Race is as material as class and culture in shaping world views

2012-07-28 10:45

A stranger I met on a train asked me whether I thought South Africans had an obsession with race.

She spoke gracefully, like a woman at home in the world.

She said her name was Aisha and she was born in Zambia, though her parents initially came from Ethiopia.

They spent a few years in Lusaka before moving to Pretoria.

My first response was dismissive.

I told her my people didn’t have an obsession with race and that in fact we carried a fundamental vigilance against the discrimination and the unjust inequalities race continues to visit upon us.

I argued that it was a historical design that the greatest discrimination in our world was racial.
Halfway through our exchange, I noticed her grace subsiding. So I eased up and gave more space than I took.

This means I sought to understand more than I tried to convince.

The first thing to understand was her background.

You see, Ethiopians don’t suffer from the same wounds as most of the black world.

Their country managed to resist European colonialism.

Their major collective public trauma comes from the Red Terror and famine of the 1970s and 1980s.

So, with the exception of the divide between poor and rich, or the people of the Amharic north and the negroid populace of the Nilotic south, Ethiopia has little socio-political discord.

The honour fell to me to explain to my lovely companion why race was real for the rest of the African experience.

In other words, why race is as material as class, culture or language in shaping how we experience the world differently from other human beings.

Race implicates black people in a set of multidimensional interests where our white counterparts enjoy unjust advantages.

I pointed my Ethiopian friend to thinkers such as Charles Mills, the Trinidadian scholar; and renowned feminist writers such as Linda Martín Alcoff, who have expounded on these things in greater detail.

Mills pointed out advantages such as social status and semantic normativity – a system of ideas that determines how meanings are formed socially – cultural dominance and deferential political
input as examples of benefits that come with whiteness.

To differentiate race from class as a marker of difference, for instance, consider that the white working class are both victims of capitalist abuse and beneficiaries of racial exploitation.

Think here of job reservation and the often-reported racial profiling in the discriminative human resources regimes of today.

Research (using economic data collected from the same set of families over 23 years) shows the wealth gap between white and African-American families in the US has more than quadrupled over the course of a generation.

In South Africa, we’ve learnt that by 2008 black income levels had decreased to pre-1975 levels.

At about this point I realised our chat was becoming too serious for a joyride mingle.

So I started to pepper our dialogue with bits of poetry, some colour on a dashiki, if you will.

I quoted New Yorker Roger Bonair-Agard: “A corporate job does not spell freedom / Marry white don’t mean racist flight / A democratic vote is not a revolutionary act ...”

» Follow me on Twitter @Percy_Mabandu

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