Archive for the ‘race’ Category

Conflicts and Harmony in Zanzibar

October 23, 2008


Finished Ali Muhsin Al Barwani’s memoirs today–Conflicts and Harmony in Zanzibar Sheikh Ali translated the Holy Quran into Swahili, a copy of which I have somewhere in my collection. But he’s also famous as one of the founders of the Zanzibar Nationalist Party. He comes from a long line of very distinguished Swahili from the Barwani family, including Rumaliza, who led coastal anti-colonial resistance against the British. His father was a famous sheikh. The book is a fascinating dive into some of the issues of the Zanzibar Revolution. Basically, Sheikh Ali was put in prison likely on orders from Nyerere, after Zanzibar and Tanganyika joined into the federation of Tanzania. The book is a scathing critique of Nyerere, an exploration of the aims and goals of the Zanzibar Nationalist Party, and a chronicle of Ali’s life events, including the chaotic ‘time of politics’ before the 1964 Revolution, and his ten-year sojourn in various Tanzanian prisons.

The way Ali tells it, the British supported and nurtured the Afro-Shirazi Party against the ZNP because the ZNP accepted aid in the form of scholarships from Nasserite Egypt. Frankly, Ali’s little known story of events seems highly plausible. The 1964 revolution had a variety of causes, some of which were the ZNP’s ignorance of the changing dynamics that labor migration had created in Zanzibar. If you don’t exactly agree with Ali’s interpretation at every turn, you can appreciate his progressive drive, his tremendous knowledge of the Omani-Zanzibar connection, and his having been a participant in attempting to liberate Zanzibar from British colonial rule.

Yet although Ali is a breath of (occasionally cranky) fresh air, its hard to see exactly why ANYONE would have been against the ZNP the way he tells the story. At times, Ali glosses over the quite brutal aspects of the Arab slave trade and plantation slavery and the subtle racial and civilizational dynamic which the ZNP employed and which alienated many mainland Africans. For a thought provoking look into the complicated links between race, colonialism, and intellectual discourse in Zanzibar, I can do no better than to recommend Jonathon Glassman’s excellent article: “Slower Than a Massacre: The Multiple Sources of Racial Thought in Colonial Africa.” Also Jesse Benjamin explored this and suggested that the dialectic of race on the East Coast of Africa needs more attention with regard to Omani-African relationships.

Sheikh Ali died in March of 2006 at the age of eighty-six. Much respect to this freedom fighter and Islamic scholar. May we learn from his example, but also continue to clarify and understand the subtle ways in which schisms can creep in unnoticed into any progressive nationalist movement, and subsequently be exploited. I hope we also remain aware that just because there is a name attached to something: “Socialist” “Revolutionary” “Islamic” “Nationalist” “Christian” doesn’t mean it represents what it claims to represent. And that goes for the word “Change” too, all due respect to Barack Obama.

Mandela, Obama, and the Post-racial Age

October 18, 2008

Interesting take from a giant in the field of African Studies. Post racial? I think the Swahili word, ‘bado’ captures my response succinctly. That is, in English, “Not yet.” Because there are enough Americans out there not searching for a postracial age, and indeed quite nervous about the possibility. Interesting idea about ‘low-hate retention’ cultures, though.

by Prof. Ali A. Mazrui
The Daily Monitor
Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama are potential icons of a post-racial age which is unfolding before our eyes. Mandela has become the most respected Black man by all races in world history.

Obama stands a chance of becoming the most trusted Black man in US history. No African-American has ever come so close to winning the US presidency. But no African-American could have approached so close to winning the US presidency without an unprecedented level of trust from a sizable part of the white electorate.

A major cause of the Mandela-Obama respective successes lies in their embodying a short memory of racial hatred, and their impressive readiness to forgive historical adversaries. They have both illustrated a remarkable capacity to transcend historical racial divides.

Cultures differ in hate retention. Some nurse their grievances for generations. Others are intensely hostile in the midst of a conflict, but as soon thereafter, they display a readiness to forgive, even if not always to forget. The Armenians, Irish and Jews fall in this category.

Armenians were butchered in large numbers by the Ottoman Turks in 1915 – 1916. This story of the Armenian martyrdom of World War I has been transmitted with passion from generation to generation.

Armenians are still demanding justice from Turkey nearly a hundred years after the massacres. Similarly, the Irish have long memories of grievance. Clashes occur in Northern Ireland virtually every year concerning marches that commemorate ‘Orange Conflicts’ in the seventeenth century. Jews also have strong collective memories of the Holocaust and other outbursts of European anti-Semitism.

Mandela came from a culture illustrative of Africa’s short memory of hate. That culture is far from being pacifist. Wars and inter-ethnic conflicts have been part of Africa’s experience before European colonization and decades after independence.

What is different about African cultures is relatively low level of hate retention. Obama’s tolerance may be due to personal multi-culturalism. He had a white American mother, a Black Kenyan father, and an Indonesian step-father.

His cultural ancestry includes Luo culture, Islam and Black American Christianity. Mandela’s life passed through stages. His early days as a nationalist were characterized by a belief in non-violent resistance. In a sense, he carried the torch of South Africa’s Albert Luthuli and Mahatma Gandhi. Sharpeville was a major blow to his belief in passive resistance.

By the time that Mandela was having afternoon tea with the unrepentant widow of the founder of apartheid, Hendrick Verwoerd, he had tough acts to follow in African magnanimity. There were precedents of forgiveness that he followed and improved upon.

Post-colonial Africa had produced other instances of short memory of hate. Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, once condemned by a British colonialist as a “leader of darkness and death” was unjustly imprisoned in a remote part of the country.

When he finally emerged from prison on the eve of independence, he proclaimed “suffering without bitterness.” He proceeded to transform Kenya into a staunchly pro-Western country.

In November 1965, colonial Southern Rhodesia’s Ian Smith launched his Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Britain, unleashing a bitter Zimbabwe civil war. Yet, he lived to sit in a parliament of Black-ruled Zimbabwe and was not subjected to postwar vendetta. Again, Africa’s short memory of hate at work. In the late 1960s, Nigeria waged a highly publicized civil war that cost nearly a million lives. The Federal side won that war but was uniquely magnanimous towards the defeated Biafrans. Yet, another manifestation of Africa’s short memory of hatred.

For his part, when Mandela was finally released from prison in 1990, this most illustrious of all Africa’s liberation fighters embarked on a mission of healing and forgiving. This former hero of mobilization leadership became a paragon of the reconciliation style of leadership. He became the greatest of all African examples of prolonged reconciliation, an exemplar of African short memory of hate.

Obama illustrated his post-racial tolerance by denouncing his firebrand pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and leaving his own radicalized church. Obama is more of an ideological liberal than a moral Gandhian. Indeed, Obama is less of a Gandhian than Martin Luther King, Jr. was. But in their different ways, Mandela, Obama and King have all been part of the search for a post-racial age.

The ‘Swahili’ Omani

October 7, 2008

Nation-building and communities in Oman since 1970: The Swahili-speaking Omani in search of identity

by Marc Valeri
full text article
In 1964, the revolution in Zanzibar put an end to the local al-Busa‘idi dynasty. The Omani Arabs were summoned by the newly independent state to ‘go back home’, because of their supposed foreignness. Yet no collective repatriation process was organized by the sultan of Muscat. It is alleged that around 17,000 Arabs died during the events. Oman received 3,700 refugees only and many other families were forced to settle in Dubai, Kuwait or Cairo.

A second wave of return followed the call launched in 1970 by Sultan Qaboos to the Omani elite abroad, inviting them to contribute to the ‘awakening’ of the country. Around 10,000 Omani from Zanzibar are thought to have moved back to Oman by 1975. Despite the fact that most of the expatriate Omani did not speak Arabic fluently, Qaboos had no option but to grant them Omani citizenship, as soon as they returned, without any consideration of the time their family had spent abroad. First, the Omani abroad were relatively more educated than those at home. Many of them spoke English fluently and had been trained in technical fields in Europe, East Africa or other Gulf countries, so they made a significant workforce for the ruler’s planned modernization. Besides, given his political isolation when he came to the throne, the Sultan understood that since the Omani abroad had neither been involved in the internal political and tribal issues in Oman nor on the best of terms with his father’s regime, they could be an asset to him.

All these factors account for the fact that the returnees soon filled many positions in key fields such as intelligence, police and security. Their Arabic language handicap was outweighed by their skills in administrative organization and political control. An example of the Sultan’s dependency on these Omani during the first years of his rule is given by the Interim Planning Council, established in March 1972 to shape development achievements. Of its 10 members, six had been educated in eastern European countries, while two had been born in Zanzibar and had never been in Oman prior to the 1970 coup.

Yet, in a society like Oman where personal relationships play such a role, the fact that marriage patterns of most Manga Arabs had been limited to their kin in Africa, and that they had been kept out of the political affairs of the sultanate in Zanzibar, dramatically narrowed the networks on which they could rely when they returned. The cumulative effect of this lack of social intermediation (wasta) with their lower level of education was a tremendous handicap. If the ‘back-from-Africa’ Omani in general were unquestionably advantaged compared with the nationals who had stayed at home, nobody was better positioned to benefit from the opportunities offered by the developing Oman than the descendents of the aristocracy of Zanzibar.

Today, the ‘back-from-Africa’ Omani population is thought to number about 100,000, out of a total of more than two million Omani citizens. Locally they are called ‘Swahili’ (referring to their vernacular language) or ‘Zanzibari’ (Zinjibâriyyin; ‘Umâniyyin min Zinjibâr). Most of the tribes and ethno-linguistic groups contain within them so-called ‘Swahili’ individuals or clans—including among the royal tribe, the Shia communities and the Omani groups native to Baluchistan—but in varying proportions. The greatest numbers are found within tribes from Inner Oman, like Habus, Hirth, Bani Kharus, Kinud, Mahariq, Masakira, Bani Riyam or Bani Ruwaha. Families, or even individuals, descended from the same clans can be considered ‘Swahili’ (or not) whether they are tied (or not) to Africa.

The Omani who came back from East Africa thus constitute a highly heterogeneous group, which cannot be defined solely on genealogical or geographical criteria. The most important dividing line is the one inherited from the hierarchization in East Africa. This combination of social, cultural and economic divides was a determining factor of the position these returnees found in Oman.

In addition, every member has remained closely linked to his native tribe. Sheikhs who had stayed in Oman played a key role in validating the genealogies of members who came back after three or four generations. The vivacity of the tribal affiliation is highlighted by the huge amounts of financial transfers made by expatriates both to their native villages in Oman before 1970 and to the poorest clans of the tribe in Africa itself.

Another major dividing line is the African place of settlement. Here, there is a division between the ‘anglophone Swahili-speaking Omani’ who had lived in Zanzibar, Kenya or former Tanganyika on the one hand, and the francophones who had travelled to Central Africa (Rwanda, Burundi and eastern Congo) on the other. The latter, who are estimated to be about 10 percent of the whole Swahili-speaking Omani population, were usually Manga Arabs. Most of them only came back to Oman at the beginning of the 1990s, when Rwanda and Burundi exploded into crisis.

Finally it is necessary to keep in mind that a strict and well-known distinction is established between the back-from-Africa Omani, who can lay claim to a patriarchal genealogy in southeast Arabia and are the proper subject of this paper, and the Omani citizens who are descended from slaves brought forcibly from Africa (khadim) and who are considered not to be of Arab blood. As Mandana Limbert has put it, ‘Through the paternalizing care of the Arab-Omanis, [they] could become brothers, however, who would never be allowed to forget that they had been slaves, that they had known nothing and that they had had to be cultured’. Hence, many families with noble (qabîli) Arab lineages, who lived in Africa and are nowadays viewed as ‘Swahili’ in Oman, have always taken care to keep their Arab lineage ‘pure’.

The African Presence in Oman: Research Questions

September 23, 2008

My research looks at the influence of Swahili culture on Oman. This research is extremely relevant at the present time. The Arab/African dichotomy has been the subject of extensive media coverage due to the conflict in Darfur. Unsurprisingly, the media focuses only on conflict, reducing a complex historically-negotiated relationship to an ugly racial divide. The history of Oman offers another example of extensive cultural interchange between Arabs and Africans and may help shed light on questions of how intermarriage and migration complicate the simplistic Arab/African dichotomy. It also may shed light on questions of power vis-à-vis family identity.
There are various groups of people who all could be considered African, in one way or another, but who may identify as Arab, Swahili, or simply Omani. Africans in Oman have diverse origins: some come directly from East Africa for employment, while others have someone (usually a mother, grandmother, or great-grandmother) from East Africa. Still others are the descendants of Africans brought by Omani slave traders until the late nineteenth century.

My research starts from the premise that the culture that became Omani—primarily coastal Arabs of the southeast peninsula—had its origins in maritime pursuits and connections with the larger Indian Ocean world. For example, Oman in the nineteenth century encompassed diverse groups of people– Indian traders who made up the core of Muscat’s overseas financial empire, Baluchi mercenaries, Swahili Arabs like Tippu Tip, and indigenous Zanzibaris.
Those I refer to as Swahili Arabs migrated to the Swahili coast in large numbers beginning in the early 18th century and continued until the end of the nineteenth century. There were two major waves of migration—early 18th century, after the overthrow of the Portuguese, and mid-nineteenth century, with Sultan Seyyid Said’s move to Zanzibar.

This migration gave rise to a distinct Omani influence on the coastal culture of East Africa. Tippu Tip’s family was one example of the Swahilized Arabs who traded and intermarried in Mombasa, Zanzibar, Tanga, Bagamoyo, and other city-states of the mrima.

I am most interested in contrasting the community of Swahili Arabs with their fellow Omanis. This means tracing the history of each community, their mother tongues (Arabic vs. Swahili) and the ways in which they constitute themselves as individuals and social groups. Do all now consider themselves ‘just’ Omani? What religious and cultural differences separated Zanzibari/Swahili Omanis from other Arab Omanis? Is there a social stigma in Oman in being from Zanzibar? What kind of economic differences are there between the two groups What aspects of culture in Oman can be said to have an African origin? Which nisbas are most associated with migration to East Africa?

One way I hope to answer these questions is through an individual who in many ways straddles these divides. Hamed bin Muhammed el-Murjebi, the most famous of the nineteenth century Swahili ivory-traders, was the great grandson of an African woman and an Arab migrant trader from Oman. The first part of my research is directed towards finding relatives of Hamed bin Muhammed el-Murjebi (Tippu Tip) and interviewing them, as well as tracing any documents related to Hamed bin Muhammed’s life and family.
Arab/African Intermarriage

Sudanese: ‘What Arab-African rift?’

September 23, 2008

While the World sees only Arab-African conflict in Darfur, pockets of amity thrive unnoticed.
Christian Science Monitor
by Heba Aly
Dongola, Sudan – Ask Abbas Adam Ibrahim whether he is Arab or African, and he does not quite know how to respond. “Both,” the Sudanese man says, after slight hesitation.

Mr. Adam comes from the Fur tribe, of Darfur – commonly understood to be an African tribe, under persecution by Sudan’s Arab-dominated government.

Last month, the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor indicted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for genocide and crimes against humanity in Darfur, saying “evidence shows that al-Bashir masterminded and implemented a plan to destroy in substantial part the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa groups, on account of their ethnicity.”

But for Sudanese Arabs and Africans coexisting peacefully outside Darfur, these racial distinctions are not so clear.

Adam, for example, believes he has some Arab blood.

During the drought of the early 1980s, Adam left Darfur for the mostly-Arab north of Sudan, in search of work and a better life. He settled in Dongola, a city more than 300 miles north of the capital, Khartoum, and has lived among Arabs ever since. He even married one and now has four “mixed” children.

“We live here peacefully and there are no problems,” he says. “We live as if we are natives here. We feel that this is our country and this is our town.”

Around the corner, at a small Darfurian social club, the atmosphere is loud and buoyant. Young men gather around tables playing cards, slamming down dominoes excitedly, and watching television. They are mostly economic migrants who left Darfur years ago. Among them are members of various tribes that are killing each other back in Darfur and in neighboring Kordofan State.

“There is no such thing as Arab or African. We are all Sudanese,” says Mohammed El-Cheikh an Arab from Western Kordofan. “Him over there,” he says, pointing across the yard to a young man standing shyly in the corner, “that’s my friend Abubakr. He’s from the [African] Tama tribe.

“There are problems in Darfur, but they are not between people. They are related to the government and to politics.”

In scores of markets, clubs, and homes in the Arab north, Arabs and Africans are working side by side, sending their children to the same schools and intermarrying. The Arab-African distinction that has played out so broadly in media coverage of Darfur means little to people here.

In fact, historians say the distinction has no factual basis. There is a long tradition of intermarrying between the Arab and African tribes that settled in what is now Sudan.

“No single tribe in Sudan can claim it is purely African or Arab,” says history teacher and mayor of the greater Dongola locality Bushra Mohamed Saleh. “They are all mixed.”

And while some tribes may be more Arab or more African, coexistence between them is nothing new. Even in Darfur, different tribal groups lived together for centuries. So-called Arab nomadic tribes and African farming communities shared the same land – the nomads using it for their cattle to graze; the farmers using it to grow their crops. Conflicts arose routinely but were solved through traditional leaders.

Things changed early this millennium when traditional leaders lost their control, guns became more commonplace, and a group of non-Arab Darfurians took up arms against the government, arguing that their region had been neglected.

In responding to this rebellion, the government made a “big, big, big mistake,” says Gen. Hassan Hamadain, who governed West Darfur State during the late 1990s.

It called upon popular defense forces from local communities to combat the Darfur rebels. But those who responded were mostly Arabs, many of whom joined the now infamous janjaweed militia that is accused of razing hundreds of African villages, looting, raping, and killing along the way.

“The government made use of the conflict in Darfur in a kind of non-thoughtful way,” says General Hamadain, who has since retired from politics, acknowledging that he and others failed in Darfur. “It was not sensitive to the tribal relationships, the tribal history of the area, and the resources.”

And so what began as normal, cyclical conflicts between mostly Arab herders and non-Arab farmers grew to what has been termed the world’s largest humanitarian disaster. The United Nations says some 300,000 have died and 2.5 million have been displaced.

Among the dead were members of Hassan Ali Ibrahim’s village, which was completely destroyed by Arabs. But he says he can’t hold them all responsible.

“The disputes between the Arabs and people in Darfur originate from different reasons – grazing, pastures, natural things. They are not rooted in race,” said the community elder, sitting under a tree at the Islamic school he manages in Dongola, where both Arab and African children sit side by side. “The Arabs that are here have nothing to do with this.”

Still, for some Darfurians, it is not so easy to forget. Daoud (not his real name) watched with his own eyes as members of his family were killed by Arab militias in West Darfur. After the first attack on his village, he found his father dead. He says he does not blame the Arabs – “Who supported them? Who gave them the guns? Wasn’t it the government?” – but he still has difficulty getting too close.

“I can interact with Arabs at work or in general ways, but when it comes to close relationships, I feel there is a wall between us.”

British analyst Jago Salmon says this social polarization – a result he blames partly on simplistic descriptions by Western Darfur advocates – has been an unfortunate consequence of the conflict, but was never its root.

“We were still looking for dichotomy of some kind, something that would explain what was going on easily and simply. We latched onto the Arab-African dichotomy, which did vast damage…. Then as the conflict developed, it became a reality on the ground. It became something by which people explained the conflict themselves.”

But as the conflict continues in Darfur – 180,000 have fled their homes this year alone, according to the UN – Adam will wake up next to his Arab wife every morning, Ali will teach his Arab students, and plenty of other African Darfurians will keep living alongside Arabs, wishing the politics would cease and their tribes could go back to life as usual.

Whiteness as a Global Phenomenon: Some Observations

August 20, 2008

And, yet, a certain word, a glance, a guise, will mirror, never show, reflecting not my gaze, but my uncertain question caught inside a shadow of our shifting eyes.

A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.
–James Joyce

Joseph Palmi: Let me ask you something… we Italians, we got our families, and we got the church; the Irish, they have the homeland, Jews their tradition; even the niggers, they got their music. What about you people, Mr. Wilson, what do you have?
Edward Wilson: The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.

–from The Good Shepherd directed by Robert De Niro

I’ve had a lot of time over the past few days to think, since I am currently holed up in Mombasa with a dwindling cash supply. I’ve been thinking a lot about race and racial identity. Even though ‘mzungu’ calling here seems to have dwindled a bit lately (the kids in the building where I;m living finally know my name), reminders of the ongoing importance of ‘whiteskin privilege’ are ever present.

Yesterday, I was sitting in the baobab forest on the west side of town, munching on coconut biscuits and litchi juice, when this young man came and sat nearby and struck up a conversation. Turns out he is a new arrival in Mombasa from Kampala, Uganda, recently graduated from highschool and looking to get a job in I.T.
He spoke excitedly of his love for America and California, American television (Prison Break anyone?), and of his ultimate desire to marry an American woman. When I asked why this was so, he replied how much he liked their attitude and their freedom. Apparently though, as I soon clarified, this only applied to American WHITE women, because black women, he had been told, cheated on their men, and if their man found out about it, he would kill you.
Again, it got me thinking about the pervasive attitude I have observed over here of mzunguphilia…I am talking about in casual conversation, as well as the numerous women who have approached me telling me they love white men. Is it money? Yes. Is it self-hatred? This I find to be more complex answer.

It brought me back to a reflection about race and white identity that was published in the Liberator Magazine about “Positive White Identity”. That article was my attempt to piece together all the disparate parts of my experience into some coherent philosophy for moving forward and living wholistically in world where the standard for what is right, as much as whites don’t want to admit it, is still based on what powerful white men think.

My article was interpreted by some as an unequivocal stance against identifying as white, as if the identity itself was the virus and not the privilege, power, and arrogance that rides shotgun. Yet I was not trying to call whiteness the enemy so that every white would feel guilty when that identifying word was used. I wrote provocatively because I wanted to use the emotions of that word to spark a deeper probing of identity in general for people like me, family members, friends, and others who may have struggled with these questions and issues.

My own probing began in highschool with history, primarily American history, and looking at how the edifice of white supremacy in America was built and sustained from the first European settlement all the way through the Black Power movement. When I moved South for the first time, the ongoing reality of this system and its effects hit home in a powerful way.

Many years later, after a visit to South Africa, I began to understand how the system that whites built in America had been duplicated in other parts of the world where European migrants settled. Reading Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism made me aware of how the intellectual lineage of European thought was grounded in an attempt to universalize the mix of dynamism and fratricidal warfare that characterized intra-European relations (the specific heritage of European development through history) as a pattern for global development. To some extent this became a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the effects and after effects of European expansion and colonialization still reverberate through our modern political order.

At the same time that the historical link of whiteness and power was entering my understanding, my consciousness was penetrated by a second, more profound realization at the deepest levels. This was stimulated by going to school in majority black envirornments at Howard and Lincoln. Already radicalized going into these experiences, I was unprepared for how much I actually enjoyed the respect and affirmation I received for being (more often than not) the only white in most every situation. I didn’t keep quiet or censor my views, but I did find that I was forced to grapple with viewpoints that were far from the rainbow view of diversity-for-personal-enhancement that I had been spoon fed by my public education.

More than being respected, I found I desired to be totally accepted by blacks. Since I increasingly did not find myself comfortable in the lily-white envirornments of armchair leftists, I gravitated towards black culture, and I saw my move as a cultural, as well as a political stance. If I wasn’t going to be white (at least in spirit) then I would try to be black (at least in spirit). I felt I was solving two problems with this move. First, I was confronting my own segregated heritage and the cultural and social divide along racial lines that is absolutely real in America, Obama notwithstanding. Second, I believed I was dealing in an active way with the ‘white guilt’ that seems to overtake ‘liberal’ whites who attempt to confront race. (I used to observe despairingly the extent to which these whites let their guilt virtually paralyze their ability to analyze independently in discussions of race; it was as if their logical circuits shut down, and they put themselves down as the de facto oppressor.)

However, my growing adaptation culturally–deepening friendships, serious working relationships, dating, and even the ability to master linguistic cues in Black English–was not without its problems. Some blacks found my ‘passing’ into black culture less than authentic and actually quite pathetic. Those who disliked me likely did so for one of three reasons (that I either overheard or was told directly) 1) Genuine suspicion–ie, this guy has got to be a spook or 2)Belief that I was basically an interloper snooping where I didn’t and couldn’t belong. (commonly held by the ‘conscious’ crowd) or 3) Envy–ie, how could this white guy be so successful at a school for ‘us’?

At the same time, I think my immersion raised concern among my family that I had really lost my foundation and didn’t know who I was. I am quite sure other whites had even more unkind thoughts: Who the hell is this ‘wigger’ and what does he think he’s doing? But there were many whites, who even if a bit quizzical, admired what I was doing. For my own part , I (uncharitably)found their admiration evidence of their unwillingness (or, more likely, inability) to do what I was doing.

I got so accomplished at being racially ambigous that black women customers at the Silver Spring Kinkos where I worked would frequently ask what race I was or comment how I must just be lightskinned. My personal favorite was, “Are you related to my cousin in Newark? Because you look just like him.” This phenomenon even occured internationally. Two years ago, in Tanzania, an elderly man asked me, “Are you mixed with Negro?”

It made me very happy to not be considered white, I must say. At first, I felt like some kind of pioneer, or maybe a new hero, someone like the few whites I idolized–John Brown, Bob Zellner, Heather Booth. I was motivated by the idealistic feeling of a higher calling to do something no one else was willing to or capable of doing. I was that ‘special white boy.’ I was ‘different than the rest.’ And maybe I was, indeed am. No one can take the experience I have had from me.
But the inescapable fact, despite my abilities, my openmindedness, my ability to break down cultural barriers, despite the acceptance I have gained, is that I am no closer to being ‘non-white’. At the end of the day, I have privilege and power I didn’t ask for, benefits I have not earned, simply because of my skin color and my passport.

Indeed, the immersion into majority-black-envirornments actually helped me avoid dealing with the fundamental issue of who I am. In a way, as long as I was the only white, and I was down enough to hang around, I could enjoy myself and not have to think about a more fundamental problem: who the hell is Nate Mathews? That question only popped up when other whites came around, and I was forced to interact with them on some interpersonal level. Maybe that’s why I found myself often a little suspicious at other whites and their motives for being where I was.

At the root of a lot of my suspicion, as well as white guilt, as well as the pervasive fear in the American body politic, is a lack of knowledge about who WE truly are? What collective identity do white people (now many generations removed from European descent) have other than living in the most powerful nation on earth? As a colleague put it, if America were to fall, what would ‘whites’ really have? What cultural foundation do we have to stand on? Where are our roots? Who the hell are we?

Now this is a question I found that African Americans (that is the descendants of those Africans brought to America to be enslaved) had to grapple with historically, and did so on a collective level by drawing on their remembrances of West African culture and tradition and attempting to extend that in an unfamiliar context. However, white Americans, by virtue of their political position, have not had to do this to any great extent. This is because of the relative economic position and illusory security offered by whiteness (in the form of land benefits, better jobs, family wealth, etc). Yet it is something that we must do, if we imagine a future beyond the United States as a people. I am reminded of that immortal quote from James Joyce, “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” I hope I am too modest to claim to be forging the uncreated conscience of my race, but G-d willing, my experience can offer some food for thought on how whites can both look at themselves critically and take action as REAL participants in the struggle for justice, not mere sideline contributors driven by latent guilt or a need for identification with the other. May the ‘battles behind my forehead’ be something worthwhile to someone, somewhere.

P.S. You know, as close as 6 months ago, I could not have written this post. I was still working so hard to be accepted. But thanks to some great conversations with people like DH, NP, and TN, I have been able to see the importance of admitting to myself certain things I did not want to see for a long time.