This past Friday, June 27, Mmegi published the first of a series of columns I will be writing about issues of race and culture from an African American point of view. To read it from their website you can click here. This picture accompanied it in the paper. Here it is in full text below:
The Politics of Blackness
By Yamiche Alcindor
Henry Louis Gates once wrote, "My grandfather was colored, my father was Negro, and I am black." If I could communicate with the young Gates, I would ask him to add, "My children will be African American, but as for my grandchildren's race . . . well, that will depend on where they live."
Have you realized that getting on a plane might change your race? Until January of this year when I made the 18 hour trek from the United States to Botswana, I didn't. When I got on the plane in the US, I was black. Short of a few confused looks and questions regarding how black I was, my racial identity was something that had been unquestioned. Then, I got off the plane in Botswana and was deemed colored because of the lightness of my skin.
But, what shocked me even more than my "new" race was the relationship between being colored and being black in Southern Africa. In one incident, to my horror, I was invited to hang out at the "colored" side of a party. Confused, I looked at a group of people who would be considered black in the US demean another group of people based on the literal color of their skin tone. In another incident, I was told that saying I was black when in fact I could pass for colored was ridiculous because being colored somehow upped my status in Southern Africa.
To put this into context I must note that "colored" was a term thrown out in the 1960s in the US as blacks protested discrimination and terms seen as demeaning. Colored, to me and most Americans, refers back to a time when the US was starkly separated along racial lines. Put bluntly, the word colored brings to my mind signs reading "WHITE ONLY," which once hung from hotels, restaurants, cafes, water fountains, and other public places. The term brings images of dogs biting peaceful black protesters in the 1960s. And, most importantly, colored for me refers back the American version of apartheid, segregation and Jim Crow laws.
The issue of racial identity recently made headlines all over the world. Last Thursday, June 19th, South Africa's high court ruled that South African Chinese are now legally black. If this confuses you like it did me, I will put it simply: In SA, the Chinese are really black people. The court made the decision to allow South African Chinese who also suffered under apartheid laws to be included in the South African government's Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) an initiative aimed at reversing damages done under apartheid. My question: why change the race of a whole people rather than amend the wording of the initiative to include South African Chinese?
As I think of the term colored and issues of racial identity, I can't help but think of the ongoing issues of race in the US which stem from my country being built on the peculiar institution of slavery and grown on a system whose architects were middle aged white male slave owners. It's the reason why in 2008, as Barack Obama aims to be the US' first African American president (though he would be considered colored here because of his white mother), racist badges reading "If Obama is President…will we still call it The White House?" can still be sold in Texas. (Click here for more on racists against Obama)
However, while issues of complexion still somewhat plague African Americans in the US, it was here that I really began to dissect how even in our common "brownness," people pick each other out and attempt to separate the inferior from the superior using methods which judge people based on how close he or she comes to looking white. I asked myself one question a lot over the last six months that I have been living in Gabs: how is it that years later, after the colonization of a continent, the massive selling of black bodies, and the carnage done to black societies, can we as blacks still not find beauty and pride in our naturally dark hues?
In looking at racial identity many questions exist. What makes someone black? Is it the color of their skin, the tone of their voice, the place where they live, or the people with whom they relate? Scholars from all over the world are still grappling with this subject. As a scholar of African American history, I still grapple with these issues both academically and politically.
Most scholars agree that race depends more on an individual's identity and the society in which he or she lives in than on the actual color of his or her skin. In short: Someone "black" can have the same color skin as a tan "white" person without being considered white. However, after travelling thousands of kilometers away from my home, I have a new theory: race depends on where you are, what you identify with, and what the courts of a country legally decide.