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Observations on the use and effects of ‘colourism’ in American discourse on race and inequality

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This topic contains 3 replies, has 2 voices, and was last updated by  Sarah Greene 1 week, 1 day ago.

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    I increasingly wonder whether it has occurred to any significant proportion of African-Americans that by calling yourselves “black Americans” or “blacks” that you might be actually undermining your self-esteem and self-respect (especially women and the young and up-and-coming), your credibility and the respect you receive from non-African-Americans. I have raised the topic a number of times and have found some discussions on this very topic. Despite the assertions from some individuals that it is term of pride that harks back to the brief and now defunct Black Power movement of the mid-1960s (fifty years ago) to the early 1970s, the more I read and hear the discourse, the more I am convinced that either some of you are actually unaware of the self-denigration this term carries and the consequent ridicule, disdain and hostility it draws from other races both within and outside the United States, including other ethnic minorities in the USA, or there is so much self-hatred, hatred of your fellow African-Americans and lack of respect of self and others in this community that many of you simply don’t care. Has it occurred to people that some of this is undoing the advances made by the Civil Rights movement? People refer to themselves as “blacks”, and allow other races to continue to do so as though they are garbage, worthless, not worth respecting, as though their lives are cheap. Language is important: language coveys emotion; choice of words conveys respect or disrespect. An outsider in the US hearing or reading about “black on black” crime, or “a black” murdered by police might react with no emotion, or with “Good!” or not taking it seriously when people are described in this crude, inaccurate, superficial and inhuman way. I don’t see how slogans like “#black lives matter” help or would convince them to feel any differently. And no, I am not talking about the rabid racists or “white supremacists”. I am talking about perfectly ordinary non-African-American people who have the decency to describe themselves by heritage. And yes, many non-African-Americans did join in recent protest marches against the police where the “#black lives matter” banners were carried. But what the hell is “black life”?!  A sad, awful and unfortunate choice of words. I’m of African descent too and I live a life – it’s not a “black life” any more than an Asian-American has a “yellow life”; it is a human life. “Black”  and “blacks”, whether with a capital ‘b’ or not, actually conveys no emotion but that of negativity, apathy, failure and victimhood. Yes, I know, we have been victims and still are victims. But does that mean we should separate ourselves from the rest of humanity by referring to ourselves in such a de-humanised way? Aside from the long list of negative meanings of the word in most languages, if we include “victim”, then it is an unfortunate fact of collective human nature that sympathy or pity seems to be finite or time-limited: it declines with time. When people offering it to an individual perceive, rightly or wrongly, consciously or subconsciously, that the receiver of it has exhausted all the sympathy they can offer, there is a tendency for people to expect the victim to move on. If instead the victim, unwittingly or otherwise, gives the impression that they wish to be referred to as a victim permanently, then sympathy can be replaced by impatience or anger then cynicism or disdain. Apply that to an entire community and you have social attitudes from outside it undulating between sympathy and disdain. It is what I and others observe, and what Mahatma Gandhi in 1940s India referred to as “hearts soften, the they harden again”.

    It is worth remembering the history. The word ‘black’ was first applied systematically to people by the marauders known as slave traffickers who shipped Africans across the Atlantic to Brazil, the Caribbean, the former British American colonies, and other parts of what are now North, Central and South America, along with brutality and subjugation. Perhaps the word “black” embodies the truth of all of that – “black” for humans = disconnection and dispossession. As if that is not enough, a substantial contingent of African-Americans, not just rap artists, are quite happy to add to that the even worse derivative of “black” or “negro”, i.e. “nigger”, used by racist enslavers as a further epithet of disdain, to their daily vernacular, and even mis-spell the ending for fun (“nigga”, “niggas”, “niggaz”) and think this is OK in any setting, whether sold on music CDs, or displayed on television by MTV and now the internet through You Tube videos with “parental advisory” or not. The problem is that these negative connotations are infectious and destructive – they infect the mentality of generation after generation of African-American children growing up in America with a base and trivial attitude to themselves, their peers, the opposite sex, and life, and they harden racist attitudes to them from non-African-Americans, while embarrassing the so-called liberals who might try to speak up for African-Americans.

    But even more, many African-Americans might be unaware of their negative influence abroad – because of Americas all-pervasive influence through television, music, MTV and now the likes of You-Tube they infect generations of people of African descent and other non-Afroic races abroad with this same mis-placed concept of what is “cool” but devoid of decency and respect, with “black”, “white”and “nigger” as descriptors of human beings.

    On the other hand, why not rise up and make a statement of rejection of the terms racists from Europe and of European descent brought into the world and consign them to history by insisting on African-American at all times? Today, I often hear the terms ‘African-American’ and ‘black’ used interchangeably by African-Americans in the space of a few sentences. That just confuses people. I can understand people slipping back into using ‘black’ when African-American became part of the official national lexicon in 1989 as this article from the time reported

    but today the habit looks to me more like regression.

    What worries me is that the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) which is now the world’s largest media outlet and is no longer just the UK’s national broadcaster but has a global reach with BBC News 24 and BBC America, and seen by many in America as an authoritative news source, exacerbates it whenever it reports on (invariably the negative or calamitous) events in relation to African-Americans. Its British editors here invariably instruct newscasters in the studio (news anchors as Americans call it) to refer anyone of African descent in the US (and for that matter, Europe or South Africa as ‘black people’), while its reporters on the scene in America while either call the African-Americans ‘black’ or flip-flop between ‘African-American’ and ‘black’, while every one else (apart from Americans of European descent) are described by heritage. Why am I worried? It goes back to what I said earlier about negative influence and ‘contagion’. When you ask the BBC why the mixed terminology in their broadcasts, they sometimes reply that they are taking the lead from African-Americans. When the occasional African-American come to the UK to plug a book or music tour or album and appear on BBC radio or television here, invariably the BBC interviewer brings up the subject of race, and starts bandying the word ‘black’ about. Depending on who it is, the guest will either respond with ‘African-American’ and stick to it, or start with ‘African-American’ and by the end be using ‘black’, or simply reply with ‘black’ throughout. What is lacking is consistent leadership on the topic from African-Americans. For those who don’t know, here’s a heads up. The BBC is essentially left-wing and liberal, funded by the UK taxpayer and prides itself on political correctness, almost to the point of sycophancy at times. Its personnel are desperate to please and not to offend and so they want to be led. It is therefore for Afroic people to assert ourselves and show leadership on respectable terminology for us  rather than expect or leave it to the BBC to take the lead.

    As I see it, ‘African-American’ is both an accurate statement of fact, namely, that of ancestry, heritage, lineage, no matter how long ago, and a statement of reclamation of that ancestry which enslavers and colonists failed completely to erase, and so is a statement of pride. There is more to us than our complexions, hair type and our ability to sing, dance, be spiritual and be good at sport. There is a resilience, intellect that can be applied positively and collectively through recognition of a history that precedes slavery. ‘Black’ on the other hand for the reasons I have said in the foregoing is plainly wrong, a travesty, a state of mind donated by racists and inexplicably accepted as some kind of badge of honour.

    Other races were enslaved by the Romans and Turks and re-grouped and re-established themselves. Jews have been persecuted for centuries too and suffered catastrophically in the 20th century at the hands of the Nazis. They also re-grouped and re-established themselves. Yes, I am aware this group benefited from financial resources, and from other assets like gold. But there are multimillionaires, a few billionaires, and other wealthy African-Americans who could take a leaf from their book, if they are not already be doing so, in feeding some of their wealth back into their community or the overseas Afroic community (a word I use to mean the African and African diasporic community).

    I’ve heard the reasons given by dissenters to the notion of African-American over “black” :-

    (a) the likes of Smokey Robinson and some other “celebrities” – “I’m not African; I’ve never even been to Africa! I’m American!”
    My answer – You are American, but are your fellow African-Americans on the whole treated in the same way as other non-native Americans (i.e. the Americans of overseas descent who make up most of today’s American population)? Have they been? Does sealing yourself hermetically inside the racist cauldron that is America, calling yourself simply “black” and a victim, while vocally shutting yourself off from the very continent and gene pool that gave you the hair type, complexion, eye colour, musculature and bone structure and spirit that makes you merely “black”in the eyes of racists really help? Does creating division rather than global collectivity and cohesion by denying at least part of (in the case of Smokey Robinson) your heritage, and denying you have anything physically, historically and culturally in common with the parts of Africa your forbears came from, make the racism that you talk of from other groups more likely to go away? I don’t think so. The heritage rather than colour prefix is used for other races in America to convey recognition that they settled there as immigrants, yes, largely voluntarily, I know, but in recognition that they came from somewhere else to that country, whose history and culture were built on immigration, and, sadly, racism. They may never have been to their country or continent of origin either.

    (b) “ ‘African-American’ doesn’t take into account émigrés to America from the Caribbean.
    My answer – Perhaps those from the Caribbean who say this should pick up and read a few history books and instead of, again, trying to create division should recognise that the only reason they were in the Caribbean in the first place was because their forbears too were taken on slave ships against their will from the same parts of Africa. It is a fact, whether they would like to deny it or not, that they are of African descent. Those in the UK used to be called  “West Indians”, a misnomer if ever there was one, created by the British divide and rule mindset of the time. Now their offspring tend to be called African-Caribbean, British African-Caribbean, and, as the generations pass and the distinction between them and those of direct African parentage is becoming increasingly blurred through socialisation and shared offspring, so I hope the term I advocate, ‘British Afroic’, will inceasingly be used. Caribs (and some present-day ones I have, as it happens, met in certain Caribbean islands) were and are Amerindians who resided in those islands long before Africans were brought there, so “Caribbean-Americans” does not truly apply unless you are going to do DNA analysis to prove they are Carib. Besides, “African-Caribbean-American” is quite longwinded.

    (c) They don’t wish to be confused with Africans who have recently arrived in America as immigrants, whether to study/work and return or to settle.
    My answer – What is the pressing need for the distinction to be made? In my view, there is no need. This is just another form of racism, that some Americans in America’s colour-infested parlance would call “black on black” racism and is based on misplaced and unnecessary “crabs in a barrel” envy, rivalry and animosity. The truth is, within the space of one generation, and in my experience in meeting anyone who has resided in the US for more than 15 years, with few exceptions, they become indistinguishable from other Americans in accent and vernacular. For those so het up on the need to make the distinction, perhaps this nomenclature might help you: “Those who are descendants of African slaves are “African-Americans”. Those who went to America of their own free will, and their next three generations are “African-émigré Americans” “. How’s that? A bit of a mouthful I’d say.  A better idea? Try cohesion instead, because no-one else cares.

    (d) “I’m not just of African descent; I’m from a mixture of lineages – (for example)  I’m part-Irish, Indian, Spanish, Cherokee/Native American too.”
    My answer – Then you’re of mixed heritage, or dual, triple, quadruple, quintuple or whatever heritage. Say so. There’s nothing wrong with it; it is perfectly sensible. But calling yourself a “coloured” object, i.e. “black” is not. If phenotypically by hair and complexion you appear to be African or of African descent from 100 yards away, because your African genes are strongly expressed, rather than cry foul, be proud of that too. You can explain all your different lineages to the person when they get to speak to you. Even with the police, who gain notoriety in the US every year it would seem with the action of the ignorant officers among their ranks, I would still prefer to be described as appearing to be of African descent or of Afroic appearance than “black”, wherever I happen to be in the world.

    (e) “I use “black” as a general term for brevity and convenience because the person could be African-American but could be continental African, Brazilian, Colombian, from the Caribbean, Canadian or even British”
    My answer – If you saw a group of people 100 yards away who looked like they could be from Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, from their features but you didn’t know which, would you call them “yellow” people as a general term? Or a group of people who could be Armenians, Greeks, Italians, Azeris, Turks, Turkmens, Uzbeks, would you call them “beige people” for brevity and convenience? I don’t think so. So, if you’re not sure where a “black” person is from call them “Afroic” to mean “of African descent”.

    (f) “There are émigrés to America who are “white South Africans” or “white Zimbabweans”or “white Kenyans”. They are technically African-American too because they came from Africa.”
    My answer – this is a facetious, not to say, racist argument: these “Africans” are not Africans but descendants of European settlers in Africa – they are South Africans, Zimbabweans and Kenyans of European descent. There is nothing wrong in stating that fact. In the context of South Africa in particular, news reports during the apartheid era and since could have been and could still be worded intelligently with the terminologies ‘indigenous South Africans’ and ‘South Africans of European descent’ , rather than with the facile and racist terms “black” South Africans” and “white” South Africans, which not only deliberately ignores the dispossession, internal displacement and unspeakable trauma that indigenous South Africans suffered and arguably still suffer as a result of the invasion and conquest of the region by the Dutch and British, but trivialises it by describing people in these simplistic polar colour terms.

    (g) “I don’t like Jesse Jackson – he coined the term in 1989”
    My answer – he didn’t. The term was first suggested to replace “black”in the 1970s, and not by him. I rather associate the term with the excellent work of the likes of Dr Ramona Edelin.

    Given that economic hardship is one of the main enemies African-Americans face daily, I find the study findings below, published in December last year, interesting:

    To summarise, it is time people of African descent, chiefly in the USA, but wherever they are, broke through the invisible but viscous ceiling of denigration and self-denigration that has helped deny them regaining true self-respect, cohesion and self-empowerment in the wake of the traumas of displacement, subjugation, disruption and decimation of families, cultures and traditions that slavery and its aftermath brought. The history is very real and the traumas extend all the way to the present day. The past cannot be changed and is well-documented and is bad enough. The present day is undoubtedly difficult. What I am arguing is that we have not been assisting ourselves in moving on towards the brighter future we aspire to as a community by accepting and perpetuating an archaic, primitive and pejorative system of terminology invented by enslavers in order to demonstrate how different and “opposite”to them they considered us to be, not only in complexion, but in intelligence and civilisation, and to verbalise in what disdain they held us. To be complaining about chronic ill-treatment through modern-day racism from individuals, groups and institutions and the about the negative effect of racist attitudes while couching your complaints in the same old racist language used by newspapers, television, radio and now internet merely legitimises the language, entrenches racist attitudes and perpetuates the very racism you complain about. That, coupled with feeding these bad habits to one generation of our offspring after another and many a reasonable person might conclude that we don’t really want to do away with racism at all but merely want to have something  to keep complaining about. This has been a huge blindspot, not just within the African-American community but across American society as a whole in both formal and informal discourse and commentary on matters of racism, social attitudes and social policy specifically in relation to this population group. A change of culture in the United States is long overdue. For that to take place we know from history that we need an appetite for positive change, a determined, sustained collective mindset to drive it, and a clear agenda or set of objectives. I say set the agenda: stop the rot, take your dignity back and describe yourself by heritage, and insist on description of you at all times this way. Consciously jettison for good this poisonous and false dichotomy, and adopt instead this positive mindset. Human psychology is important, and positive psychology works wonders. Collective dignity, pride, self-esteem and positive outlook beget cohesion, collective endeavour and achievement. For those who are curious as to what to replace ‘black’ with as a global generic term for anyone of African descent, worldwide, I advocate Afroic. What about ‘white’? I now say ‘European’ or ‘of European descent’. An abbreviation? ‘Euroic’? Perhaps others can work on that.

    What I am certain of is that ‘colourism’ as I call it, that is, the ‘black’-‘white’ dichotomy as applied to humans, has had its day – close on six centuries in fact – and has done humanity, and especially Africans and people of African descent, no good. It has no place in modern, enlightened society, and the second evade of the 21st century is as good a time as any to dispense with it permanently.

    Dr. Allswell Eno MBBS(Lond.) MRCP(UK) MRCGP FMGEMS

    #3206 Reply


    “’I’m not just of African descent; I’m from a mixture of lineages – (for example) I’m part-Irish, Indian, Spanish, Cherokee/Native American too.’
    My answer – Then you’re of mixed heritage, or dual, triple, quadruple, quintuple or whatever heritage. Say so. There’s nothing wrong with it; it is perfectly sensible. But calling yourself a ‘coloured’ object, i.e. ‘black’ is not. If phenotypically by hair and complexion you appear to be African or of African descent from 100 yards away, because your African genes are strongly expressed, rather than cry foul, be proud of that too.“

    Are the African genes of Halle Berry or Vanessa L Williams strongly expressed from 100 yards away? Both women acknowledge mixed heritage, but identify as African American.

    #3207 Reply

    Ady Shields

    Yes John, and that’s absolutely fine. That is the whole point – in saying “African American” they are stating heritage (one part of it, at least), and therefore that they are human, NOT colours: they are not calling themselves “beige American” in Halle Berry’s case, nor “nearly-white American” in Vanessa Williams’ case. And that is the bLack of Respect campaign’s point – describe oneself as a human being, not as an animal. Heritage was always there in humanity and conveys respect as a fellow human being; “colour”, “colourism” and “shadism” on the other hand are all by-products of the human trafficking and subjugation and erasure of the dignity of Africans and their progeny, known collectively as the transAtlantic slave trade.

    #3335 Reply

    Sarah Greene

    I completely agree with your outlook! Well done and keep up the fight on this.

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