***Please do not get this twisted. I am in no way implying that people that identify as ‘black’ shouldn’t do so. I am merely highlighting my opinions on the farce that is race and the effects that it still has. Never would it be my intention to remove somebody’s agency to self-identify…boi do I know how that feels!***
Racism is real, race is not.
If we want to end racism, we need to understand race at its core. That means we need to face the ugly truth of our past and understand how it shapes our perception of reality now.
I have the privilege of being in a position to glance into the insights of young teenagers, and ask them questions about identity, history and race. When I ask them questions such as what is race, I never get a unanimous response. Students give me answers ranging from: the colour of one’s skin, where they are from, their heritage or culture. I’ve asked my students how many races there are; they hesitate and start counting on their fingers, asking me if Mexican or Spanish people are Latino or not. What about Asian and Chinese people? Are they one race? Again, no unanimous answer. They tell me that despite this, they are very aware of race, constantly reinforced by society referring to this concept as if it is a real thing. Apparently life is just black and white.
Even most adults I have asked these same questions to often respond with similar answers. If it is so real, how come there seems to be so much confusion with what race is?
What they do know is that race ‘distinguishes’ us through our physical ‘differences’.
The Oxford Dictionary states that race is “Each of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics”.
The top hit on Google for the difference between ethnicity was this ‘expert’s’ explanation:
“You can only have one race, while you can claim multiple ethnic affiliations. You can identify ethnically as Irish and Polish, but you have to be essentially either black or white.”
These experts are again referring to race as if it is something that is tangible and real, that we can see these clear distinct markers and determine who belongs to what race. But I’ve seen so clearly that these markers are subjective and complex, and not easy to identify when given much thought.
So what is race?
Race is an institute that socially constructs an oversimplified society by categorising everybody into homogenised groups of ‘other’, with white being at the top, and black at the bottom. The power of language is formidable when it comes to ruling over people through dividing and conquering, with history providing us blueprints of how the Nazis and the Colonialists did it years earlier.
Institutional racism isn’t just the policies that are introduced into law that are used to subdue and oppress an entire population of people. Rather, the actual belief in Race is the institution itself. As society’s tool to identify, race upholds the foundations of white supremacy by conditioning us to abide by its laws governing us in our prejudices to discriminate, continually trying to organise ourselves into ‘us’ and ‘them’. Yes, we are literally mentally enslaved if we continue to use race to negotiate the world in which we live.
So let’s understand the origins of Racism.
“An ideological basis for explicit racism came to a unique fruition in the West during the modern period. No clear and unequivocal evidence of racism has been found in other cultures or in Europe before the Middle Ages.” George M. Fredrickson, Professor of U.S. History at Stanford University.
It is well documented that colonialists used false statements dressed as intellectual arguments to legitimise the enslavement of African people since the late 17th century. What many people don’t know is that there were many poor and imprisoned English and Irish indentured servants also working with Africans across the Atlantic on plantations. Just as all slave trades before, social class and not race determined slavery. In the early 17th century slaves could be freed after converting to Christianity or after their indenture term and go on to own land.
Anthony Johnson was a slave from Angola who achieved freedom in 1635 after serving his term of indenture. He became a property owner, and was one of the first people in Virginia to have his right to own a slave legally recognised. This is what was possible in pre-racial America.
Despite this, working conditions were dire and naturally, many European and African slaves often rebelled against plantation owners demanding more rights.
However, the ruling establishment had to find ways to keep its free labour force, in a sustainable and economic model. The solution: to racialise slavery. This happened over a period of time between the late 17th century and early 18th century. For example, the ruling classes placated European workers with tax breaks and voting rights to break up alliances with Africans. Divide and conquer.
Fredrickson highlights that the initial “rationale” for enslaving Africans was based on religion: that they were heathens. But when “Virginia decreed in 1667 that converted slaves could be kept in bondage, not because they were actual heathens but because they had heathen ancestry. The justification for black servitude was thus changed from religious status to something approaching race.” By the early 18th century, slavery became an exclusively African fate.
It is well documented that colonialists used false statements dressed as intellectual arguments to legitimise this enslavement of African people. Slavery wouldn’t have been able to exist without the authoritative backing of doctors, historians and scientists, such as William Hagel and Edward Long, who claimed that humanity had a natural order where people who where dark-skinned were less evolved and less human than so-called white people. Therefore the ideology of white supremacy to keep a brutal oppressive regime guilt-free was widely perpetuated and given the intellectual mandate.
The effect of this propaganda is common knowledge, with everyone being taught in their history classes how people would attend the lynching of African Americans right up until the “the climax of the history of racism” in the 20th century. This level of dehumanisation owes much of its twisted success to these embedded ideologies where distinctions are made along the lines of race.
Racial segregation laws and restrictions on voting rights may be a thing of the past, but we still use the idea of race to mark ourselves in this perceived social hierarchy.
Which is why I don’t believe in calling people “Black” or “White”.
‘Black’ is a label that is fully doused in European colonialism that oversimplifies, dehumanises and homogenises complex groups of people from one of the largest continents in the world. What does a student from Brixton have in common with a lawyer from Nigeria? What does a Jamaican cook have in common with a nurse from Zimbabwe? The only thing that all ‘black’ people have in common is that they all experience racism around the world wherever they go; they have all had their agency reduced to a colour that connotes evil and bad intent (blackmail, black market etc.). Because of the melanin in their skin (‘black’ people aren’t even black, they are mostly different hues of brown…) they stop being British, Nigerian, Jamaican or Zimbabwean, and all the other wonderful influences that make up who they are and they just become black: Bush people who like chicken and rob people. Dangerous negative stereotypes.
It’s sad, but this stuff is real, and it needs to be addressed.
My wife still gets smacks of ignorance when family members assume she knows how to cook with dung, or that traditional Ghanaian clothes are her traditional clothes or that she feeds me tripe when she wants to treat me to a home cooked meal. But then it gets shrugged off when told otherwise. She has Guyanese heritage and was born in the UK. If the term ‘black’ didn’t exist, I wonder if my family would take the time out to find out what it meant to be Guyanese, rather than to assume what it means to be black.
To put it simply, Africans were never ‘black’ until the Spanish named them as such in the 15th century with the word ‘negro’. By the early 19th century, its derivative ‘nigger’ became entrenched in the discourse for dehumanising Africans. Google gives us a lovely flow chart of the etymology of the word nigger:
We need to fully recognise that through imperialism and increased globalisation, white supremacy has had effects in almost every corner of the world. Thus perceiving the world through a racial lens is socially accepted and expected. Hollywood still pumps out film after film that white washes history whilst perpetuating negative stereotypes about people of colour. Pay attention to the global skin lightening epidemic and you may be disturbed. Ask any Indian what it felt like to find out that the guy who played the Indian scientist in Short Circuit was a white guy in brown face. A 2011 study found that in the British news media, reported“close to 7 in 10 stories of black young men and boys related in some form to crime”.
Ask anyone who has only ever seen negative representations of themselves in the media as villains or jokes how it was negotiating around these stereotypes. The results of this conditioning? A deep sense of self-hatred, resentment, inferiority and wishing to be white. Just to remind you, I’m not typically ‘black’, (although I am African…nuts I know) but due to misrepresentation I have still felt all of the above. At 31, I still find it unnerving that I am surprised when people who aren’t Indian watch Master Of None (which is pretty good actually) and find it funny and entertaining. Really? You watch a sitcom with an Indian guy playing the lead…?? But there are rarely any stereotypical bud bud ding ding jokes. Is that…normal?! You find him funny in spite of there being no stereotypes?
And that is powerful. People that look like me had been finally humanised and I felt seen and understood. As a good friend of mine put it, we are living in the golden age of representation and long may it continue, but there is a long way to go. As hard as it may be, we must do away with ‘white’ and ‘black’ labels. I don’t have the answers for what people should be called, but I do know that division and distinction without full understanding is a dangerous force.
I’ve realised it’s futile trying to belong to a certain group of people. I don’t belong to anyone, but to everyone.
If we can recognise and then teach our children that identity is not a binary concept, and that we can be influenced by many different cultures as we go through life, identifying on some level with them all, we might be able to raise children who see themselves as far more than a colour. May they cultivate the resilience to live life un-phased by what label society puts on them, because they would have the knowledge and understanding that these labels only serves to divide and conquer.