If It’s Not Racism, Then What Is It?

Many times over, I have had conversations with other non-U.S. black people (and non U.S. white) who seem to label racism as something purely U.S. centric. A plague that only affects U.S. blacks due to our “laziness”. A disease we refuse to find a cure for. That poverty and ghettos that hold my community hostage were created and are enjoyed by us. That is the portrait many of my conversations have painted. It was very frustrating to hear and hurtful.

AmericanahI am currently reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s new book “Americanah”. A tale centered around a young Nigerian couple finding their way in the world professionally and personally. Encountering many experiences across the countries of Nigeria, England, and the U.S. It can be deemed a love story but it discusses the pains of race, racism, race relations, classism, neocolonialism and so on; that these two face.

However, my only friction are with the statements that “race” didn’t play a part the young Ifemelu’s character (seemingly based maybe on the author’s experiences) until she moved to the U.S. Was this just her way of developing the character’s thoughts on racism? I don’t know. One interview with Adichie raised my eyebrows when she stated that “race didn’t occur” to her until she moved from Nigeria to the U.S. However, she acknowledges the turbulent relationships between immigrant blacks and U.S. blacks. She also expresses great respect for the struggle that occurs on U.S. soil; which I appreciate.

Here among U.S. raised citizens there is all this racism happening, yet so much denial of someone or group of people being actual racists. We have staggering stats that prove otherwise; but there is still the notion that racism only means a old racist white man in a KKK hood. Not the company who needs whole “diversity” campaigns, getting called out in media, and “diversity” workshops just to get one black employee in there. Yet when it’s almost all white, no one thinks that racism may have clouded hiring bias. White is the norm. “How is that racist? No one said nigger.”

Github white

One of my favorite tech companies, GitHub, seems to be a sea of white. I combed through all 17 pages of the new hire mentions and very few people of color. Are black people not applying? This isn’t just them, but many tech companies. As a techie who happens to be black and female, the message is clear and hurtful.

Another time in one of my grad courses, one Argentinian woman (european descent) spoke on how she “doesn’t understand racism” because in her country that doesn’t happen. Aware of Argentina and how they treat Afro-Argentinians, I amusingly asked her “what happened to the black people in your country?”

She said:

“We were smart, we sent them off to the war”.

She doesn’t understand racism though. Right.

Now back to Adichie’s comment, I don’t want to sit here and say someone’s experience isn’t true. That would be arrogant and selfish of me. However, I do have questions. What is it called when I see African women with brown skin and kinky hair detest their features so much they get their skin bleached; and put relaxers in their hair and say that natural hair is ugly? What is it called when South African Apartheid was rampant and the socio-political effects on black people are still present to this day? What is it called when you see mainly people of color in the favelas on the outskirts of Rio, Brazil? What is it called when the Dominican Republic consistently tries to revoke the citizenship of anyone of Haitian descent ?

Is that not racism, internalized racism, white imperialism, and neocolonialism? However, I did not grow up or step foot in any of these countries. I have total lack of global travel. So my understanding is definitely from a U.S. standpoint on racism. So I know I do not understand completely. I do not force my stance on this at all. I just have these questions and I wonder. Is it that they just don’t want to be grouped with U.S. Blacks? Or is it their belief that the same ailments are that different from what we experience?

I try to understand that the small box of U.S. black stereotypes being applied to ALL black people of different cultural backgrounds can be very frustrating. I know many non-U.S. blacks who have expressed this. Understand this also, black people here experience it too. Not every black person in the U.S. has the same exact background. We may be able to relate somewhat better to each other, due to the national/historical context, but black people here also have differences. Differences in speech, economics, and regions. We all receive this sort of overall blanket view that is placed on all of us. No matter what culture we are, what language we speak, or nationality- we’re black and that is all that needed to be known. It’s a very harsh truth that we all have to deal with.

I just ask that you not use the same differences to distance yourself from U.S. blacks as a coping tactic to deal with the racism you face here. Instead, I ask that maybe to see us as potential allies. I also ask that U.S. blacks be more understanding with our attitudes towards black immigrants overseas.

In 2011 I was introduced a category in my Black Social Movements class, that I had never heard before: African Diaspora.

African Diaspora

It made so much sense when my professor spoke it. It’s a healing term for me. It knocked out any discontent I had for the Nigerian brother who said he thought U.S. black women didn’t work as hard. It made me understand why some Dominican people got extremely upset if I mentioned their African ancestry. Or why a Jamaican sister once told me “I am not black, I’m Jamaican”. All of our ancestors were victims of the same crime, the effects just manifested in slightly different ways.

Finding out the histories of black people that were affected by colonialism from different countries rooted in me a new sense of connection to a greater community.

  • How Angola was assisted with their resistance by Cuba and fought side by side
  • Olodum formed from Afro-Brazilians and their initiative to build the black community
  • The man who coined the phrase “black power” was of Trinidadian descent (Stokely Carmichael)
  • How the U.S. and other West Indies slave uprisings were encouraged by the Haitian Revolution.
  • How recently Venezuela pledged to help Haiti with their current civil rights violations.

I don’t think we would be where we are today if it wasn’t for this sort of outreach to each other and hope from each other.

I think the best remedy for my questions, is to continue to support movements across seas and home. It creates a powerful signal that we are still growing and don’t accept the stereotypes and negative imagery pushed out to divide us up. Also, making sure to respect each other’s different cultures and knowing blackness in itself is very diverse.

Below I have highlighted some cool organizations doing coalition building with in the African Diaspora. If they aren’t in your area, please donate, buy a tee shirt, or at least soak in the great content for yourself.

Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MOCADA)

Progressive Pupil

I used to intern for this wonderful organization. Founded by the professor (Robin Hayes) who introduced me to the term “African Diaspora”. Below is a film she produced surrounding the Diaspora in Cuba.

http://vimeo.com/progressivepupil/blackandcubatrailer

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

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9 thoughts on “If It’s Not Racism, Then What Is It?

  1. Hi there! Interesting thoughts. You ask a well posed question: “If not racism, then what IS it?”. While that particular question is well above me, I might be able to provide some insight on some of your more specific questions:

    | However, my only friction are with the statements that “race” didn’t play a part the young Ifemelu’s character (seemingly based maybe on the author’s experiences) until she moved to the U.S. Was this just her way of developing the character’s thoughts on racism?

    >> No. The United States is entirely unique in its diversity and history. Ifemelu was from a country very diverse in culture but mostly singular in race. Unlike the United States, she did not necessarily have to co-exist with people of other races in her daily life. The concept of “race” — as with the deep historical connotations it has in the United States– could easily not have occurred to her, aside from the general knowledge that there are people of different races in different parts of the world.

    | What is it called when I see African women with brown skin and kinky hair detest their features so much they get their skin bleached; and put relaxers in their hair and say that natural hair is ugly?

    >> C’est la mode. Fashion. In cultures that are predominantly black, people with lighter skinned are admired because they stand out. Likewise, in cultures that are predominantly fair, being “tall, dark and handsome” or “raven haired” are desirable features. And then again, trends change. Please do not misread this as a flippant response to a seriously valid question. I believe I understand its depth, however, this is my objective opinion.

    | What is it called when South African Apartheid was rampant and the socio-political effects on black people are still present to this day?

    >> Residual racism. Racism. Perhaps this situation is more similar to that of the United States, where different races with a tense history are forced to co-exist.

    | Are black people not applying? This isn’t just them, but many tech companies. As a techie who happens to be black and female, the message is clear and hurtful.

    >> This might have more to do with preceding statistical factors — How many black people applied? How many females? What are the racial demographics of the state the company is in? How many black people are there in the tech industry, compared to white people? How many females vs. males? It could seem pretty discouraging but at the same time, it also applies to other industries as well.

    | We all receive this sort of overall blanket view that is placed on all of us. No matter what culture we are, what language we speak, or nationality- we’re black and that is all that needed to be known.

    >> “and that is all that [sic] needed to be known” — I’m not sure if this is what you intended express… But if you’re implying that once a person is black, then people of other races automatically apply a blanket view to that person irregardless of their other characteristics… then I would disagree with that statement. I believe humankind deserves a little more credit than that!

    I hope to read more from your blog! You write well and bring up questions that I also often ask myself.

    • Thank you for your thoughts! I am still trying to report my context while still making sure I am cognizant of my own lack of knowledge. To your last question, I meant that is the view that many white supremacist structures have, not all of humankind. I hope you take up Adichie’s book if you haven’t already. I just finished it yesterday and enjoyed it thoroughly.

  2. Oh and as for companies and diversity. I do acknowledge how overall in tech that there isn’t many people of color. Yet, these same circumstances have created biases that keep us at bay. No people of color, no thoughts on hiring them, people of color may apply, they face racial bias. It’s a very horrible cycle. One that me and many others have experienced. So I guess I have a more negative view on that.

  3. I want to ask a very cliche question(with no intention of creating friction) – one that is asked frequently- but it is one that has not been answered sufficiently: What should white people do?
    I ask this question because most white people either ignore ‘blackness’ (be it diasporic or not)- and race in general- while the other (because white people, when confronted, tend to choose one of the two ) become culturally appropreative to an obscene and offensive measure (without scencerly reconciling their individual/historical/ cultural participation in the history of jim crow/ slavery/ and their present participation in the prision industrial complex/ racial inequality.)
    My question comes from a place of respect and honest inquiry. As a white person I’d like to know if black people think reconciliation is possible. if no then what? seperation?
    Should white people reject ethno- euro centric values and embrace afrocentric ones? is there a happy medium? Honestly I dont think anybody wants to see white people wearing dashiki’s shouting ‘uru’ السلام عليكم Ect. and pumping their fist. is there such thing as an afrocentric white person?
    also- what is white? poles? brits? irish? russians? greeks? Saudi? Iraquis? arabs? iranians? is white a cultural construct or a complexion? Do you think that these complications have anything to do with the stasis of racial equality in contemporary America?
    With earnest respect.

    • Hello Dirty-Hand-Sam-Landscaping,

      I will answer in parts.
      Q: “What should white people do?”
      A: White people should listen. Listen to our stories and really take it in. That is the basis of being an ally in anti-racist movements. Not only work with other people of color, but talk to other white people about this. Because we already know, many white people do not.

      Q: “As a white person I’d like to know if black people think reconciliation is possible. if no then what? separation?”
      A: I can not speak for all black people. Many of us think different things. Some may believe separatism. Some may believe assimilation is best and forgetting their blackness. I believe that reconciliation, once again will take a major effort by white people to truly give up white privilege. Then and only then can black people truly begin to trust again. I suggest you read James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time”. He really much more explicitly speaks on this topic, and what it takes from everyone in very profound and thoughtful words.

      Q: “Should white people reject ethno- euro centric values and embrace afrocentric ones?”
      A: White people should embrace whatever culture they are from. “White” is the power construct, while you may be Italian or Irish. I will get into that in the next question. However, don’t reject yourself but embrace the cultural differences in everyone. Afrocentrism is a movement that rejects setting Euro standards on black bodies. If you challenge yourself to not think the Europe is better than Africa and all of it’s descendents, then you have made step one. You can reject the white power structure for yourself without having to pick up African cultures you were never raised in.

      Q: “What is white?”
      A: White is the opposite of black in the racist system. What is racism? Power + Prejudice.
      White is the “highest race” and Black is the “lower race”. This social construct has been used for centuries to oppress. It was even embedded in science to “prove” the biology of race (that had no evidence whatsoever). Race is a construct. But it’s one we live in, giving it harmful and horrific power & implications. White privilege is something given to those who the power structure deems can participate. Mostly Eastern Europeans, because they were the one to colonize and make this system over here (in the U.S.) and other continents as well. It is a well spread system. Irish Americans for instance. They were treated horribly over here when the immigrated. However, when the Civil War Drafts occurred, they did not attack those who actually made that decision. Who did they riot against? Black people. They killed many that day in 1853. I truly believe that was the moment they sent a social signal to say “we rather be white than be treated like the ones over here called “negro”. In the end they still didn’t accomplish justice, they just settled for the smoke and mirrors of white privilege. Mind you white privilege is something that is very real, but it doesn’t pose the solution to a more equitable world, for everyone. It just helps those to feel that holding on to it is much better and they continue the perpetuate the racist system. And to take down the system, white people must must give up that privilege. If we truly want a just world. We need to truly all challenge ourselves. Once again James Baldwin, discusses this much better than I.

      I do recommend also: The Condemnation of Blackness and Socialism and Black Liberation.

      The second book goes into depth about whites and blacks, and the different movements that actually had plenty steam when whites and blacks came together. It’s an in depth history that’s highly reflective of the patterns of today.

      Hope this answered you somewhat. I am all but one person, so do find and seek other black voices and I hope they touch you as much as they touched and continue to inspire me.

      -Midday Marauder

      • It is a great feeling to open this discourse in a positive and approachable way. Even reading your blog is pretty much a mind expanding practice. ess and Socialism and Black Liberation a look and get back to you.
        In consideration for your readers- so they dont have to read about white perspectives- and so as to not be a typical entilted white dude- I’m gonna continue the discussion in my own post about whiteness. check it out: http://dirtyhandsam.wordpress.com/2014/04/11/on-whiteness/

  4. Pingback: On whiteness | dirtyhandsam

  5. It is disappointing to see blacks participate in separatism within the black community. Non-US born blacks should never have contempt for black Americans. Most of the political leaders, the people we celebrate in black history, and the pioneers of this country are black Americans. Non-US blacks are able to be citizens, vote, and integrate because of their struggle. People forget this.
    I wish the story was retold in the Civil Rights Movement to include the rabbis, the Asians, and the Hispanics that participated.
    If we strip the nationality, we would realize we face the same challenges. We are the same. For some reason people fear homogenizing when they emigrate to a new country.
    I am all for white people celebrating African culture. We are all African. We only define it one way. White people need to be just as active as blacks and everyone else. Inactivity and passivity keeps the movement stagnant.
    I really enjoyed Thandie Newtons TED talk on race, and otherness
    http://www.ted.com/talks/thandie_newton_embracing_otherness_embracing_myself

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts and that link! I also think that if we taught more about all the hands on deck during the civil rights movement there would be a better sense of appreciation. For instance, Stokely Carmichael was Trini descent and coined the term “Black Power”. Yet he knew that we were all in this struggle together and didn’t feel the need to separate himself in anyway. He knew solidarity is better than distancing himself based on nationality.

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