The Young and Disenchanted

Posts Tagged ‘Racism

Kumbaya

Imagine a world of no conflicts, a world where everyone believes in the oneness of the human race. A world where people of all races sit down together and share equally in the wonderful resources the earth has to give. Africa and the Middle East are peaceful regions. The distinction between the third and first world, the developed and the developing, no longer exist. Racism, tribalism, xenophobia are all things of the past. The human race respects nature and the environment is safe. On that day, human beings shall hold hands together and we shall sing “Kumbaya” in unison.
Now to the realists/cynics amongst us, this vision of the world is unattainable. For such a world to exist we would have to give up the selfishness which marks us individuals, part of what defines us. While I do generally agree that this Kumbaya existence in unattainable, I do however feel that as humans we have the responsibility to try our best to eliminate bias and prejudice in every area of endeavor.
The reason I’m even thinking about this “I have a dream” scenario is because as an African, and specifically as a Nigerian, I come across all sorts of bias and prejudice in my daily life. I have always been of the opinion that education and exposure helps to lessen ignorance and hence helps to stem the tide of bias. It then surprises me that as a Nigerian that people, educated or not, are more concerned with what ethnic group I belong to than anything else about me. I say this because within the context of Nigeria or even Africa, people find it hard to place my ethnic group based on my name and hence I get all sorts of questions, “Are you really Nigerian?” “Are you this tribe, that tribe or the other?” – all of which are typically wrong. I am yet to meet a Nigerian even when I was in the US who wouldn’t, knowing that I’m Nigerian, ask as a follow up question to “What is your name?” what my tribe was.
Now there are people that would blame this on the colonial strategy of divide-and-rule. The colonial rulers played one tribe against the other to ensure easy rule although before the colonialists came, I am sure tribes were conquering each other and fighting. You would think over time people get over certain prejudices. Then again, it’s almost 50 years after the end of colonial rule and to the best of my knowledge Nigerians and Africans in general have been traveling to other lands and getting educated on the bigger picture. I say this because from my own experience, going to study outside my country provided me the opportunity to see the issues that are affecting my country outside the lens of tribalism. It gave me a sense of the bigger picture in the sense that I began to see my fellow Nigerians not as people of this or that tribe but as my fellow Nigerians. I also began to see my fellow Africans as brothers with whom I could share some common experiences. I would even venture further to say I see African-Americans as cousins of some sort and, in the complete Kumbaya state of mind, I judge a person by their merits and not by their skin color or culture. Of course as a human being, I’m not immune to all forms of bias, but I try to not let these biases be the major decision-makers in my life.

To put my thought process in context, I recently came back to Nigeria after studying in the US, and I am settling in for what could be a year or more in Africa. What has struck me while I have been back is hearing supposedly educated people spew stereotypes about a person of one tribe or another. You can walk through the streets and hear stereotypes that the Yoruba man, for instance, is dirty by nature, the Igbo man loves money and the Hausa man is an uneducated Islamic fanatic who rules and consumes all the country’s wealth. I am from the northern part of the country, where the Hausas/Fulanis are the majority tribes so anytime I tell someone I am from the north, it is assumed that a) I am a Muslim b) I am uneducated (they are surprised to discover I have finished university) and c) I come from an area that is wealthy. Of course all stereotypes have an element of truth: Nigeria is a country with enormous wealth and the north of the country has held power for longer than the other regions. The country is also has an illiteracy rate of almost 50%. The surprising thing about these stereotypes is that there are sometimes physical attributes that go along with them: the tall, skinny Fulani man, the light-skinned Igbo chap, the dark-as-hell Yoruba man and so on and so forth. If you look closely though, these so called physical attributes are almost complete hogwash as many people defy these parameters of identification. It still amazes me that people treat me a certain way because I look like I’m from a part of the country that I’m not. When I am in the northern part of the country, people sometimes treat me with disdain and speak in the language not knowing I understand, whereas when I’m in the southern part of the country, people speak their language to me and are surprised when I don’t understand them.
Now I am not anti-culture, nor do I advocate the adoption of European culture where all ethnic barriers are lifted and Africans sing Kumbaya with a Yorkshire accent. I say this because I have often been accused by people of my own ethnic group of having no respect for our people or culture because I feel we aren’t so different from others. I feel that there is a strong problem when people of different tribes do not take the time to appreciate and learn from each other’s cultures. I feel there is a problem when people of one tribe make it difficult for people from two different tribes to marry. Of course, times are changing and there are intercultural marriages, but there is still a deep suspicion of people of different tribes often steeped in the stereotypes many people already hold. I think there is a problem when as a governor, minister or president in my country, if you don’t provide dividends for people of your tribe as opposed to for all people in your constituency, you are seen as a traitor. Now I ask you how such a country hopes to progress even with loads of oil wealth. Would the US, for instance, expect President Obama to develop only Illinois at the detriment of the other states in the union? That would be ridiculous. It is a problem when people look at political appointments on the basis of ethnic affiliation, not in terms of merit and experience. There are very few technocrats working in the Nigerian government. And they are hoping to achieve the millennium development goals? I call bullshit on that one.

The same discussion could apply to religion in my country. Nigeria is statistically almost 50% Christian and 50% Muslim. As a young kid from a Christian family, I always wondered growing up why none of the Muslim kids would come and play with me. As I grew up and eventually made Muslim friends in places such as boarding school, it occurred to me that sometimes Muslim parents and Christian parents alike, depending on how fundamentalist or firebrand they are, often discourage their kids from playing with kids of the other religion. Now I wonder, if I had some Buddhist kids around, would my parents have let me play with them? I can speak for Christianity since I grew up in a Christian family. Christians in my country take religion more seriously than the damn colonialist missionaries who brought it to them. Nigerians are highly religious – it’s the only country I know where literally every street has a church or mosque on it. It doesn’t just stop there: in certain volatile parts of the country politicians often use religion to incite violence. The Christians often even argue amongst themselves, along the Catholic/Protestant line, each believing the other is wrong. It is a Nigerian Anglican archbishop that is spearheading the move by the African Church to leave the English Communion for appointing a gay bishop. I find it ironic that one of the most religious countries on earth is also one of the most corrupt. Now I wouldn’t want to make any inferences here on the role of religion in corruption because that’s a whole other discussion.

Now imagine a world rife with conflict, where each group is at another’s throat, where fighting between tribes and genocides are common place. Imagine a world where we murder anything that we perceive as different from us. I think it doesn’t take a genius to see that such a world needs progress. So my dear friends, what experiences in your life sometimes have you wishing for a world of equality and equal opportunity under the sun?

The song I had in mind as I was writing this was “If I ruled the world” by Nas featuring Lauryn Hill. I certainly miss Lauryn Hill, homegirl needs to get back pronto. Nas has always been one of my favorite rappers, dude speaks knowledge, if he listening, we need another “Illmatic” bruv.

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This entry title is a bit of a misnomer because it’s actually only about one of my boys. We lived on the same floor freshman year and bonded over our “third world-ness” (he’s South American, I’m African) and our love of food. Nearly three years on, I’d say he’s probably one of the people here who knows me best. It’s weird because on the surface we don’t really have that much in common: he’s a conservative white man and I’m a borderline socialist black woman. I listen to hip hop on my mp3 player while he pumps The Beatles and obscure Latin American artists out of his ridiculous speaker system. He drinks whiskey; I’m a rum-and-coke girl. I’m an English and Political Science major; he’s an engineer. Yet somehow over the past few years we’ve gotten to the point where our differences don’t really matter to either of us. We have our own little dynamic – he buys me dinner, I help him do his laundry. I tease him about how long he takes to get dressed to go out, and he lets me know when what I’m wearing isn’t what’s hot on the boulevard. Basically, our friendship is unconventional, awesome and uncomplicated. 

Or so I thought. Something he said during a recent phone conversation has made me question what it means for me, an African woman, to be friends with a white man. A few weeks ago we happened to be talking about STI testing: he’s never been tested, and I suggested that just to be safe, he should go. A couple days ago he was complaining about being unable to sleep properly, and so I suggested that he go to the doctor for a check-up. Remembering the STI testing, I asked him if had gone yet. He said no, and then asked me when last I had gone for an STI test. I told him I had one when I last saw the ob/gyn a couple months ago. He asked how it had turned out, and I replied that there were no problems. Maybe he thought I was being cocky or pushy, because he then said, “Yeah well, you know you’re black so you’re probably going to get AIDS at some point anyway.”

I need to explain something here: one important part of my dynamic with my male friends is our semi-insulting banter. We’re a pretty diverse group – white, black, Asian, Mexican, Jewish – so at some point or another, someone is bound to be blasted on account of their race. Everyone gives as good as they get – if the Mexican kid makes a comment about me being fresh off the boat, I ask him how heavy the border patrol is nowadays. There’s no room for political correctness with these dudes – after all, we’re socially aware students in New York City living the post-racial American dream. I’m saying this to make it clear that my friend’s comment about AIDS was not meant to be malicious on his part – it’s something that would, on the surface, fit in with our usual conversation style. But this comment felt entirely different to me. For once, my slick mouth failed me and I didn’t know how to respond. I felt as though two key parts of my identity – my colour and my gender – had been struck at with a force I wasn’t able to return. I felt totally exposed and extremly self conscious. Why? Because AIDS disproportionally affects black women and is a subject that is particularly close to my heart. Because there isn’t an equivalent statement that I could throw back at him, a white heterosexual male, that would carry the same meaning as his statement did for me, a black woman. Because I felt like my friend was stereotyping me, judging me, suggesting that my destiny was tied up solely in my sexuality and my race. The inequality of our positions in society, for the first time in our friendship, was glaringly obvious to me. And my position as the weaker one made me silent.

At the time we had the conversation, I was tired out of my mind (all-nighter the night before finishing two papers) and so I didn’t really think too much about it. A couple days ago, I decided to tell two friends (Rational Chaos and a Colombian/Puerto Rican chick) about the conversation and see what they thought. They both understood why the comment had hurt me, and recognised the need for me to react to being told something like that. It was interesting to me though that Rational Chaos, as a dude, thought that the comment had far more to do with race than the fact that I’m a woman. My female friend, however, agreed with me that those two aspects of my identity can’t really be separated, especially not in a situation where I’m dealing with someone who is my opposite on both grounds. Even more frustrating for me is the fact that I don’t think that I can make my friend see why his comment was problematic for me. He hasn’t ever been sexually harassed while out at night or had degrading comments made about him based on the colour of his skin. Every time I try to bring up the topic of gender or race, he gets impatient and accuses me of bringing up “hippy stuff.” How is possible that someone who understands how I feel about my family, another important part of my identity, starts to push me away when I want to discuss what it’s like being a black woman? Rational Chaos said to me that sometimes I have to let things slide – partly because of the fact that our conversations don’t tend to be PC in the first place, but also because in his opinion, there are bigger battles to be fought. While I accept that our banter will always have some pointed teasing, am I not allowed to draw boundaries over what I will and will not accept being said to me? If I were a black man and he had said the same thing to me, I could have responded, “Yeah, well your little dick isn’t big enough to contract that shit to begin with.” But I don’t have a dick. In this context he holds all the power. Is that something I should just accept as a fact of society, or shouldn’t he be sensitive to his privileged position in comparison to mine? At what point is my silence simply me compromising myself?

My female friend suggested that I think carefully about whether or not this was a turning point in our friendship – if we could continue on as we were, or not. I’m not planning on ending our friendship. He’s still my boy, no matter what. I realise now though that I have to challenge him to see things from my perspective more often. I know the white heterosexual male’s perspective inside out – it wrote the books I study from and the history of the world I live in. But this isn’t Hegel’s time any more – that shit has got to come to an end. If my friend can make the effort to understand Nigerian politics, then he can damn sure try to understand why his making a remark about me getting AIDS is a problem. I can’t end racism and sexism for the whole world – that’s a project that’s a little out of my reach. But I’m going to do my best to confront them when they come up in my personal life and out of the mouths of my friends.  

P.S. The first verse of Kanye’s “All Falls Down” makes me think about the complexities of the black female existence. Plus Stacey Dash is a bad chick, and Common’s sexy cameo as the airline employee in the video always makes me smile.