I was recently in South Africa for a conference. While there, I had two interesting experiences that raised the complications and politics of race.
In the first case I was on a shuttle bus. The driver, ethnically South Asian but a South African, was very friendly. We started up a conversation during which he asked me about life in the USA. Among the things that I noted was the continued existence of racist oppression in the USA He then made this interesting comment: “Yeah, that’s the way it is here. If you are not Black then you do not get considered for jobs.”
I was a bit stunned by the comment. First, the driver felt completely comfortable saying this to me, which meant that he, apparently, did not see me as Black, or at least not like a Black South African. Second, when we continued the conversation and discussed apartheid and how the African majority had been suppressed and disenfranchised and that there need to be steps taken to repair this damage, he said absolutely nothing. His silence was deafening. He then changed the topic.
The second incident was in the context of a discussion with an Arab from Lebanon. I spoke about African Americans and at a certain point said something like “…we Blacks…” The gentleman looked at me and responded: “Bill, you do not look particularly Black.” He did not say this in an insulting manner but rather in a very matter of fact manner. I replied that what was interesting about his comment is that while I may look like I come from any number of places, e.g., North Africa, the Horn of Africa, Cape Verde, when my plane lands in New York there is no question but that I am Black.
When one is outside of the USA, you are reminded that race is not scientific; it is not genetic; it is not hard-and-fast. Rather it is both social and political and very much defined by the history of one’s location and that location’s experience with Western colonialism.
The shuttle driver apparently thinks that “Black” refers to the indigenous African majority in South Africa. That was not the way that the anti-apartheid movement saw it, by the way. For most of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, “Black” was a political term that included all who were not White and were not in some honorary category (e.g., the Japanese). In other words, it referred to those who were the victims of systemic racist oppression, within which you could find indigenous Africans, so-called Coloreds (mixed race), and ethnic South Asians. The shuttle driver was looking at me as a foreigner, and one who was not black. A light-skinned person of African descent was, apparently, something else.
For the Arab, there was something very similar in play. The individual was a progressive trade union activist, but race, for him, did not look the way that it does for us. “Black” meant dark. It had no political meaning at all. If you were light-skinned you could not be Black. This was not seen as offensive but more a perception of reality.
Why is this important? The short answer is that race changes forms in different countries but also within different historical periods. In the USA, people who are frequently considered White today would not necessarily have been considered White 150 years ago, e.g., Jews, Irish, Sicilians. Race gets revised and reconstructed over time to service those in power who wish to instill divisions among people at the base of society. How that appears depends entirely on what that population looks like; ethnic tensions; and methods of controlling the total population.
Think about this the next time you encounter an immigrant who “looks black.” Keep in mind that they come from a different history than yours and that their response to race and racism will be more influenced by the history of their homeland than our reality here in the USA, at least in the beginning.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.