The white African-Americans

Greta Lawrence sometimes introduces herself as an African-American.

She was born near Johannesburg 60 years ago. She left home as a teenager to travel Europe and work in London. She later took a job in Canada. A transfer brought her here where she met and married a native Detroiter and took U.S. citizenship. She now is the general manager at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Told that way, her life mirrors thousands of other stories of sub-Saharan natives who immigrate to the United States. But unlike most of those, Lawrence is a white South African with the pale skin and light hair of her German, Irish, English and Norwegian heritage.

"When I'm in a new group of people and someone says, `Stand up and tell us something about yourself,' I always say, 'I'm an African-American.' They look at me and say, 'What?'" Lawrence says.

According to U.S. Census data, Oakland and Wayne counties were home in 2000 to 8,685 persons born in Africa. Of those, 2,453 or 28 percent, were white. In Oakland County's 2000 Census, 1,147 of the 3,054 people born in Africa were white. The group includes people of North African descent, says Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., as well as descendants of white colonialists from sub-Saharan Africa.

"It would seem that there's a nontrivial number of Nigerian, Kenyan and South African white settlers who came to the United States," he says "They're leaving over time. They're the people who often have the wherewithal to navigate the U.S. visa system."

African-born whites may not be as visible as an ethnic community as African-born blacks, says David Wiley, the director of the African Studies Center at Michigan State University, because they often can assimilate better in American society.

"It tends to be very heavily the English-speaking white South Africans and Rhodesians that are here. They can make the change more easily," he says.

From time to time, Lawrence, who lives in Grosse Pointe Park, meets other South Africans in the area. Some play tennis in her weekly group, another was in a yoga class she attended regularly earlier this year. But South Africans don't have as organized a community as many other ethnicities do.

Still, Lawrence finds all Africans — whatever their homeland or heritage — living here share concerns for the continent's problems of government corruption, lack of economic opportunities, health crises, warfare, crime, sexual discrimination and racism.

"It's very sad because there are some wonderful, wonderful people in South Africa that need a chance," she says. "People are trying to survive and make a living."

Growing up the daughter of a mine manager, Lawrence says she lived a "terribly sheltered" life of privilege as a young child. But her father died when she was 10, followed by her mother just five years later. She and her two older brothers moved in with relatives, finished school and set out to find careers.

Eventually a job with Westin Hotels took Lawrence to Calgary and then brought her to Detroit where she helped open the Renaissance Center hotel in 1976. She was on the verge of a transfer to Toronto in 1979 when she met Tony Lawrence, now her husband of 26 years.

The couple and their 20-year-old daughter, Kyla, travel to Africa every couple of years to visit family members — Greta Lawrence's brothers live in South Africa — and tour the country that she describes as unmatched in its beauty.

"The African love, the growing up there, the being born there, the bond is so strong even though I've lived away for so many years," Lawrence says. "It's an amazing thing about Africa, it captures your heart."

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]
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