Firstly, allow me to say how much I enjoy writing about race. I enjoy it because I study and teach multicultural and intercultural communication in my graduate school experience. And secondly, because it has a tendency to evoke emotion. If a writer does anything – it is evoke an emotional response from readers; it almost feels like a failure when you don’t. In my race writing, I always expect the anger, the intimidation, the attempts to silence the conversation, etc. – these are not surprising in the socio-political times that we live in. Not just because they are a matter of everyday experience for me being Black and African in the United States, but because of my education, I am able to conceptualize and explain the reactions in a socio-scientific way.
In my most recent piece, 25 Reasons Macklemore Winning Over Kendrick Lamar Is BS, I had some amusement skimming through the reactions. Not only because it was largely predictable, but because it prompted many of my friends – especially my White American friends to apologize to me “on behalf of their race.” I found the apologies unnecessary because I know that not one single person is a representative of their socially constructed race; least of all faceless, nameless, anonymous people on the Internet. And indeed many of my friends often asks how I deal with it, and I will usually say, “Well, I always remember that people on the Internet don’t really know me. Secondly, many are not privileged to my knowledge-base. And thirdly, I’m often simply way too busy to get stuck in negative reactions.” But today I will stop to give insight to my life.
As I have often mentioned, I grew up in a home of academics. My dad, whose interests I have adopted, was very much influential in my race, diversity, and multicultural talk and experiences. My dad who seldom ever talks to his family personally about his political writing as a journalist and professor in Nigeria, was very much a political resistor to the dictatorship governments in the 80s and 90s. He has always believed in the power of words as a form of resistance. And he paid a heavy price for it, having to move his family away in exile for almost a decade and a half, before he returned to Nigeria. I will never know how much it cost him and my mum to do what they did. But I do know that when you believe in something, it always comes at a price.
The truth is I had a very multicultural upbringing, as much as my parents could have possibly instilled. The race relations of the Western World even with it’s global prowess and hegemony, didn’t affect my upbringing even having partially grown up in Botswana – a neighboring country of South Africa, which was barely recovering from its own apartheid history when we moved there. I was always aware of race, perhaps more so of “colorism” which affected me more personally. But constructs of race and what they meant took on a whole new life form since moving to the United States at barely 17.
To be a foreigner in any country is met with its own set of problems, bureaucratic and otherwise. Being African, Black, female, Catholic, – my most salient identities – in addition to a multicultural experience of being foreign for all but four years of my life has left me with quite an experience of the world that is both complex and refreshing. I am able to simultaneously be an outsider and insider on Blackness, African-ness, Femaleness, Christianity – as the West perceives them. While I am able to perform these identities, I am also able to resist any notions of these identities I find problematic. And in many ways in my writing on these matters, that is always my aim. Race, however, always takes precedent because of the sheer historical and present implications that have brutalized many communities around the world.
Now I could tell you that the very fact that I did not grow up with such a racialized view of the world as many Americans do, almost inhibits any temptations to be prejudicial towards people of a different race from me. And I could tell you that multiculturalism is such a strong part of my identity that racial prejudices are always such an uncomfortable experience whether I am in them or witnessing them. But mostly, I want to tell you that I know how racism works and it is a privilege itself to know how it works, one that I cannot deny. Yet one that I find impossible to not share.
Racism is not simply a matter of emotion and feelings that are based on individual interactions. Racism is a global, pervasive process that is embedded in structures and institutions of society that have disadvantaged entire groups of people of color, in almost all facets of life; it has created a system that has privileged White people for centuries. Even where people of color can hold racial prejudices against White people, it is distinctly removed from the system because White people are always and already privileged because of their Whiteness within the institutions in any interaction, as a matter of social realities. People of color can and are racist towards each other, and people of color can hold racial prejudice towards White people. But the distinctions based on the process and systematic consequences must stand. Because it is an impossibility as the societal institutions still stand to in any way shape or form, dis-privilege Whiteness.
Now in my life the only place I have ever been called a racist or been accused of holding racial prejudice is the Internet. Which is not surprising and quite frankly, I don’t take it personally. Because when I write about race, it is so much bigger than my individual experiences; it is so much more important than me. And as someone who teaches intercultural communication, I teach my students about hegemony – dominant pervasive perspectives – and how easily hegemony adopts what would be resisting forces unto itself, and continues its dominance in society.
This is what has happened with the “colorblind” approach of modern American society. People of color – a term I use but actually find very problematic but it is still better than “minorities” – are asked to invalidate their race in experience, are asked to be silent about consequences of their race, and therefore also racism. But yet are not given the right to live in a society and in a world that is free of consequences of their race and the racial inequalities they face. If one isn’t always careful and cognizant and self-reflecting, it becomes easy to participate in hegemonic discourse that you believe to be resisting in the first place.
Recently, I re-read MLK Jr.’s Letter to Birmingham. I have never been comfortable with the popular notion that MLK Jr. was just a fun-loving civil rights likeable guy as touted by popular texts. And I think in the Letter to Birmingham he clearly insists on the problematic nature of the White moderate’s approach to resisting the powers that be in racial inequalities. He was disappointed in their all too often laissez-faire attitude. And I extend this perspective to all people who believe in resisting in a way that is so polite and so politically correct that it is no long resistance, but appeasement that is taking place. And I personally witness this all the time by both White people and people of color, who are wholeheartedly invested in furthering racial equality in the system. But the consequences of things always matter more than their intentions, and inequalities continue to be perpetuated through laissez-faire approaches. If history has taught us anything about power, it is that those who have power or who hold power in any system or interaction, do not give it up without a fight. But indeed as Foucault so aptly pointed out, “Where there is power, there is resistance.”
So I bring up Blackness and Whiteness and Brownness and all the colours that we have socially constructed as a world. I bring it up because it matters, and trying to say that it is not present, is fantastical. But not only is it fantastical, it is a new strategy of silencing the racial inequalities that are always and already present in those whose history is wrought with oppression and resistance. I bring it up because this is a part of my vocation and it is one of the many ways I believe in resisting; in fact, writing and talking are the best way I know how to resist. So I won’t ask you not to call me names or send me hateful emails or accuse me of things that are outright untrue simply as a matter of social reality, not to mention my own personal convictions; I wont. I only ask that you actually read what I’m saying and interpret it carefully and look around the world, and ask yourself if it at the very bedrock of my writing and speaking, what I say is a lie or the truth. Or at the very least, a well-considered viewpoint.
I am not a fool nor am I removed from the reality of my words and actions. I am a thinking person, who is always acquiring more of the knowledge of the world, who is always interested in learning more. I am always pondering how I can change myself in the most important ways, and how I can make a difference before my time on earth is up, even in the smallest things. I envision that through my vocation of writing about race (and not only about race but about many uncomfortable topics, and hopefully in academia and public intellectualism, and wherever else this life take me), I will probably lose friends, and colleagues, and acquaintances and people who like me, from bringing topics like race into “everything.” But the way I see it, the way I’ve been raised to see it, is once you know your purpose, the price to pay is no longer something to fear. So react how you must because although my writing is always emotional, and almost always passionate, it is never at a cost of rational, thoughtful consideration.
Race, as the world came to define it is always and already present – I am simply the child pointing out the nakedness of the Emperor. I am Black and African and in so far as those things matter to my resistance of the word, I will continue to talk about them. Moreover, there have been far too many people whose price was much heavier than mine to stop. And simply as a human being in this world, it is my God-given right. And maybe, just maybe, in the smallest of ways, it is also a responsibility.