Today marks another sad yet ironic chapter in the history of American racism. Firstly because I believe Barack Obama was our first presidential ‘affirmative action hire’ and, secondly, and most importantly, because of the black/white dichotomy present in the minds of all Americans of every race. Granted, the United States has come a long way in defeating institutionalized racism (minus affirmative action) although blacks really only achieved equality in the last forty years. Nevertheless, the mindset in the US and indeed most former European colonies is still affected by their twisted, outdated and outright racist ideas. Allow me to elaborate.
“White” and “Black”
The United States, like other settler colonies, is a mix of people from many countries. However, for much of its history, it was not the melting pot people like to call it. It was a destination mostly for Europeans. Thus, initial immigrants came from places like England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Holland, France and so forth. As the last sentence shows you, these people have little in common in terms of religion, culture, language and so forth. Yet, what they do have in common is “white” skin and all coming from the same continent. Yet, to be clear, they were not ‘white.’ The word and ethnic designation ‘white’ was invented and has no real meaning. After all, there are just as many differences between someone from Scotland and say Lithuania than Kenya and Angola. My point is that once these European immigrants became ‘American’ a new in-group was formed that anywhere else in the world is meaningless.
With the mass importation of African slaves, all from very different countries with different cultures, languages, religions and so forth, a new overarching term was created: ‘black.’ Yet, someone from Mauritania, Ivory Coast, Liberia and Nigeria do not have much in common. They were just as different as neighbors like France and Germany. Yet, in the context of America, they were all ‘black’. In short, because the US was a settler colony with no indigenous people (for all intents and purposes), the primary way of differentiating people was skin color. In Africa or Europe, it would have no useful meaning whatsoever.
Lastly, on that point, I will never use the term African-American because it is misused. Only someone who is actually African (say from Nigeria, Malawi etc) and immigrated to the US could MAYBE be called so. But honestly, if you’ve immigrated, you are American now, and nothing else. Blacks are not African in any sense of the word. They’ve never visited Africa, speak no African language, know nothing of their “real” home or its culture and in fact are the product of many mixed African countries. Similarly, there is no such thing European-American for whites. Most everyone who claims to be Scottish, English, German or Italian couldn’t point out that country on a map or name its capital, much less argue they have anything at all in common with those countries culturally, linguistically and so forth.
Given the creation of these two new ‘racial’ groups, it is important to remember the sense of superiority Europeans possessed during the centuries of colonization. American Indians, Indians, Africans, Latin American Indians and so forth were all seen as lower, uncivilized cultures full of non-Christian heathens who needed to be converted and civilized. Let us not forget the British slogan “Christianity, Commerce and Civilization.” Other non-European peoples were seen as inferior. In the United States, contact between the two was frowned upon and in fact forbidden by law. Blacks were treated as property, not even human. The Euro-centric idea of white superiority extended to mixed people as well. Even one-drop of so-called “black blood” made you black. Therefore, not only was interracial marriage illegal, the offspring were automatically seen as ‘black’ and therefore inferior. No room was left for mixed because such a concept had not yet come into existence. The mental framework of the time allowed for only A or B, black or white, superior for inferior.
Thus, we see “white” is short-hand for of general mixed European descent. Yet, it would be hard to argue a Russian and Swede are the same in any way. “Black” means of general mixed African descent, which also means nothing. And most importantly, BOTH terms mean mixed. This blogger could be called “white” although he like most of you, is merely a mish-mash of Europeans mixing for many generations. Yet, mentally, I would not be designated as being from an inferior race. Over time, as the legal and mental pillars of racism were brought down, interaction between the two has increased and we have realized they are equal. Moreover, as immigrants to the United States have come from an increasingly diverse set of countries, we have all possible combination of white, black, Asian, Latin and more.
So “what” is an American whose parents are say Latin and Asian or Asian and White? The answer is mixed. Yet, as a country, we have apparently not moved away from the dichotomy of the past yet. Thus, those who allege that Obama is the first black President classify him with the racist framework they claim to hate. In fact, it not only perpetuates a racist way of thinking, but also does so at the expense of many Americans who are also mixed. “Mixed Race” or “2 or more races” have slowly started appearing on questionnaires, which is a start.
And as long as there remain large cultural, economic and social differences between groups, they will be divided into such. Martin Luther King looked forward to the day when people were judged by their merits not skin color. It seems we aren’t there yet and Obama’s being called black merely proves it once again.