By Rafiq Raji
Steve Biko once wrote: “Being black is not a matter of pigmentation – being black is a reflection of a mental attitude”. I think it is both. Of course, the mental attitude you adopt has nothing to do with your race. It is an individual choice. I’m at a fast-food restaurant in Oxford, England and a group of white kids are present as well without parental supervision. They were likely aged 6-8 years. Happy kids, I must say. The type of happiness that makes you leap before you look. The type of happiness typical of kids. After a while, one of the bolder kids shifts towards my side of the bench and asks: “Can I take a picture with you?” The last time I got asked that question was in China. I declined, of course. But then it struck me the white kid was not being entirely mischievous. White folks might not like to admit it, but there are characteristics, cultures and mannerisms of black people that they admire and like. That said, anyone who does not see how Black Pete is racist is simply being ludicrous. How is the idea that to secure a license for buffoonery you need to become black – by painting yourself black – not racist? The Dutch contemporaries of those young Britons are likely going to imbibe the subtle association of blackness with silliness that Black Pete inevitably – irrespective of wit – represents. I also can understand why whites are likely irritated by the very high sensitivity of blacks to even the slightest racist hint in any of the multitude of human expressions. An analogy could help. If one were to ask you the name of the cleaner at your office, it is very unlikely you’d be able to tell his or her name. It is not that you don’t respect them; it is simply that you don’t consider them threatening enough to want to know more about them. So if they were to throw an insult at you, the likelihood you’ll be offended is very low. To be offended, you’d have to think yourself beneath in status to your antagonist. It is akin to the conscious empathy a wealthy person summons up when relating with less-endowed beings. The English – such experienced people, the English – have a fine word for that human condition. They call it condescension. Racial intercourse is no different. If you think about it, cries about racism – laudable though they are – are actually an acceptance of inferiority. And you just wait to see how the behaviour of your white liberal friend changes as you ascend in the world.
However, there are developments that leave room for optimism. Blackness is increasingly being seen from the prism of culture. “Black culture has become like Starbucks, located on every corner in every major city and available to everyone who wants in”1. I got a glimpse of that during the first London Notting Hill Carnival I attended a year ago. It is also a significant part of the logic – I think – behind why “Beats by Dre” is a huge success. Apple in my view bought into what was already a remarkable and inevitable phenomenon; the colour blindness of music and popular culture. For the sake of argument, let us consider the following scenario. Imagine “Beats” without “by Dre”. I doubt very much that if Dr Dre were not a black MC and producer of repute that Beats by Dre would be the success it is today. What is not acknowledged as much – at least not overtly – is how Dr Dre’s “street credibility” is an underpinning factor for the popularity of his brand. But of course, the brand and its eco-system would not be a success as well if its bass-biased headphones were not filling a hitherto longrunning gap in that industry. Blackness as culture is thus proving a more powerful way to increase racial harmony than all the media and legal campaigns against racism. It must be said though that this type of blackness has its roots in stereotyping. However, it may form the foundation for a concept of blackness that transcends skin colour; which is a good thing. A key example is Eminem, a hip-hop artist. Eminem is white but exhibits more blackness than many a black person you’d come across. Black people don’t think Eminem is any less a hip-hop artist than white people think of Pharrel or Rihanna as pop and/or R&B singers. The stereotypical conception of blackness usually stops at physical or artistic prowess. The parochialism notwithstanding, white insecurities underpinning this conception of blackness becomes writ large when for instance there are media reports of a black man’s infidelity to a white wife as in the case of Tiger Woods or suspicion of violence or crime by a black man towards a white wife as was the case with OJ Simpson. This extends to sports as well. The Williams sisters and Tiger Woods are anomalies as far as white folks are concerned. Their dominance of the mostly white sports of tennis and golf remain a challenge to their stereotypical conception of blackness. And as far as music is concerned, well, a lot of conservative white folks don’t consider hip-hop to be music in the real sense. And yes, classical music is still largely white-dominated. The underlying factors may be more economic than racial, however.
It should also be said that in spite of the obvious resistance that ascending blacks face, if they are the real deal, the system works. That is why a Barack Obama can win presidential elections and a Tiger Woods (even though he is prouder of his Asian heritage) can win golf majors. Until Barack Obama, being cerebral and black was oxymoronic in popular contemplation. It probably still is. The idea of a “clever black” is not any less oxymoronic to some than say “bad leader” or “bad friend”. Leaders and friends cannot be bad. You are either a leader or not. You are either a friend or not. Clever black? What do you think? I sometimes would get on the London tube and decidedly read a supposedly intelligent book precisely for the purpose of observing the sighs, grunts and other types of passive-aggressive racist mannerisms by non-blacks on the train. As an African just come to the West, these are new experiences. It is tempting to then begin to “delete” all the good manners you were taught back home as you discover how tremendously shallow some of the people in these parts are. You see it everywhere: on the streets, public transportation, hotels, in the workplace, and wait for it, even faith centres. As a muslim, I still can’t understand how the concept of “shoulder-to-shoulder, toe-to-toe” in congregational prayer has become a selective endeavor depending on the race of your neighbour in mosques I prayed at in Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai and London. To get a better sense of this phenomenon, check out the following hashtag on Twitter: #BeingBlackAndMuslim. Al Jazeera’s The Stream also did an illuminating programme on the subject.
The white establishment is not entirely to blame for the anti-intellectualism in Africa or indeed black communities around the world. In an essay in the New South African Review, Xolela Mangcu mentions the South African President Zuma’s dismissal of black intellectuals as “clever blacks” who “don’t really count in the greater scheme of things”. Actually, I think the whole issue about race and intellectualism (or other serious pursuits) is more economic and political than it is social. When you are poor and live in dysfunctional neighbourhoods with few role models, learning how to play the piano is not likely to be a priority. And there have been studies done to determine cerebral capacity across the races. The obvious biases in these studies need not be reinforced here. If one were objective, however, the probable differentiating factor would likely not be racial but economic. And in any case, the African/black race is still a minority in the global population; albeit all races can trace their origins to Africa, to blackness! Martin Meredith’s “Born in Africa” is an astonishingly excellent book in this regard.
I’ve also often wondered about the concept of “reverse-racism”. It seems to me another attempt at white-black distinction. I also think blacks do not take enough responsibility for their culpability in the entrenchment of the “black” stereotype. It may surprise many to know that much of the progress that have been made towards eradicating racism in our societies have come more from non-blacks than blacks themselves. There is a victims’ complex and second-fiddle complacency you find hovering like a halo around most blacks. A pathetic resignation to a fate totally within their control to change. A kind of self-loathing much worse than faux pas racism. A racism of self. When there are blacks that manage to break away from this self-defeating psychology, you begin to hear expressions such as “assimilation”. The popular quip goes: “he succeeded because he assimilated” or “Oh see, one of his parents is white”. The Oxford Essential English Dictionary provides two definitions of racism, which when joined together is truly illuminating. Racism is “the belief that there are characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to each race” and the “discrimination against or hostility towards people of other races”. Surely, the definition is encompassing enough. So, what the heck is reverse racism? Both whites and blacks are culpable in the usage of that phrase, however.
I once overhead a frustrated white liberal saying: it never ends, does it? From the public outcry about Black Pete being racist to the supposed condescension of affirmative action, white liberals most certainly feel frustrated. I think it is no matter really. If it is any consolation, that frustration is colour-blind. What, when you observe the shallowness of say African football teams’ obsession with money on the altar of glory. Who does that? To want the money that badly means you don’t think you will win. The protagonist of the popular TV series “House of Cards” wondered aloud how one of his antagonists could hope to earn his respect if he didn’t know the difference between wealth and power. The character he was referring to was black. The line between fiction and reality becomes blurred when you hear such absurdities as an African national football team refusing to train because of money. How is it possible that they couldn’t understand that national glory trumps any potential pecuniary benefit. You can’t force confidence down the throat of a people, however. They have to find it themselves. As a black person and an African, I am very glad those teams did not win. They didn’t deserve to win and they didn’t. And that is just as well. Confidence as a collective is the key. And this is a journey each black person would have to embark on individually before the sum becomes a high-impacting collective force that changes attitudes. A racially harmonious world is possible. That is, race as culture.
- Toure S (2011) Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What it Means to be Black Now. New York: Free Press.