Africa: Ethnicity and Race

Published on 12th July 2010

Ethnicity and Race

In the West, the question of ethnicity takes on a different tone to that on the African continent. All the ethnic groups in the west are Super-Ethnicities; conglomerations of broad groups of people into single groups, e.g. African-American. In America, there is no other way as through the African Holocaust true ethnicities were completely erased. Now in Africa, people actually belong to pure ethnic groups such as Amhara, Wolof, Zulu, Fulani, San, etc. These ethnic groups have specific cultural characteristic, the most obvious of these being their first language. A race is a collection of ethnic groups who share (subjectively at times) identifiable characteristics i.e. being dark skinned with curly hair. In the western melting pot race takes on new forms to cope with the centuries of cross-cultural interaction. Outside of the cities of places like Africa and China, the slower pace of inter-ethnic mixing preserves the "purity" of ethnic groups.

Culturally African

To be culturally African is to possess a distinctive culture, which has its values and orientation in the indigenous cultures of Africa. To therefore speak a native African language, have an African worldview, wear African dress, as distinctive from the dress code of other groups, can be seen as cultural identifiers. It is however more than a shopping list of items to tick "yes" or "no" to. The following question is posed: what about Europeans who embrace African culture and are even capable of speaking African languages? It is undeniable that they are practitioners of African culture but it does not make them African but merely Europeans who have embraced African culture. Just like the millions of Africans across the globe who speak European languages, eat European food, behave like Europeans, engage in Eurocentric understandings of religion are no closer to actually being European. They still are physically Africans who are European in mentality and attitudes. The placement of these people in the African world is debatable. The current and most progressive theory is to re-educate these people to give them an understanding of themselves. For it is unnatural to act in the image of those who oppressed you.

Just as climate played a role in physical traits such as dark skin, it can be argued that culture evolved to a specific reality. However, the cultures of African people extend beyond their physical geography and are informed not only by geography but also by physical ethnic traits.

Race is a Reality

Race is not a science; it is a social construct rooted in how humans chose to group themselves for protection and common interest; appearance, religion, location, ideology, genealogy, etc.

People throughout history have grouped themselves in terms of common interest, common culture common religion and common appearance (in-group and out-group). It is an innate trait that ultimately protects us. However difference does not mean animosity. It is Neo-Darwinistic to believe in this constant battle of different groups for resources. Painting humanity in those terms, justifies the unnecessary and continuous state of war. Ignoring those differences does not resolve the nature of man. Saying, "stop using race and see people as they are" is simplistic and only the most ill informed people will reason in this manner. For instance, if every single one of us was European from Milan, we would start to automatically group ourselves by region, or class or accent. The solution is to recognize the differences and use them as an exchange to celebrate this beauty. The Olympic Games has an atmosphere of healthy competition, people are grouped by nations and it celebrates the best aspects of humanity; if it is true for nations, then it is so true for race.

Discussing race does not make you racist. But ignoring it when it exists is ignorant. The "black doll, white doll test" is testimony to this. If unchecked, racial privileges will always be unbalance in a society. Race existed during both the Arab and European trade in Africans. Race existed in the 60's, as it exists today. Race will always be present. Race is there when you walk into a restaurant, when you go for a job, when you cross borders, when you go to Japan, or even Africa. So race is the first thing people see, and humans rely heavily on their eyes as a point of understanding. Now when Africans organize as a race, speak as one against the global oppression experienced, unify as an economic and cultural unit then the world will be forced to interact differently. The recent election of Obama proved how that single act could overnight change how people perceive African people. 

In the post 9-11 attacks on America, looking Arab (whatever that means in America) had real social consequences. Thus, it is not possible to erase race just because it sometimes seems untidy. Although race from a scientific persuasion is a fallacy, it does not discount it as a social and historical reality. Engaging race is healthy as to ignore it is to ignore the horrid nature within men. In Post-Apartheid South Africa, many of the elite ethnic minorities debate the relevance of race in the new "Rainbow Nation." Seeing beyond color does not change the 'strange' fact that all those at the top are European, those in the middle are Indian and those at the absolute bottom serving as the labor pool are the African.

Mix Heritage

In a pure just world, a person of multi-racial lineage would have the right to claim both origins; however, the primary reality is dictated by physical appearance and social perceptions. There is no merit in posing hypothetical questions at a world that does not exist-save in dreams.

South Africa is unique in the world for creating super-identities for pure political reasons. It thus allows a unique window on a great social experiment in identity. Only in South Africa is there an "ethnic" group known as "colored"; one of the most confusing groups who compose of anyone who is not "blatantly" European, Indian or African by virtue of the ease at which a pencil passes through someone's hair.
So, years of this social set-up have created a new community of people identified as "colored". As being identified as "colored" created a peculiar situation as it granted privileges greater than that of the African populations. Thus, people were desperate to not be identified as African.

The complex surrounding being African lingers despite the dismantlement of apartheid. In some cases, members of the same family would be split apart due to being classified in different race groups despite being 100% related. The UK tinkered to different degrees of success with the "half-caste", "mix-race" classification which in the new era of serious inter-racial activity between predominately African-Caribbean males and White-British women has created a new "race." With this new generation is a further distancing themselves from identifying with being African. The politics of divide and rule are clearly at play, as it worked for Europeans during the centuries of enslavement on the plantations.

Some believe the one-drop rule was a European instituted principle for lumping all non-Europeans into one basket. Now, outside of Europe it is clear that in Africa being of mix-heritage does not remove your claim to African soil. In all known African societies, having one African parent makes you African. This is outside of European influence and is part of the tradition of African inclusiveness. Thus African identity as a generality absorbs identities; this can be witnessed from Ethiopia to Ghana, Chad to Zululand. 

On a genetic phonotypical level African "features" or characteristic are genetically dominate. This is the reason why it is sometimes unclear if someone is of mix heritage or not. The mere fact that it is not always clear or at least carries a shadow of doubt testifies to the argument that Africans are genetically dominant. Miscegenation in Arab culture favors the Arab father regardless of the mother's race.. So in stark contrast to European enslavement those children born to enslaved African women became Arab and not African. Despite their physical appearance, they were generally culturally Arab. (e.g. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Anwar Sadat , and Tibbu Tip)

The question regarding people of mix-race heritage is difficult because although they are accepted by other Africans as being African, it is possible that they do not view themselves as African, as in parts of Brazil and South Africa. It is sometimes hard to believe Bob Marley had a European father, as he is so deeply associated with being African. Thus, the final thought is that being African must have a dual condition: Being of African heritage and identifying with that heritage.

To be continued

By Owen 'Alik Shahadah
Scholar, Film maker and Pan - Africanist

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