Who Is Black? “Who Is Black?” this question was a sub-theme that ran throughout “As The Spirit Moves: Connecting Through Art and Conversations” on February 20th at the SFU downtown campus. It arose when I met 101 year-old Rose Landers (The Afro News, April 2011). To a casual observer Rose is black but in her own mind and under the racial distinctions of South Africa she is coloured because some of her ancestors were white. In the United States she would be regarded as black because some of her ancestors were black. Canadian born filmmaker, dancer and actor Chancz Perry qualifies as black by American and Canadian criteria but when he visited Ghana he was told he is white because of the way he talks and moves.
Who is black?
There is no objective physiological basis for using skin colour, type of hair, shape of eyes or any other feature of appearance to determine a person’s worth or ability as a human being. All attempts to do so are arbitrary. How arbitrary? How about the pencil test used under apartheid in South Africa to determine racial classification in hard-to- decide cases? This involved inserting a pencil in a person’s hair to determine if the hair was kinky enough for the pencil to get stuck. If it stuck, you were black. My favourite example of racial idiocy is apartheid’s designation of immigrants from Mainland China as “non-white” and therefore subject to numerous restrictions in residence, voting, education, work, free movement, etc. while Taiwanese, Nationalist Chinese, Japanese and South Koreans, were classified as honorary white and thus granted the same privileges as whites.
Such ludicrous racial distinctions would be amusing were they not used as the justification for vilification of some people by the racial group, typically whites, deemed to be superior. Steve Biko, the martyred anti-apartheid activist in South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s, saw through the insanity of classification by appearance and defined blacks as ‘those who are by law or tradition politically, economically and socially discriminated against as a group in South African society and who identify themselves as a unit in the struggle towards the realization of their aspirations.’ For Biko being black was not a matter of pigmentation – being black was a reflection of a mental attitude.
Who is black? It depends on whom you ask. But there’s another question. What is the source of white supremacy? Since the inception of the West African slave trade around 1500, why have dark skinned people born the brunt of oppression and persecution by light skinned people? I suggest there are three answers, all rooted in human frailty. First, the pervasive human assumption that might is right. European powers were able to establish spheres of influence in West Africa and so earn, by this logic, the right to treat the local people as they wished. Morally repugnant but that’s how we humans operate. Secondly, self interest in the form of greed. Portuguese and other European traders switched quickly from gold to humans when slaves became more profitable due to demand for their labour in the New World. Greed crosses racial and cultural divides. The supply of slaves to Gold Coast (now Ghana) trading forts was in African hands. The Ashanti chiefs, among others, waged wars to expand their territory and to capture slaves to be sold to European traders. Finally, lack of love. No love was shown by traders to slaves, to be sure, but even more important is the fact that most of us do not love ourselves. Lacking a secure and positive sense of personal worth we try to elevate ourselves by putting other people down even to the point of regarding them as subhuman. We cannot love the other unless we love ourselves.
Who is black?