a "White" African American.

    Also, what about Congressman Adam Clayton Powell? He had such light skin that he passed as being white until someone asked him how a white man could have a father who was the pastor of a black church in Harlem. After Powell embraced his color, he was responsible for appending civil rights legislation to every bill passing his desk.

    May 14, 2009 at 7:15 pm |
  11. Barry Watts, Baton Rouge, LA

    If he was born in Mozambique, he is African-American! Africa is a big continent. Many of the indigenous peoples of north Africa (Egyptians, Moroccans, Libyans, etc.) are not black, so why shouldn't someone of European origin born in Africa be considered an African-American?

    May 14, 2009 at 11:14 pm |
  12. janet

    what is this 1954? And why punish HIM of all people? Geez . .Let me guess .. Christian, right? Ignorance is alive and "well" in America

    May 14, 2009 at 11:46 pm |
  13. concerned

    A good way to stop racist on paper anyway

    May 15, 2009 at 12:34 am |
  14. Lisa

    Yes, a white guy can be African-American. Yes there are white people who live in Africa. Yes it is now the time to redefine the meaning. People, this is not rocket science. If a white man was born in Africa and decided to become an American citizen, what do you call him? You call him White African American, literally.

    May 15, 2009 at 12:44 am |
  15. Kristy Clemons

    yes, i think he can be african and america and white. people should really lose their obsession with race. what is the big deal??

    May 15, 2009 at 1:31 am |
  16. Paul Goderis

    I'm white African-American I was born in Kigali Rwanda and I think it is ridiculous that someone would be put through something like this. When I've told people in the past that I'm African American I usually get a few laughs if one is deserving of violence or discipline for something they were asked to disclose in school or anywhere for that matter...

    May 15, 2009 at 8:29 am |
  17. a TRUE African-American

    I'm a TRUE African-American.
    I’m a proud American, born in Africa. Yes, I happened to be white.

    Imagine being an Aborigine and being called an African-American, just because of your skin color?

    Time for us to practice what we preach! Racism in any form is BAD!

    May 15, 2009 at 8:39 am |
  18. michael armstrong sr.

    ok heres it comes all you albinoes out there you cant be african american no more because your the wrong color.

    May 15, 2009 at 8:59 am |
  19. justicegirl97

    I don't see what the issue is. There are white people that are African. If they then come to are the NOT white and African and American?

    May 15, 2009 at 9:03 am |
  20. Tom in NC

    The university is clearly wrong. This was a class in *cultural* diversity in which the student was asked to *define himself*. It was not a class in racism, and he was not asked to define his race. He defined himself as he saw himself from his own cultural perspective. First of all, the professor of the class obviously needs to take a remedial course in cultural diversity himself before being allowed to teach cultural diversity ever again. If he hadn't let his bias overcome his professionalism he should have been able to avert this whole controversy. Perhaps he didn't have the guts or intellectual prowess to face down the overbearing, arrogant, obstinate, and 1984-ish PC crowd that has invaded college campuses.

    A psych evaluation? What is this, the gulag archipelago?

    May 15, 2009 at 2:47 pm |
  21. yo

    African American is someone whose ancestors are ORIGINALLY from Africa. South Africans are European IMMIGRANTS, their ancestors were from Europe and they immigrated to Africa. An African American is someone whose ancestors can be traced to AFRICA, meaning someone who is of dark skin.

    Then that person (whose DNA and ancestry is from REAL Africans (not europeans born in Africa) ) is born in America (American meaning Brazil, USA, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, etc)

    so that person is African – American.

    the South Africans are European-Africans

    The people from the USA are European – Americans

    A south African born in African whose ancestors are European and then moved to the USA is an European-African nationalized American. PERIOD

    September 14, 2009 at 1:34 pm |
  22. Line of though

    At "yo": So by your definition of African-American is someone that can trace their ancestral roots to Africa, then would not every human on the planet be African-American? Is it not widely considered by the vast majority of the scientific community that both genetic and archeological/paliological (sp) evidence supports African as the cradle of civilization and location of man's evolution. So GOOD NEWS EVERYONE we can now all join the various African clubs and racially biased scholarship programs offered across the country!

    January 12, 2010 at 12:50 pm |
  23. A Black Woman

    I don't call myself an African American. I'm a black woman, plain and simple. A few points....

    1) Did anyone notice the post from MDM? The university did not come after Paul because he said he was a White African American but because of the other things he had done following that class. If that is indeed the case, I would have kicked him out too.

    2) All life started in Africa. Doesn't that mean that those of us that now live in America are all African American?

    3) I recently traced my ancestry and found that my maternal bloodline was middle eastern. We somehow made it to this country and mixed with African Americans and Whites. When you look in my face I'm a beautiful brown skinned sista. My label is unimportant.

    January 23, 2010 at 2:31 pm |
  24. Jamaican American

    Lets keep it simple. Do you know what political entity you came from? Are you a Moorish American, Liberian American or is there some other political entity that exists that you can be traced to. The West Indies has countries, so does Central and South America. If it is Spanish speaking we say Latin. If English, we say Anglo- something if you have light skin and Afro- something if you have dark skin. Traditionally though, if you were in England and you were Afro in medieval times you were considered a Moor. Moor changed to black, which has no political orgin outside of the Usa. It does not refer to one's origin. It is a state of mind.

    January 20, 2013 at 12:16 am |
  25. Dean Memmott

    The white Mozambican-American in this news story is AN AFRICAN-AMERICAN, because he was born in Africa. To say all African-Americans are Bantus is like saying all Hispanics are Mexicans. African-Americans are split into six different races and hundreds of different ethnic groups. Berber-Americans are African-Americans. So are Egyptian-Americans and Algerian-American. Buying the line that line that all Africa-Americans are blacks shows how really little we Americans truly understand Africa.

    September 11, 2013 at 11:52 pm |
  26. African American

    Well the problem is the fact that African Americans have a long history in the United States, and only second to Naive Americans. So people forget that for centuries no white person considered themselves African unit very recently. Even during aparthied in South Africa signs of segregation said for Europeans only, they didn't say for white Africans. Also it was made clear that Afrikaaner is Dutch for African, however some have come here saying we aren't African. You have to realize there is an established African American culture. The term African was used in the 1700s for Masonic lodges, churches, and many organizations as well as Afro American in the late 1800s. The term has referred to people who are the descendants of the Middle passage. Some have argued President Obama would not be African American because of this, since he has a Kenyan parent. that would be incorrect due to the fact he married an African American and identifies as such and is raised in the CULTURE.

    So it isn't about race as much as you think. African Americans are well aware how diverse the African continent is and have always talked about the whole continent, We understand that we are a composite of many African people, as well as European, Native American and Asian. I don't see white Africans becoming a part of our organizations very often. They have to see themselves as part of us also, not just take the term without understanding it. Really continental africans identify by country of origin and by their ethnic group as well. Thats what people from the outside miss.

    January 21, 2015 at 1:53 pm |
  27. Arthur Mboue

    Living as an intellectual and African born is NOT that easy in this country. Everyone wants you to be less than your peers when you want to compare yourself to your successful peers. When they see you they think about that time when you were less skilled (English and/or paper) or are proud as well-dressed security guard ( it means less skilled or lazy)

    September 21, 2017 at 3:35 pm |

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