Race is relative. In other words, race is in the eye of the beholder. This statement is not rocket science- but is biologically true- and is definitely not news. But for some reason, through some super conditioning most people tend to define themselves and others by their race amongst other “affiliations” (gender, ethnicity, height, education….). Needless to say, race, this complete social construct that changes definition from one place to another, has tremendous implications from the very personal of human interactions to the highest of nation’s institutions- including those who pride themselves from banning the word from all their laws.
Some of you might be confused. Allow me to illustrate. Remember that Brazilian soccer player at whom a banana was thrown on the field during a game in… was it Italy? Was it Spain? Maybe Portugal? You know who I’m talking about right? What’s his name again? He picked up the banana and ate it. Remember? Then people started posting pictures of them eating bananas on social media in solidarity. Still don’t recall the story? Wait let me look it up. Oh, here: his name is Alves and the hashtag was #WeAreMonkeys. I heard Alves was unaware that he was black. And to be honest, if I knew a guy that looked like him, and was a member of black football lovers association, I would not rush to invite him thinking it would not exactly be relevant to him. As in, I wouldn’t think he is black.
Next example, and this gets closer to where I want to get. Remember Zimmerman, you know the guy that killed Trayvon Martin. The guy was a neighborhood watch and saw an unfamiliar black 17-year-old boy and decided to confront him for looking like a criminal. Instead of waiting for the police to come check on the situation he decided to shoot the kid – so that he does not rob people. Well he claims the kid assaulted him, and he decided to use firepower to defend himself from an unarmed kid. A couple shots. I still am blown away by how he was not charged for such an obvious crime, but anyhow, this story was one of the first in the many very recent killings of unarmed black men in the United States of America. The country where race is a crucial part of everyone’s identity. Well the Zimmerman guy isn’t technically white. His mom is Peruvian, which makes him Hispanic. If I saw the guy in the street stealing an old lady’s purse and called the police, I would probably describe him as white.
Let’s continue on Zimmerman’s race a bit. In the US, where everyone has the “choice” to tick boxes as to what race they are, the usual options are: “Caucasian, Black or African American, Asian, American Indian or Alaska Native, Hispanic, Native Hawaiian or other pacific islander, Other”. What is Hispanic? It means Latin Americans, but aren’t they made up of the same racial groups as the US? I mean all the Americas are pretty much populated the same way at different rates. You have natives that were more or less disseminated depending on the area. Then Europeans *discovered* (this choice of word irks me) the Americas. The Africans brought through transatlantic slave trade. To a lesser extent you have some other groups of people also brought in as slaves, mainly from other British colonies. Than you have people who have been migrating to the continent individually or in small groups from around the world that have to find a way to fit themselves into one of those boxes. This is true all across the Americas, so how did Hispanic become a choice of “race”. Zoe Saldana, Chritina Milian, Gina Torres are all hispanics but could easily fit in the “black” box if you ask me.
Here is how I have lived race in my life. I grew up in Ethiopia where habesha – which in vernacular refers to Ethiopians – was considered one race, and black people another. This is very confusing for most people because they mostly consider Ethiopian as black. In Ethiopia, everyone has always assumed that I’m Ethiopian, unless the context gives a hint that I’m not – i.e I’m speaking a foreign language or something. The fact that I speak Amharic with no accent really gives people no doubts that I am – which makes me think… burya turasuzugura indimi z’iwacu bantu mwe. I also noticed they assume most Burundians and Rwandans that are even remotely light skin are Ethiopian. I actually had a very funny moment where a friend was speaking to a sales lady in English and the lady kept answering in Amharic. When my friend insisted she did not speak Amharic, the lady started insulting her, saying she was a show-off for being Ethiopian and not speaking the language. Obviously my friend did not get a word in the blabber, so I just busted out and laughed. She had self-determined my friend’s race was habesha! But we are not the only ones. I have seen many Africans get confused for Ethiopians on countless occasions. Then I left the continent, and I met countless Ethiopians speak of themselves as Africans. I guess things change when you cross an ocean or a sea don’t they?
See there is this funny conception that Ethiopians, and many other African ethnic groups are some sort of mix… making them not really black, which in turn is interpreted as not really African. Then I wonder why they don’t say that Italians and Portuguese are not really white because they usually are darker, with darker hair than your average Scandinavian or Eastern European. Doesn’t it make it obvious they got some black in them? It’s like this book I was reading. It was written by a renowned French historian called Bernard Lugan. He claims that the Khoisan, the group of indigenous tribes of southern Africa, often included in the group called Bushmen, he claims they are originally from Mongolia. Now, my first reaction was: WTF?! How?! I mean they are the indigenous, how would they get from Mongolia to SA or Namibia? When would they have moved? During Pangaea era? Oops there were no humans then! Talking about this book, he also had a chapter called “la colonisation de l’Afrique par les noirs” which translates to “The colonisation of Africa by black people”. He was referring to the Bantu expansion, and if it happened anything like that Shakazulu documentary I watched, it was pure colonisation. He is saying that only Bantus are real black people, and everyone else has to have some mix of something. This gets to how absurd race is. This can’t be real. Let us bring this point home. You see the stereotype of Tutsis – who are not considered Bantu– is having large foreheads. Well the forehead is very common in Somalis, many fulanis I know and many people in different parts of the Sahel. It is not a particularly Caucasian or Arab or East Asian or… feature. Why would we then not include it in the typically “black” features? And when you actually are biracial in Africa, uri umuzungu… that is about it. Lugan is talking about black people is like Hitler talking about the Aryan race. When I think of how he picked jews to kill. Most of the jews in Europe look pretty white to me, I mean I would not know how to distinguish them. In America, you have a tiny bit of black in your ancestry, then you are black (cf: the one drop rule). Trevor Noah makes very funny jokes about that, but for me, I still can’t get used to a biracial guy coming to me saying things like “us black people”. For all intents and purposes he should be able to go to the Irish guy and talk about “us white people” since he has a dual card no? Anyhow you get my point… this is all absurd and relative.
Ok all this to prove that something most people thought was so obvious, was so clear, and so objective, is actually an absurd barometer that is very relative and interpreted differently from one place to another, from one person to another even. Yet race for the longest part of human history, has had a tremendous impact on billions of people’s lives. It could be complexes, marginalization, indenture, war, or outright extermination. Or in other cases admiration, curiosity, blends and mixes. In any case, it always amazes me how something as relative and subjective as race can be used to such grand scale plans and executed with the buy-in of masses of people. Don’t you?
By MRG. She currently lives and works in Toronto, Canada. You can follow her on Twitter: @msmiraiga