Thursday, May 3, 2012

It's time we addressed the ethnic elephant in the room

It often seems to me that the specter of race is omnipresent in America. One cannot go anywhere or do anything without encountering some passionate debate about race or racism or being thrown into some limiting category (i.e. "You can't do xyz because black/ white folk don't do that."). As a foreign black woman living in the United States, it exhausts me. But I have to be honest with myself. It's not a uniquely American thing. In my own nation, we are obsessed with ethnicity.

I do not see any difference between racism and ethnic hatred. They are one and the same thing. Race is first-and-foremost an invention of overzealous scientists of past centuries. So when the pseudoscience is swept aside, all that actually remains to distinguish people of different 'races' is their culture. That thing we call 'race' in America should really be called 'ethnicity,' because most of the time when people talk about race, that is what they are referring to. When there is friction between people of different races living together, the roots of their hostility can often be traced to cultural misunderstandings and to competition for the same resources. Surely, the same could be said about the so-called tribal hostilities that break out between communities in myriad nations every single year.

The thing I find most interesting is the priority we tend to give to racism as the greatest evil in the world, and the comparatively underwhelming criticism we have for ethnic hatred between people of the same skin tone. If you really think about it, you will notice that the most highly popularized conflicts in the media are those that can be dressed up as racial conflicts. American conflicts that live up to the black vs white dichotomy are highly popular, as are South African ones. When we talk about Sudan, we are most interested in talking about 'Black vs Arab' than in talking about the other violent conflicts between 'Black and Black' and 'Arab and Arab.' The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has probably garnered as much media attention as it has because Israel is often imagined to be a cultural extension of Europe (notwithstanding the fact that a large proportion of Israelis are actually Jews from Arab lands) and the distinction between Israelis and Palestinians is often figured into the language of race.

Now think long and hard about this: When are Nobel Peace Prizes typically awarded to those individuals who have tried to broker peace and mutual understanding between communities at war? I am willing to bet that the most celebrated cases have involved those who have fought for peace between distinct 'racial' groups.

The reason why I am thinking about all of this is because it strikes me that we have gotten complacent about the perpetuation of inequality and discrimination of most kinds in our societies. Most of us speak passionately about the evils of racism and talk of our solidarity with the global fight against racism when living in the diaspora, but back home we are comfortable using offensive terms to objectify those who don't belong to our own ethnic groups. We don't question power structures that favor our ethnic groups or families, but are critical of those that exclude our ethnic groups and families. Furthermore, we speak passionately about our right to live anywhere in the world and to contribute to society as equals, but back home we run those who speak different languages out of our communities.

I am afraid that we have a lot of soul-searching to do. It is very easy to point to American society and its failings as far as race is concerned. However, Americans are far ahead of most of us in that they have a visible tradition of self-criticism and self-betterment. If it wasn't for that, the trans-Atlantic slave trade and plantation slavery would still be with us. I am not claiming that America is a utopia. Institutional racism continues to take a violent toll on American society. But I do want to emphasize that there are those who push back against racism and ethnic hatred in its different forms, and their voices are audible. How many of us can say the same about our nations? How many of us know a sizable number  of people in our own nations who will stand up for justice, even when it reveals inconvenient truths about their own ethnic communities? I think it is important for those of us from other nations to be more honest about acknowledging just how virulent our own homegrown hatreds are and to critique our roles in sustaining them.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.


  1. While i have no issues with the ethnic diversity of some of our societies, its the negativity brought forth by stereotyping different ethnic communities mainly arising from individual behaviors and attitudes. Such breed hatred leading to disagreements between communities.

    I had an interesting read on the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Apparently, people who speak the same language end up being profiled due to differences in physique.

  2. Thank you for visiting, Architect. :)

    I'm with you on this issue. Some people take the stereotyping to such an extreme that they only see two ethnic groups (e.g. Luo and Kikuyu or Black and White) where myriads exist. It is sad how this mentality results in so much damage.