Racism: Redefining the Terms

I am going to talk about something now that isn’t often addressed without impassioned difference of opinion and often even some name-calling: “racism”.  I’d like to begin by defining the terms.  You know how important dialog is to me and one of the things I notice in discussions is the way that people often overlook language.  We’ve all heard two people in a heated argument only to realize that what they are arguing is the same point, using different terms.  Once they calm down and actually hear one another (or more often, once someone acts as intermediary and helps them to hear one another); they calm their tone and try to save face as they come to the conclusion that they do in fact agree.

So, I’ll start by discussing the terms.  I don’t buy into “racism”.  It is only logical, since I don’t buy into the concept of race.  I don’t say this in that politically correct way; but I only believe in the human race.  I am bright enough to understand distinctions in ethnicity, culture and even skin color or other physical attributes.  Is the skin of an ethnic Yoruba darker than that of a native Austrian whose roots are Germanic?  Of course!  Yet, given the fact that they can have children together, donate body organs to each other, etc.  The differences are really only on the surface.  In my view, the visual is so much less important than ethnicity: language, culture and yes, even food.

We are one race; but we have many ethnic and cultural groupings.  After hundreds of years of staying (relatively) within our own regions; or after specific migrations or conquests which have added to our ethnic make-up… we look a certain way. Lighter skin, darker hair, brown or blue eyes, broader or thinner noses.  But we are wholly and completely human.  All God’s children, regardless of the way we speak, if we are literate or not, if we eat kangaroo or chicken in our stew.

Race is an outdated term which breaks all of humankind down into 5 groups, none of which have anything to do with skin color; but instead bone structure.  For example, Ethiopians and Eritreans are both considered “Caucasoid” under this system, which has since been re-termed “White”.  Although I do have a great-grandmother who was “white” where skin color is concerned; the vast majority of Eritreans are not so light. Race is now commonly used to mean ethnicity, skin color, hair texture, religion… the list seems endless.  But, until we use the correct terms, we can’t have serious dialog. If we want to debate the merits (or risks) of a religious belief, the cultural practices that put women at risk, our preference for narrow noses over wide ones… let’s do so.  But for goodness sake, let’s do so honestly, openly and without throwing the term “racist” at everyone who disagrees with us.

Incorrect concepts and terms like “race” are in part what caused things like the genocide in Rwanda, Hitler’s murder of millions and the belief that Africans are not intelligent simply because they “look more like monkeys than Europeans do”.  Race is no longer discussed outside of a small portion of physical anthropology.  Thus, it seems only right to leave the term behind us.  Let’s talk about ethnicity, culture, language, immigration, xenophobia, clan warfare, national pride… whatever the term, let’s choose the right one.

So, I am willing to have the dialog of ethnic strife.  I am also willing to discuss the problems caused by xenophobia or hatred some have toward people who look different from them.  But, I will not discuss racism because I find that the very term divides us in ways that are false.  If we are wise enough to coin different (and more accurate) terms; we will make a giant leap toward the solution to the very problems that we discuss.

This is not to say that the problems don’t exist.  I am a dreamer.  I’d love to see a day when we judge one another on our actions and choices as opposed to what village we are from, what shade of brown we are, etc.  But, I am realistic enough to know that there are some major and life-altering problems throughout the world today that act as major barriers to us dealing with our real problems: poverty, access to clean water, education, etc.

But, for me, it is dishonest to begin with terms that aren’t true.  We will be better suited to have honest, direct dialog even when it hurts us to do so.  Then, we can find the similarities in issues that we thus far don’t see as being related.

For example, I overheard a discussion many years ago where a member of my (in-law) family said that he wished my husband hadn’t “brought a nigger into the family”.  I was insulted and as the years passed, this person has never taken the time to know me, who I am or what I stand for.  In the end, it is easy to say that it’s “his loss”.  But, the most ridiculous part of it all is that he’s gone out of his way to make things so uncomfortable (never knowing that I ever heard his words) and distantly cold that he never will know me.  He’s instead opted to view me from his little closed corner of the world: where even my best and kindest of actions towards others are viewed through suspicious glasses.

But, if I am to be honest, I must say that I’ve had equally hateful things said by family members on the other side. Once, I was cornered by two female cousins and told that I was a sell-out to my Eritrean culture because I married a Frenchman. They quickly added: I guess it isn’t your fault though; after all, you are just like your mother (who married an Italian-American).  These same two women went on to tell me that they would not only marry Eritreans; but would marry someone from the village if at all possible.

At the end of the day, they don’t see who I am either.  I am an African.  I love Africa and have spent the past 10 years working to help improve the lives of my sisters across the continent.  I am an Eritrean who has gone to great lengths to be open and honest about the pride I have for my birth-nation.  But, above all, I have also been an advocate for what Africa can be… should be.  Mine is not blind pride because of skin color or blood.  It is a sincere desire that any African girl born today have the same chance and opportunity in life that I had as a child.

At the end of the day, I know that skin color means nothing. My father was a dark-haired Mediterranean looking man of Italian heritage.  And I can still remember seeing tears in his eyes when he spoke of Eritrea.  He spent years hoping that peace would come so that he could retire and buy a little bar in Massawa. He loved Africa more than many of my African brothers who have the blood; but don’t have the passion.

I know that 90% of those who have purchased a basket, only drink our fair trade African coffee, or stop their day to say a prayer for our coop members have white skin and have never been to Africa.  For some, I am the first African they have ever met.  Their hearts though, are like many of you: open to the world around them and ready to do what they can.

Every group has its good and it’s bad.  Every culture has its faults and its strongpoints.  I cannot be honest about the dialog if I refuse to use the right terms.  There is as much corruption and evil in the heart of Africa as there is in the West.  Let us not forget that slavery existed because WE sold one another. It existed later on such a grand scale because the Portuguese learned the tricks of the trade from the Arab slave traders.  But, because they aren’t part of the West, we don’t even discuss it.

Power has a tendency to corrupt, it’s true.  But those who hold power and wield it without responsibility are no more the representatives of the average European country, than that ignorant mean man was the representative of my husband’s family.  He might have been the most vocal initially.  But, if I’d judged the whole group on his behavior; I’d have missed out on knowing some of the most loving, kind and generous of spirit people I’ve ever been proud enough to include in my family.

And the reverse is also true: If someone had overheard those two cousins of mine talking; they would certainly have come to the wrong conclusion.  You see, my father was loved by everyone and respected highly.  He learned to cook our traditional dishes (not very common for men to do in our culture; much less a “foreigner”!). He showed me through example that love comes above all; color is a detail.

I’ve lived on 3 continents, both coasts of the U.S and I can tell you one thing with complete certainty: Life boils down to just a few important things regardless of who you are: family and friends, the ability to earn a living and sharing great food… ethnicity, language nor the color of your skin have anything to do with any of that at all.

Love one another and search to find the common ground through open, honest dialog. And always… always… find the words that fit.



8 thoughts on “Racism: Redefining the Terms

  1. I woke up this morning, feeling a bit sluggish, not sure how the day would feel to me, an upper or a downer. Greeting me in my e-mail was Mama Afrika and after reading this beautifully thought out composition I know my day is going to be an upper. Things can go wrong such as the weather darkening, the neighbor complaining about the dogs barking, the milk found to have soured overnight. My day will be bright and I will go out to buy new milk with a smile on my face because I have just read this hopeful and absolutely truthful article by Mama. This is a great piece of work. Thank you.

  2. Mama, I have the impression you feel more related to the Eritrean side of your bloodline. Is this because you are colored and therefore more confronted in the West with the daily mistreatment in small gestures of every day ?

  3. Dona Dulcinea,

    Many years ago, people used to talk of America as being a “melting pot”. Years later, the expression was changed to a mixed salad (each ingredient keeping its original form; but adding to the overall “taste” of the nation.) You know how much I love food; so I’ll stick with the foodie theme 😉

    I, instead, see myself more as a pie. Sometimes you take a bite and the predominate taste is the chocolate filling. Other bites are mainly the crust. But in the end, its a chocolate pie and all parts make it so.

    In my day to day life, I feel completely American when I hear the national anthem play or see burgers on the grill. Yet, when I’m at the market and see tomatoes, onions and garlic, my mind goes immediately to the Italian pasta sauce that my paternal grandmother cooked for hours on the stove each time we came to visit her. In that moment, I am Italian at heart. When I see a woman on the street in Paris wearing her brightly colored traditional Senegalese dress; I feel utterly and completely African. Like all people, once you get to know them; I’m a complex being made up of her ethnicity, cultural heritage and experiences. Although I will always be a strong advocate for African women and children; it doesn’t reduce my other “parts”. Odd perhaps; but true.

    Other than a handful of exceptions, I am blessed to have never felt judged or mistreated because of my dark skin. I don’t doubt that it has happened to many people and don’t search to reduce their suffering. But in my own life, unlike those in generations before me, I’ve been met with smiles more often than not and find that most people find I’m enriched by my multicultural heritage. Either I’m really lucky… or the glass really is (at least) half-full 🙂

    Thanks for your question,
    Mama 🙂

  4. Dear Mama, thanks for your reply!

    I’ve asked this question because many colored friends of me in the Netherlands have to deal with a daily form of ‘racism’. A ‘racism’ which influences their life consciously or unconsciously, especially in how you will define yourselves who is living in a society that tries to give you the feeling that you don’t belong there.

    The Netherlands is a country that doesn’t wants to recognize their own ‘true’ history. If the citizens of the Netherlands would have the guts to face their shared history it will explain the diversity of this country, and in my opinion they should look at the development of democracy and how this is related to their own histories and lives.

    Anyway, the ‘racism’ I am speaking about is big enough to be aware of, but it is too small to gave it a name. You’ll get used to it, but you will never get used to it!

    My tweet of the day is is:

    *** there is no such thing as One Truth ~ the Truth has many Faces ***

  5. Mama, this is a wonderfully written post which reconfirms how similarly I think to you! I often find other people’s ideas about race bizarre. They make it sound like I am in some way a completely different species from, for example, my girlfriend, or indeed most of the students I teach.

    I enjoy celebrating and discovering about others’ cultures, identities and thoughts on subjects.

    I feel that ‘race’ is often just bandied around by people with agendas (politicians for example) as it is a nice ‘catch-all’ term for ‘difference’.

    I never consider myself as being in an ‘interracial relationship’, yet that is how it could be defined. Yet we never talk of a same race relationship.

    It’s a strange old world.

  6. Good afternoon,
    My name is Luca Bianco and attend a graphic design class at Marist High School in Bayonne New Jersey. I saw this image and would like permission to use this in a project I am doing. if it’s ok please contact me at bwarren@marist.org
    -Thank You

  7. Doña:

    I understand what you mean and have heard similar things from people of color who live in Europe. I have to be honest though in saying that in my many years in both Germany and France (over a dozen in total); I have not had the same experiences. Other than a few isolated occurrences, people welcomed me with open arms and were no different with me because of my skin color. Again, I do NOT say this to negate the feelings of those who have shared antidotes with me; but to speak my truth (as you so aptly put it).


    You stated it so well. “Its a strange old world” indeed! 🙂 Thanks so much for commenting and for your own blog, which many people already know that I just love visiting!


    I’ve emailed you. But, in the event you visit here first or there is a problem with delivery: My response (in short) is: Absolutely! 🙂

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