April 23, 2016 § Leave a comment
For refusing to bend my back for the white supremacist to ride.
For refusing to kiss the ass of the male supremacist.
For refusing to lick the boots of the wealthy.
See, these things are “normal” here.
And my failure to adhere,
makes me “Crazy”.
So be it.
February 18, 2016 § Leave a comment
In conversations about poor young Africans in Diani engaging in sex tourism with older, rich white men and women, the typical explanation I get from fellow middle-class Kenyan peers places the blame entirely on the poor. I’d like to address some of the stereotypes about the poor that I keep hearing:
“They are just lazy. If they really wanted, they could work.”
Work where? There are no jobs in Diani. Tourism is the backbone of Kenya’s economy and most of the coastal region is almost entirely dependent on tourism, particularly Diani which has no other industries. And now in its 5th year, Kenya’s war in Somalia has led to the devastation of the tourism industry. Retaliatory attacks at the coast by Somali militants has made the tourists afraid to come. Several hotels have closed, many hotel workers have lost their jobs and crime is on the rise.
“If the poor would just take responsibility for themselves, all their problems would go away.”
What about the government’s responsibility? We need to stop scapegoating the poor for the failures of the Kenyan government in providing all Kenyans with the basics we need. Poverty is not caused by a lack of effort or priorities. The major factors that contribute to and keep people in poverty are systemic and actually not in their control.
“Everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.”
On the contrary, I think that the rich and poor end up where they are mainly because of the opportunities they have in life, rather than due to personal successes and failures. The poor are poor because they lack opportunities and good jobs, not because of individual failings or poor work ethic.
“In life you just have to work hard.”
Most rich people I know got to where they are mainly because they had more opportunities, not because they worked harder than others. Yet we congratulate the wealthy for their hard work while blaming the poor for not working hard enough. We ignore statistics that clearly indicate that you are more likely to be rich if you were born rich and insist that the poor could do better for themselves if only they tried.
We forget that poor children have all the odds stacked against them. A child born into poverty has to contend with inadequate food, healthcare, education and crime-ridden neighborhoods. And even if she does try her best, very few opportunities will be open to her. Therefore chances are she will forever remain trapped in a low-wage job that prevents her from improving her life. And this cycle will repeat itself in the next generation.
While I’ve met lots of people who’d love to stop being poor, I have never once met anyone whose childhood dream was to be poor when they grow up. A little more empathy and compassion is therefore in order for those denied what they deserve by a system of inequality. As humans we should want to help the poor, not vilify them. A good place to start doing this is by changing the language we use to describe poverty and inequality.
July 4, 2015 § Leave a comment
Lately, in debates on white supremacy and racism, I keep getting responses from white people to the effect that I am wrong because they “know Africans who would disagree” with me. That my difference in opinion is not valid as the Africans they know would agree with their particular opinion. Often the white person will then go on to point out that they encountered said Africans during “extensive” travels in Africa; travels that even included my country Kenya. It is at this point that they will often stress their relief at not having encountered Africans/ Kenyans like me during said travels.
But here’s the thing. There are over one billion Africans in this world. Therefore, in order to seriously claim a firm and unanimous African opinion on any issue, you would have to obtain the perspectives of ALL Africans, and not just those of a token few.
Contrary to western stereotype, Africans are diverse people with diverse perspectives emanating from diverse experiences. After all, Africa is a continent (not a country) with over 54 diverse countries. And while there seems to be a preference among white people in Africa to surround themselves with token Africans who will tell them only what they want to hear, this does not mean that all Africans are in agreement with the token’s particular perspective.
Some Africans supported slavery and colonialism, while others continue to support neo-colonial imperialism by the West. Does that make those forms of oppression okay? Of course not. And the same applies to white supremacy and racism today. There are some Africans who – purely for financial reasons – uphold white supremacy. This is especially true when you take into account the economic hardships and rampant poverty plaguing many African people worldwide.
While token Africans make my job as an activist harder, I find that I can’t really blame them. Studies show that racism harms black people on a psychological level, leading to low self-esteem and sense of community worth among black children. It also damages the aspirations of black people and heightens anxiety and depression. When generations of black people are exposed to white supremacy and racism, it’s a no-brainer that some of that psychological damage will take on the “Stockholm Syndrome” effect of internalized racism.
Within the African-American community, there’s a name for black people who exhibit signs of Stockholm Syndrome: “Uncle Tom”. Such blacks are typically subservient or excessively deferential to white people. Uncle Toms tend to behave in a servile manner towards whites, marked with uncritical acceptance of the opinions and values of white people. Eager to win the approval of whites, they will cooperate with them – even to the detriment of the black community. In other words, they are willing to do anything to remain in good standing with whites, including betraying their own people. An Uncle Tom is a black man or a woman who bends over backwards for white people, while selling out the interests of black people.
I’m not that kind of African.
Fortunately, we live in a world in which “popular” (privileged) opinion is never the sole deciding factor. If it were, abolition and many other progressive achievements in history would never have been approved. Moreover, the fact that you “know” Africans who would validate your point of view, yet still encounter Africans like myself who would disagree with you should be proof enough of the diversity in African opinion. Picking and choosing only the perspectives that validate your opinion is a rather lame and disingenuous attempt at derailing conversations on race.
May 24, 2015 § 3 Comments
White people can play a role in African causes; but only in facilitating and boosting African voices – not trying to derail the conversation, or distract from and dismiss as irrelevant issues pertaining to white supremacy and racism. Dominating discourse, insisting on speaking for us, silencing criticism and abusing critics is an abuse of white privilege that only does more harm than good.
A white woman doing research in Kenya not too long ago went on a social media rant accusing Kenyans who expressed their support for the “Black Lives Matter” campaign of caring more about the victims of police brutality in the United States than those in Kenya. To her, Kenyans voicing opposition to white supremacy and racism in a spirit of pan-Africanist solidarity (see here and here) was trivial and below consideration. In short, our feelings and emotions towards the plight of our own in the Diaspora – Africans and people of African descent – did not matter.
Rather, it was her job to decide what matters for Kenyans, as we couldn’t possibly know what issues to prioritize for ourselves. After all, only the objective, rational perspective of a privileged white woman can determine exactly what is most important for us – and it apparently was not expressing solidarity with victims of the racism that she as a white person benefits from.
Taking her bigotry a step further, she went on to denigrate the efforts of Kenyans in raising awareness using social media. This in turn revealed just how much her white privilege had distanced her from the reality of the many Kenyan activists who turn to online platforms due to a lack of access to the real world platforms that she, on the other hand, is guaranteed by whiteness.
However, contrary to her belief that Kenyans are uncaring to their own, we are human beings capable of compassion and empathy for each other, as has been demonstrated time and again. More importantly, we’ve realized over time that white supremacy and racism in the West exacerbates the issues we as Kenyan people face in our country. It is this very same white supremacist and racist mentality that makes white academics in Africa, such as herself, feel entitled to engage in acts of erasure by invalidating and devaluing the views of Kenyan activists with the same or greater credentials, not to mention, lived experience, while posturing as “African expert” (white person who believes they know more about Africa and Africans, than Africans themselves).
Frankly, the cliché of the white academic turned “African expert” erasing African agency by stealing the spotlight from grassroots activists so as to be worshiped by Africa’s poor, while simultaneously boosting her academic qualifications to farther her career and profit from her “activism” is getting old. As a Kenyan woman, expressing solidarity with African-Americans against white supremacy and racism doesn’t mean I undervalue the experiences of Kenya’s poor. I just do not need a white woman to “educate” me on what they are.
February 4, 2015 § Leave a comment
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a good man – and yet he was arrested 20 times and was even at one point stabbed. When a good man gets punished by a system, it can only mean that the system’s laws are neither good nor just. Every unjust system must be taken on because as long as the humanity of people is not recognized by laws, then anything goes against those people. And that’s exactly what Dr. King did: through disobedience he raised the issue of unjust laws. This is what makes him a revolutionary, a warrior.
That is the true legacy of Dr. King. But what we are served today is the watered down version of Dr. King sitting back, being moralistic and placid, while heading a “non-violent” Civil Rights Movement. Yet the Civil Rights Movement was far from “non-violent” or “pacifist”. There was violence; only that this violence did not come from the agents of the Civil Rights Movement. All the Movement did was to bring the violence already existing in American society to the forefront. In so doing, the movement raised the uncomfortable truth about society: there is no violence if black people are being killed. There is violence only when white people get harmed.
The problem with how we remember Dr. King today is that we focus on him instead of the ideas he represents. In so doing, we transform him into a messianic figure. And the problem with messianic figures is that they create people who are politically lazy, people who are looking for someone to “save” them. In such figures we look for gods but always end up disappointed when we get politicians and human beings with flaws.
Yet, no single human being can fix our society for us: it is our collective responsibility to make our society and institutions better. By ourselves, we are vulnerable; but collectively we can achieve a lot. We must begin to set the foundation for our future through actions connected to those of everyone else across the globe. We also need courage because people can stop you from doing things if they make you afraid. And always remember that although the struggle isn’t over, the struggle we have fought was well worth fighting!
Incidentally, some of my favorite quotes by Dr. King:
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Listen to the full speech by Prof. Gordon below.
January 28, 2015 § 1 Comment
Of the various excuses that have been given for Charlie Hebdo’s racism, the one that really had me rolling my eyes was the suggestion that Charb, the editor, couldn’t have been racist because he was dating a woman of North African descent. And of course if the editor wasn’t racist, then Charlie couldn’t have been racist.
While this has to be the most tired excuse for Charlie Hebdo’s racism to date, the opportunistic citing of personal relations with black people as proof of anti-racism and openness to race is nothing new. In fact, claiming knowledge about and/or sympathy with Africans is one of the easiest ways to try to worm out of accusations of racial prejudice. The reasoning behind this excuse is that someone cannot be prejudiced if they have relations with Africans, due to the assumption that our personal associations magically free us from racist conditioning. The idea is that if the person had a real prejudice against the entire African people, then no African would be okay to date. Ultimately, the aim is to have us ignore any other evidence we have to assess the person’s attitude, by only taking into account the existence of personal relations with one single African.
There’s a persistently wrong idea that to be racist you must hate a particular racial group, commit hate crimes and use racial slurs. This derives from the existing stereotype of racists as only people with extremist ideas and actions, such as members of America’s Ku Klux Klan or the Neo-Nazi movements of Europe. However, contrary to popular belief, hatred is not a requirement for racism; and neither are white masks, conical hats or swastika tattoos. There are varying degrees of racist bigotry, from passively racist, mostly in thought, to violent and confrontational. Harboring racist thoughts and attitudes, but not speaking or acting on them does not mean you’re not racist. It only means that you’re a closet bigot.
Racism was invented on the slave plantations of America – the very same slave plantations on which white slave owners acted on their sexual desire by raping the Africans they had enslaved. Therefore sexually desiring Africans doesn’t automatically make you non-racist. Just as it is common for some heterosexual men to remain misogynists after marrying the women they love; it is possible to be intimate with an African and still be racist.
Racism in Interracial Relationships
Just because you love/ like/ admire/ accept/ tolerate one African doesn’t mean you stop having preconceived biases against Africans as a group. As has been seen time and again, one can be a bigot and still wed/ date/ friend across the color line.
Take for instance the white husband whose basic lack of respect for Africans blinds him to the possibility that his African wife can make good decisions. Convinced it’s his duty to manage the affairs of not only Africans but women as well, he assumes the role of “protector” and subjects his wife to a double dose of paternalism: sexism and racism. Or the “colorblind” white wife unable to empathize with the plight of her black partner due to her insistence that racist oppression is but a forgotten past with no imprint on the present reality of black people.
There are also the white men who treat their committed relationship with African women as a taboo, secret or shame, unwilling to tell their family about their African girlfriend. No matter how well he treats her, if he cannot stand up to his family and speak up against racism, he is racist. Other white men who identify as only being attracted to African women and who are in a committed relationship with African women will continue sleeping around with other white women.
And then there are the white women with a tendency to date – more or less exclusively, African men, but who are quick to clutch their handbags and lock their car doors when a group of African men comes close. Having negative stereotypical views of African men as dangerous or feeling afraid or uncomfortable when you encounter them is a sign of racial prejudice.
We also have the white male fetishists who sexualize African women in a racially charged manner, bombarding them with offensive suggestions that Africans are wild, untamed, feral animals. Yet, these men refrain from using similar perverted pick-up lines when hitting on white women. Fetishization indicates an enhanced awareness of race – the main ingredient of racism, which makes it very different from truly celebrating someone’s ethnicity as it relates to their full humanity.
And then there are the white tourists who date Africans as part of their sexual safari tour of Africa, but would never consider fully loving or marrying one. This is an exploitative relationship which, in the absence of any real commitment on the part of the white partner, exists primarily for their personal needs.
Other types of interracial personal relationships also manifest the contradiction of racism. For instance the white grandparent to a biracial child who stereotypes Africans as “lazy”; the white mother who adopts an African child but continues to use the N-word; the white voluntourist who claims to have “African friends” who are really just acquaintances, neighbors or employees; and the white expatriate aid worker who is motivated to help precisely because they believe Africans are inferior to white people. Rather than genuine altruism, such “White Man’s Burden” assistance is merely a means of reinforcing white superiority.
Openness to interracial relationships is therefore no indicator of the absence of racist attitudes. If anything, many interracial relationships are proof that dating interracially doesn’t necessarily make one more racially sensitive or enlightened about racial equality.
With the excuse of “having a North African girlfriend” discounted, there is no evidence of Charb’s anti-racism. Instead, what we have are numerous dehumanizing cartoons portraying black people as monkeys, welfare queens and racist caricatures of Black Sambo, and filled with racial slurs such as the N-word – all of which were published during his tenure as Charlie Hebdo editor. That Charb’s relations with a woman of North African descent did not prevent him from publishing cartoons that were racist towards Africans as a group is solid proof that interracial romance is never an effective antidote to racism.
I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt. The person engaged in active racist behavior has identified with the ideology of white supremacy and is moving with it. Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. Some of the bystanders may feel the motion of the conveyor belt, see the active racists ahead of them, and choose to turn around, unwilling to go to the same destination as the white supremacists. But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt – unless they are actively anti-racist – they will find themselves carried along with the others.
– Beverly Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race
Mutual recognition of racism, its impact both on those who are dominated and those who dominate, is the only standpoint that makes possible an encounter between races that is not based on denial and fantasy. For it is the ever present reality of racist domination, of white supremacy, that renders problematic the desire of white people to have contact with the Other.
– bell hooks, Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance
In an ideal world, being intimately involved with someone of a different ethnicity would help you gain insight into their life and culture, as well as appreciation and respect for their humanity in a way that would make racial prejudice or bigoted thoughts, feelings, words or actions an impossibility on your part. White partners would also gain understanding of how racist oppression continues to impact the lives of black people. And this understanding would motivate the white partner to commit to anti-racism work by using their white privilege to confront and dismantle racial oppression and promote racial equality in their private and public lives.
However, the world we live in is far from ideal. Instead, interracial unions are today not only used to excuse racism in individual white people, but to also push indifference towards racism in the entire white dominated modern world. Leading this crusade are supporters of colorblind ideologies who point to the rising number of interracial marriages as proof that race is no longer a determining factor in life’s outcomes.
However, while interracial unions are today generally accepted, they can hardly be taken as a mark of progress in terms of racial equality. Take South Africa for instance which, three decades after the repeal of anti-miscegenation laws forbidding marriages and criminalizing all sexual relations between whites and non-whites, was in 2014 named the “most unequal country in the world”. The fact that interracial couples are today free to wed without legal prosecution or cultural persecution must therefore not be used as an excuse to sweep the history and impact of racist oppression under the rug of “colorblindness.”