If there is one truism about all racialized societies it would have to be the absolute ignorance that characterize much of the debates and interaction around these conceptual and structural categories.
Here in South Africa, at this very harrowing minute, there are some whites who believe that xenephobia is an inaccurate term for what is happening to migrants. Many of these folk are cock-sure that what they see is racism, Black on Black racism, to be exact.
There is no such thing as Black on Black racism. Where in the world are Black Africans described as separate races simply because they originate in different countries or regions?
Nowhere is the answer.
The concepts of race and racism have its origins in Europe a mere 600 or so years ago. It is, therefore, a relatively modern phenomenon and it is blunt and unsophisiticated in its description of what constitutes a race.
Still, Blacks are not seperated into discrete Black races for the purpose of being accurate about the geographical origin or location of Blackness.
It is, thereofore, no secret that Malawians, Zimbabweans, Somalis, and South Africans who are embroiled in the violence are all Black and, in the system of race, constitute a singular Black race.
The nonsense that would have you believe that Black South Africans are perpetrating racism against Black migrants is a figment of an afflicted imagination that wants to unsettle the assumption that only whites are capable of racism.
Let's be clear about the content of racism. Racism is a system of power that is historically derived, and structured, by global conditions that were set in place, and maintained, by the colonial expansion of Europe.
At the center of the system of racism is the identity of race, and its implied power heirarchy.
For racism to be present there must be a system of advantaging one race over another, or others. Apartheid was, clearly, such a system.
Post-apartheid South Africa is a majoritarian democracy and there are no structural impositions that seek to advantage one race over another. This is so despite the fact that many naysayers would finger Affirmative Action (AA) and Black Employment Equity (BBE) policies as evidence to the contrary.
The same finger pointers would hardly describe the same AA policies in the US as racism. It would seem, that AA in the hands of a Black majoritarian country like South Africa is evidence of racism, but in the US where whiteness is the power base it is not so.
Nontheless, racism does not accurately describe the violence that is being directed against migrants. This is so even though migrants who are Black Africans, but not South Africans by birthright, are being essentialized in the attacks.
What we are witnessing is xenephobic because it is about discrimination against foreigners, migrants, or what the government refers to as aliens. Nowhere in the expanding violence is there any indication that Black South Africans see migrants as another race.
What is more accurate is the fact that being a migrant, or being an illegal alien, is a matter that speaks to the business of nationalism and its discontents. This means that nationalism and not racism or tribalism is the substantive identifier for this round of violent oppression.
Migrants are being targetted as a whole even though the migrant individuals come from different African countries outside of our borders. The driving impulse is an unwarranted discrimination based on who belongs to the nationality called South African.
Sure there is an essentialism in defining who is a South African and who is a migrant. But let us not conflate this essentialization into racism.
Also, we cannot ignore that the violence is being experienced by poor Blacks and not wealthier Black folk who reside in the leafy suburbs that apartheid created for whites.
Nontheless, even where class and essentialist notions of origin craft belonging, the concept of race - as it is still lived by Blacks of all origins in South Africa and beyond - is not central to the troubling dialectic playing out now.
Xenephobia, as clumsy as the concept may be, is an accurate descriptor of what is happening to Black migrants at the hands of Black South Africans.
In closing I would like to say that these terms are similarly misunderstood, and purposefully misused, in the US. I offer this following example of the general idiocy that sometimes parades as discourse on race.
The comment appears beneath a Newsweek story that covers the problems that Obama faces with an overwhelming white electorate.
Posted By: flman @ 05/24/2008 5:11:12 AM
Comment: I still don't understand how 90% of tyh (sic) black americans can vote for Obama and this isn't consider racist,
This delusional pearl illustrates the depth of misinformed stupidity that confounds the system of race and racism. What the commentator would not even consider is the fact that every president in the US was white and elected by whites yet that historical process would hardly be deemed to be racist or racism (and yes there is a different between the two).