Saturday, May 24, 2008

Black on Black Racism?

You would think that we have reached a historical point where most people living in racialized societies like South Africa and the United States would know the substantive differences between race, racist, racism, ethnicity, xenephobia, etc.

Not so.

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.

Curious hey?

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).



Anonymous said...

I beg to differ. The Oxford dictionary defines the word "xenophobia" as a deep antipathy to foreigners. The non-nationals currently living in South Africa are both black and non-black. The violent actions were directed soley at BLACK people. To me, this was a clear case of treating those who look like us as the animals we believe ourselves to be. Our minds continue to be firmly in the hands of the oppressor. Untill we address our collective psychosis as the Black nation of South Africa, then I'm afraid we will see a repeat of this barbaric behaviour in the not so distant future.

Ridwan said...

I am unclear as to what you "differ" about in my post.

I agree that we need to adress self-hatred, etc.

Still, the actions are not best described as Black on Black racism.

Also, many southeast Asians were attacked during the violent actions of that period.

Unless you are describing Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis as Black then you are wrong that only Blacks were attacked.

Still, I see your overall point about addressing our mindset and concur strongly.

Thanks for commenting.


Ben R said...

"The concepts of race and racism have its origins in Europe a mere 600 or so years ago."

Isn't this like saying sexism was created in Europe? Racism or in-group/out-group bias is common to all societies. Ethnocentrism is a
natural phenomenon that can be expected to arise anywhere different ethnic, racial or linguistic groups come in contact. The same group bias can be found in
sports, university alumni, departments in corporations, or anywhere humans can draw
distinctions between "themselves" and the "other." If ethnocentrism were eliminated, we
would be genetically similar to the feline species, where individualism would obviate any
possibility of cooperative behavior, empathy, altruism, or morality, which were derived from
intergroup hatred as much as from intragroup cooperation. Fear, hate, ego, status seeking,
deception and opportunism are as much a part of our human nature as is the good.

Also, slavery, intolerance, barbarity, dominance, and all those nasty human proclivities at the time were pretty standard for any civilization.

Ridwan said...

Thanks for your comment Ben R.

Any standard textbook on race and racism will trace the concept of race and racism to Europe 600 years ago. This is standard stuff and hardly new.

A textbook I have used in my class entitled "Racism" is entitled the "The History of Race" by Bulmos, for example.

Gobineau is considered to be the "father" of racism. Though he borrows most of his concepts from various Indian civilizations, the concepts of race and racism is seated in European history.

Caste is not race, for example, even though both use colour to describe a heirarchy of privileges.

The notion of Aryan is Indian in origin, Gobineau redeploys the concept inside of biological notions of race.

So, it is not "like saying sexism was created in Europe?"

Sexism speaks to patriarchy and its history is markedly different than race and racism.

It is important to untangle your generalized assumption(s) about prejudice and discrimination from the concepts of race and racism.

I am not saying that any
"civilization" is expempt from acts of discrimination.

This is very different though than saying that race is endemic to all societies in historical terms.

It is not.

The same is true for ethnicity. The idea of ethnic groups is even more modern than race.

This is not to say that over the last 600 plus years the ideas of race and racism have not been incorporated into 'modern' societies (state systems) everywhere.

It has and race and racism has become a formative part of our collective consciousness.

Still, race and racism are conceptual concepts created alongside mistaken ideas of biological groups and most important, nationalism.

To understand how race/racism has become so important in nationalism we must examine how the seperation of church and state played out in Europe.

For these reasons, race, racism, ethnicity, and ethnocentrim are not as you say "natural phenomenon".

They are, instead, constructed ideas that tell us more about the course of European history than the "nature" of being human.

The ideas of race and racism is a product of European modernization and its domineering role via imperialism, colonialism, neo-colonialism, etc, in the last 6 centuries.