Racism is tangible, it is constantly evolving, and it is contagious. Racism is also very different from prejudice.
I am glad we got that out of the way. Now let us talk about Black-On-Black prejudice. More specifically between Africans and African Americans. On the one habd racism, is the act of being racially motivated, consciously or otherwise, and exhibiting any format of racial superiority based on an assumed or tangible ethnic difference – in whatever format – with the intention of implicitly or explicitly benefiting from said act is what we have so-named Racism. Prejudice is an implicit bias based on incomplete information. Today racism may perhaps be the godfather of all the other infamous –isms. I was born into it, you were born into it, and we may perhaps die in its ongoing prevalence, but not after handing it over to our kids in nicely wrapped rhetoric and with a knowing smile.
This particular -ism, that rolls off the tongue, and catches the light, when spoken out loud in civil and non-civil settings tends to foreshadow the painful sensation of a raw, throbbing bodily grievance that would not heal, leaving behind a feeling much akin to what becomes us after a carelessly yanked scab is well — yanked. It has become an old tiring jingle to some, and a fresh migraine to others. There are some people (read: People of Color) however, who have remained starkly ignorant by convenient choice, of its novel manifestations, and have successfully done so as a way to cope or survive. We have decided not to talk aout the elephant in the room.
That was a really long opening. Please forgive my passion.
After sometime, the discourse of racism became a matter of political correctness, we do not engage it openly so as not to offend or to standout, or to verify a stereotype. This discourse or lack thereof did not stop us from basking in the very muck of prevalent racism and prejudice every single day; it in fact morphed into one of those fine virile subject-matters we could only safely prod and bowdlerize before a lonely restroom mirror, or in the deafening privacy of our own minds, or in the safety of a cohort of similarly-colored friends and associates, or in our little minority group forums where we went to ‘stick it to the man’ in loud rhetoric as we spread passionate saliva on unfortunate front row listeners. The God honest truth is that, as we became more intentional in fighting our personal racial demons and introducing others to their own, in coping with some of its more cancerous variants e.g. systemic racism – and after a few botched attempts at civil inclusions following the exposure of racial fault lines, after going home hoarse, sweaty and bursting with adrenaline from street protests that ended in well-managed police cruelty, after acts of civil disobedience and other what-nots – it grew on us like a well-placed beauty spot that makes a rare appearance in middle age. Indeed, the malignant ideology of anti-Black (there are many other colorful facets of racism) racial discrimination now fit nicely; no longer did it hug tightly around the crotch – it has simply lost its shock value. And so we would not be addressing it soundly here.
With racism cooking in the back burner, let’s talk about prejudice a little.
In Nigeria (a British-fangled country with over 250 ethnic groups sequestered in a tight space) where I was born, a homegrown variant of ethnic prejudice, something we so dotingly refer to as Tribalism had become the butt of national jokes, we have learned to swallow, to abide this social malaise and so on. In fact, in Nigeria, we had become so comfortable with our curious diversity, even though it produced a deadly three-year civil war and millions of causalities, in what amounted to the strategic mass-assisted genocide of mostly Igbo’s in the South Eastern peripheries of the country. However, on coming to the US, one quickly learns – from a safe distance – about this ever-green affliction of anti-Black racism, this so-called clichéd immiscibility of water and oil, of ebony and ivory. It becomes a thing you remember all too well, as soon as you take that very first step into the world every morning. At least this was the case, until innocent black lives about us became increasingly snuffed out by uniformed white police officers in the name of keeping the law as said police officers – shooting first and questioning later – walked free from quasi-trials for optics that lacked verdicts. Now this is racism.
Today, as a direct coordinated reaction to a pent up racially-tense America, we have as our weapon of choice, and among other relevant social change agents, the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement — A fundamentally logical and non-emotive petition for the simple respect of Black lives, and the stoppage of increasing Black deaths and Black persecution and all other sociocultural tribulations that a people have had to stomach for the simple matter of their skin color – this elite crusade, now abiding, to a lesser extent, some of the same blessings and headaches as the Black Panther Movement (a revolutionary black nationalist and socialist organization active in the United States from 1966 until 1982) has become labelled as a hate-movement, an anti-white propaganda, the makings of unschooled troublemakers with placards and bullhorns — so that today, even the very crux of this exclusive movement has become a matter of white concern and safety, but I deviate.
Let us turn now to the bone of contention. Racial prejudice.
Though a self-acclaimed sufferer of racism in America, (who isn’t right?) I had never been one to pay any more significant attention to the occasional passing-over for a job or position for which I was presumably qualified, simply due to this small matter of a dermal inconvenience – of course, as an immigrant one should not wholly expect to drink the same kind of milk as the children of the land. I have learned to stomach, because where I come from, ethnic tribalism (a cousin of racism) introduces you to your superpowers for patience, it toughens your skin, it makes you a little deaf. I had also never minded the occasional dirty suspicious looks or averting of eyes as I walked along the streets, as though I were some breathing, unfortunate putridness, a blemish on the plain-white-tee of society – minority populations have dealt with this subtle ostracism for eons. I had never taken seriously the feel-good, temporary invention of Affirmative Action I experienced only in organizational photographs and publication front-pages, where and when it was vitally imperative to show a modicum of diversity and positive discrimination in tell-all pixels – nothing wrong with a touch of Asian here, and a dab of African there to make for a fine sprinkling of racial presence. In fact, I only used to get mildly slighted when a few white folks I shared tables with, in a bid to not offend racial sensitivities, (a curious case of ‘White Fragility’ as described by Dr. Robin DiAngelo) talked about race and anti-Black sentiments with an ambivalent disassociation or with dramatized empathy, as though it helped, at the time, to play these games in abstraction and with an exterior sheen of ignorance when the omnipresent matter of race and racism is in our midst and has taken a seat between us with crossed legs and a rapt attention. But again, even this case of White Fragility can be explained away by specialists: it is mandatory as a matter of respect and self-preservation to be as politically correct as fathomable – in public- so as not to come across as empathically daft and socially rotten.
Nevertheless, I would be the first to tell you, in the most simplistic way: that discrimination of any kind is inexcusable, period. Racism, an offspring of blatant ignorance and the transference of painful histories, is a migraine passed down intergenerationally, and at its core, there has been nothing fresh about it all these years. Even now, as a Nigerian learning to befriend America on a daily basis, these minor technical difficulties of a monochromatic nature do not in fact take away from my sense of identity and diversity, or from the shine in my smile or the pep in my walk. As a simple matter of distaste for tired clichés, racism in America has become something like a rite-of-passage, it will happen to you or by you a few times too many. Racism is nurtured and not genetic. You learn by social conditioning to cope with it. It starts from infancy, after a major ass-whooping when you offended a white neighbor’s flower bed or spoke up against imaginary cops in the privacy of your bedroom as you and a sibling dramatized a traffic-stop. In this manner, parents in America, like a knee-jerk reaction have been actively engaged in priming their kids to be oppressors or to be the unwillingly oppressed without making a fuss about this old way of life.
Personally, I get and give my ‘fair’ share of stereotyping like everyone else at the table when I seat in the safety of easy companionship among my chronically-multiracial cohort of friends, all of them from different crevices and holes in the earth. Our get-together’s would appear to an observer like a gathering of UN delegates at lunch break figuring out, by observation, how to correctly use the odd silverware and such without making a complete buffoonery of oneself. It is a common private joke I tell of how in the US, I am black in two folds; firstly, as a Nigerian from West Africa, and secondly because of the obvious melanin in my skin pigmentation. And I say this with oodles of pride crashing against my chest and tears in my eyes, yet secretly dreading a much terrible life for myself in the US because of this double jeopardy.
However, in light of these growing sentiments and dynamics of racial discrimination, I recall leaving an airport terminus in Chicago and stumbling into the US of A in Fall of 2014 with a vast amount of blissful racial ignorance, only to find something most disconcerting, a dimension to racism which was not in itself a new demon to those already here and Black in the US, but a dimension of racialism we just never seemed to talk loudly about. It was easily described by a rather slow-talking and wise African American compadre I knew briefly at a street-corner Starbucks to be something he dubbed ‘Racism by Omission’. It is Black-On-Black prejudice. The symptoms of which he prescribed to involve an instance in which the racial bashing did not emanate from the usual ‘Caucasious’ or non-Black suspect in America, but from a Person of Color, in this case a Black person.
Black on Black prejudice, if you so please.
It was simply an unbecoming case of the pot and the kettle. A curious occasion of friendly-fire, if you want to be poetic about it. It had become so vilifying in novel ways to find that some members of the Black community now echoed the exact same racial stereotypes of anti-Black racism against fellow Blacks, not from the slant of ‘Uncle Tomness’ or respectability politics, no not that, but from a deepened sense of a misplaced heritage and the need to not further murky the waters for the rest of us. Black-On-Black prejudice was even more perplexing to me than what would be regular racism. Diaspora Blacks come to America loaded with such stereotypes and find that African Americans have their own stash as well.
As racism goes, it was comfortable for some white folks to label the things not understood, as African Americans fight to fashion their own black narratives, to dispel stereotypes. It is why in the nuances of a non-black non-Hispanic American observer: hoodies had special criminalized connotations, hand signs spoke of diabolical surreptitious meanings, the ‘thug-life’ ideology that once seemed empowering in rap music and was boasted about tremendously, became a definition of urban Blackness, so that it became okay to replace the N-word with the T-word in racist white mouths to incite lesser offence. Agreed, and as far as Black music goes, Black rap culture has come down with a bad cold in recent times, and much of what we have today is the palliative non-art of a bunch of raucous entertainers to endure. Agreed, anti-Black racism is still a bone of contention, even among scholarly and professional assemblies, it’s even worse in these settings, because here one can be racist in intelligent ways, EEO be damned, it is what we now neatly call systemic racism.
But here is my question: how is it still possible that some African-Americans still regard, with sprinkles of condescension, African Blacks and other Blacks on the substrate basis of simple racialism? Of course, these instances are not in any way socially all-encompassing, not all African Americans are this way. But there yet remains many such confusions and double-standards and alas we find ourselves at the matter of the day.
At the risk of preaching to the choir, I have been a victim of subtle anti-Black racism in ‘intelligent’, less agonizing ways as much as I have in life-shattering, mortifying ways here in the US. But I have always, walked out of that situation with a foreboding sense that, in the hallway, when next I see a fellow Person of Color, I’d be reminded of an open solidarity, an allocation of this ethnic heritage, a slice of golden hope, an unspoken bond that was sealed in blood, sweat and skin hue, many arduous years ago. Perhaps I dream. But to think that, in this present day and age, racism has also devolved into a more rudimentary situation of a Black-On-Black nature, pointblank knocks the air from my lungs. At its most rudimentary, it is like a case of first cousins who have allowed an animosity fester simply because the parents on one side became rich and so found a better way of life.
It is indeed a sobering moment in Black history to accept that we now have life-sized people of color with blunted sympathies who yank at that hypothetical scab without trepidation; this in addition to all the other age-long attacks suffered by the Black race. It has become an unsightly gash in our Black history; this situation in which the valiant struggles of past heroes are now coming under jeopardy by Black folks who are supposed to chaperon and safeguard the sanctity of any racial and ethnic equality in the first place, knowing what it means to be socially unequal.
I know for sure that it would be heavenly to say that the world would attain post-racial status someday; transcending the topics of color and ethnicity; that we would become one big happy family in the sunshine walking shoulder to shoulder, engaging novel frontiers of industrial and social development together as we beam dotingly to Michael Jackson’s ‘We Are The World’ playing in the background; and that racism and the spawns of this social malfeasance are purely coincidental when and where they occur. It would be racially pleasing, but that would be severely fictitious. Racism as a form of cultural stratification, people benefit from it, and so it will continue to persist because we were not hard-wired to be color-blind, and when we pretend correctly at it, organizing for a feel-good social construct, we are merely playing at ambivalence and pushing the subject-matter further into abstraction. In the real world, it is truly a Racism Olympics that takes hold: Hispanics still don’t always get along with blacks (Read Pew Report here), American Blacks still discriminate against non-Black and non-American People of Color, dark-skinned American Blacks discriminate against light-skinned American Blacks (what we have dubbed Colorism, read more here), Asian, though generally bedeviled, enjoy a type of honorary whiteness; and they all get discriminated against, equally, by non-Hispanic American whites. All of these racial permutations stated with notable exceptions of course.
While we seek out intelligent ways to quell systemic racism and racism in every other permutation, the people for whom this struggle yet bubble should understand why the struggle was started in the first place. By discussing the issue of prejudice and race with our kids with correctness and in truth, we prevent the osmosis of vendetta and hate. The failure to reason in this manner has bred a newer generation of modern-day neo-racists, who have vibrant vendettas that emanated not from any personal experiences but from misguided hearsays – this brand of neo-racism has proven to be hazardous. Many a good deed have been accomplished when social development was not married with ethnicity or skin color. I am a firm believer in racial tolerance and justice – and even equity. But I have the good sense to know that the semblance of an end to racism would not come right after a bright white explosion of lights in the sky, it would be, instead, a silent, quiet flicker in our souls that would light other souls and spread out until the world is bright enough to see in, irrespective of racial orientation.
It begins with us, by lending our very souls and the souls of those in our care to the correct version of the cause. Understanding that even though for a handful of us, our memories and histories have become blunted or brutalized, or both, we as a Black race share a common heritage; whether you slur your R’s or emphasize your T’s in speech. It doesn’t make me any more of a Kunta Kinte (as I once was referred to by an African-American brother in my early American days) than it makes you any more inferior to savor and embrace this common heritage that we all share. And hence while we deal with the bigger and contemporary manifestations of anti-black racialism, let us not give room for such refined compromises, whether Black, white or something in between.