By Shourya Agarwal
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of interacting with a Nigerian co-passenger on a long flight to London. Apart from sharing a common love for Bollywood, we also happened to share the same former colonial ‘masters.’ We chatted for hours about the systems of power in our respective post-colonial countries. During this discussion, I asked her how racism plays out in Africa, an ‘all-black’ continent. To this day, her answer remains the most ingenious thing someone has ever told me.
“You know that there are no black people in Africa,” she remarked in an absolutely calm manner. Initially, it sounded nonsensical to me. Of course, there are black people in Africa. There is a whole continent of black people in Africa. How could anyone not see that?
“Africans are not black,” she said. “They are Igbo and Yoruba, Ewe, Akan, Ndebele. They are not black. They are just themselves. They are humans on the land. That is how they see themselves, and that is who they are.”
I felt slapped into a realization and slowly started to perceive a huge misconception that I had been unaware of till now. Perhaps reading the confusion on my face she continued.
“They don’t become black until they go to America or come to Europe. They become black when they first land into the Western world that chooses to see them that way.”
After this discussion, I became cognizant of a flagrantly held misconception that has crept into all discourse about race.
Unfortunately, it has become far too common for people to sympathize with people solely on the basis of their skin colour. Such a world-view treats all people of color as a monolith, grossly mischaracterizing more than a billion people into a single identity. This false collective is extremely harmful because it inadvertently subdues the preferred identity of the constituents, forcing them into a frame the onlooker wants to see them in. For example, the Congolese are extremely proud of their musical tradition which goes back centuries. Once, we reduce their identity solely in terms of color we would be projecting our own perception of them which does not adequately capture their essence.
A notable example of such a mischaracterization is the myth of ‘sub-Saharan Africa’. For the western media, about 50 nations in the region below Sahara represent regions of extreme poverty. Swathes of land infested with famine which has no scope for human development. A strange land where a child would die in seconds if not for the generosity of the donors. However, there is nothing further from the truth. Let’s look at two regions under this arbitrary collective noun — Somalia and Ivory Coast. These two nations are as far away from each other as London is from Tehran. On a per-capita basis, Ivory Coast’s GDP is seven times that of Somalia, roughly equal to the gradation between the UK and Iran. Now, if someone was to proclaim that Iran and UK are similar countries, I am sure they would be laughed out of the room. But when it comes to the African continent, esteemed institutions such as the World Bank and United Nations use terms like ‘sub-Saharan’ on a daily basis.
While for one group phenotypic indicators like color serve as convenient methods of classification, for others they are the worst forms of modern colonialism. A process in which the features, the nations take pride in are ignored and the developed nations take free reign to characterize them like however, they seem fit. To make matters worse, when called out for such a blatant misrepresentation, instead of accepting our ignorance, a lot of us tend to initiate attacks on the colonized, asking them to grow a ‘tougher skin’ or to not be offended when their identity is steamrolled because ‘words are harmless’. I feel that such normalization also furthers the stereotype.
Isabel Wilkerson, a Pulitzer-winning scholar on race expounds on how blackness was created as a race. The following statement by her perfectly encapsulates how such a convoluted bias came into place. “In the making of the New World, the Europeans became white, Africans black, and everyone else yellow, red, or brown. Humans were set apart and identified solely in contrast to one another and ranked in an arbitrary manner by the people in power. It was in the process of ranking that we were all cast into assigned roles to meet the needs of the larger production; none of us are ourselves.” It is safe to say that if we continue to hold on to this mischaracterization we would be subliminally furthering a system that has for centuries, sown seeds of discord in our shared habitat.
It is imperative to acknowledge that more often than not, people are sensitive and do not want to hurt others. They end up holding on to the biases just because they haven’t been aware of it and would be careful as soon as they understand the rationale behind it. Therefore, it is not for political correctness to police them or to ban words altogether. Yes, all the nations are in Africa, and yes, geographically all of them are located below the Sahara Desert. In this light, all of them are certainly individually ‘sub-Saharan’ exactly how America can be called ‘trans-Atlantic.’
However, the problem sets at the moment we start to ascribe a common identity to them, just because they are near each other. We inadvertently associate them on the basis color of their skin because that may be a signifier of identity in the west. It is this gross generalization all of us should be extremely careful about because there are no black people in Africa.