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Sex and skin

11 June 2008

Sex and skin — that’s what the US Democratic Party’s primary race was all about, if one read South African newspapers last weekend. Her sex and his skin, but with the emphasis on the skin.

Nearly 15 years after the end of apartheid, it seems, the South African media still have not recovered from their obsession with race. And nor have most of the rest of us. And nor has the government, for that matter. In the last census I still had to enter my “race” in the census form, and we are supposed to be a non-racial democracy. Isn’t this obsession with Barack Obama’s skin colour racist? What about his policies? Don’t they count?

As I noted in my other blog, quite a lot of Americans seemed to be more concerned about other differences between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton than sex and skin. Quite a lot noticed, and blogged about the difference in language and style. Hillary used the first person singular. Barack Obama used the first person plural. She was elitist, he was populist, in rhetoric anyway. She voted for cluster bombs, he didn’t. She voted for war with Iraq, he didn’t. His more recent capitulation to the Israel lobby doesn’t bode too well for the future, but that’s not the point here. The point here is the rhetoric and discourse of “race”.

The South African media pundits were asking “Is America ready for its first black president?” But if Hillary Clinton had won the nomination, or if John McCain wins the election, should we be asking “Is America ready for its 44th white president?” The very question is racist, right to its core.

Of course the Americans are having their own discourse about “race”, and that can perhaps illuminate some of our South African discourse too. On the alt.usage.english newsgroup there has been some discussion about it. Someone pointed out that Barack Obama is not black. His father was black and his mother is white; that makes him a mulatto. Is mulatto a “race”? What do we mean by “race”? And how does it relate to skin colour?

In South Africa we have our own terminology. We don’t use “mulatto”, but we have a lot of terms that were used in the apartheid era, and seem slow to die. The catch-all term for that was “Coloured” (with a capital C, as Black, White and Asian were also written in capital letters). But there wasn’t much logic applied (logic was not apartheid’s strong point). People whose ancestors came from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were “Asian”, and those from Japan were “White” (they were on the right side in the Second World War which the Nats, then in opposition, opposed joining on the side of the Allies, preferring the Axis). Those whose ancestors came from Indonesia and Malaysia were not “Asian” but “Coloured”. And so were those, like Barack Obama, who had one parent with a dark skin and one with a light skin.

In our church in Johannesburg we once had a kid who would have been called “Coloured” in the apartheid era. She was born in South Africa, but of a Nigerian father and a Ukrainian mother. In the apartheid time, she would have been forced to attend a “Coloured” school, because that was her “own” people and culture. And so, for that matter, would Barack Obama, if he had been born in South Africa and grown up here.  But how much of their “own” would that have been?

In the debate on alt.usage.english, some said that the term “mulatto” was pejorative. Some said it would be better to say “mixed race”, but that still doesn’t answer the question “What do we mean by race?” Is it just skin colour and physical appearance? Or does culture count? When “Bantu” became politically incorrect in South Africa some time after 1970, some people began to speak of “Black” languages — as if a language had a colour.

Sometimes in South Africa we use these terms as a kind of cultural shorthand. People speak of the “black community” or the “white community”, meaning, very loosely, a kind of cultural group. To some white people, black people do not just have colour in common, but they are also people who are likely to slaughter and sacrifice animals in suburban gardens to honour the ancestors. So “black culture” is the culture that slaughters animals in the suburbs, and “white culture” is the culture that abhors that practice and thinks that the animals should be slaughtered far away and covered in polystyrene and plastic shrinkwrap before being brought into a suburban garden to be burnt. And the people who follow the former practice usually have dark skins, and those who follow the latter practice often have light skins, but there is no necessary connection between skin colour and where you get your meat.

But take the child with a black Nigerian father and a white Ukrainian mother, and one with a black Kenyan father and a white American mother? According to the apartheid theory (which still seems to hold sway in the minds of many South Africans) both children have a “Coloured” identity, which is their “own”. According to apartheid theory they could and should, nay, must have their “own affairs”. But what is it that they have in common? A similar colour of skin, perhaps, but culturally, Kenya and Nigeria, Ukraine and America, are poles apart. I have met Nigerians in Kenya who despised the alien food that Kenyans ate (samp and beans) as unfit for human consumption. Read A short history of tractors in Ukrainian to get the idea.

After a long discussion of these things on alt.usage.english someone told a story about Tiger Woods, the golfer. Apparently he was on some TV talk show, perhaps Oprah Winfrey, and he was asked what his race was, and he couldn’t or wouldn’t answer. So the talk show host turned to his father, who was sitting behind him, and asked what race his son belonged to. And his father replied, “The human race.”

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 11 June 2008 12:49 pm

    thanks for pointing out those inherent tendencies to discriminate!

  2. Ploni Almoni permalink
    11 June 2008 1:05 pm

    It is all well and good to speak against racism, but then to add that a candidate’s even lukewarm support for Israel “does not bode well for the future” does not speak well of the writer’s lack of racism or anti-religionism if you prefer. Especially when the writer wishes to stand for an organized religion’s point of view to a certain extent.

  3. 11 June 2008 3:34 pm

    Isn’t this obsession with Barack Obama’s skin colour racist?

    Whether it’s from the left (the people who support him simply because of colour) or the right, yes!

    He’s not black and I’m not talking about mulattoness or colouredness. I knew that when I saw he’s half-white and, more important, learnt his father was foreign.

    Obama did not grow up in American black culture but with his white mother and white grandparents in Indonesia and Hawaii. (The Indonesians and Polynesians were nasty to him because of his skin; the whites were nice.)

    Essentially – culturally which is what matters – he is a white man who thanks to his foreign father happens to resemble American blacks, which he’s sometimes used to his political advantage.

    And as has been pointed out to me, although to his credit he opposed the war in the beginning he was not in Congress at the time and so couldn’t have voted for or against it.

    Just like with the obsession with race in South Africa, I fear it may be one reason why working-class white Americans overwhelmingly chose Clinton over Obama and may choose McCain over him in the presidential election.

    But that could be as much to do with class as race. Even if Obama had white skin he still wouldn’t be one of them.

    Clinton’s not exactly one of them either but has family ties to them and understands them in a way he doesn’t. So believe it or not this self-righteous longtime member of the élite came off as populist (also partly thanks simply to being a Democrat – historically these people aren’t Republicans).

    I couldn’t care less about sex or skin in this, preferring to take Martin Luther King literally and look at content instead.

    I see candidates who don’t oppose foreign intervention in principle.

    I’ll probably stay home and not vote.

  4. 11 June 2008 5:29 pm

    Young Fogey,

    No, Barack Obama isn’t black, but he probably has a better claim than most to being African-American, with an African father and an American mother.

    His culture is shaped by who he grew up with, yes, and that is the point. Like the kid with the Nigerian father and the Ukrainian mother, whose identity is shaped by her family, church and other people she interacts with, and not by a state-run sausage machine like the Department of Coloured (own) Affairs.

  5. 11 June 2008 5:47 pm

    Did I ever tell you the story of a young South African who immigrated to the US with his parents, and then competed for some or the other bursary/grant, which was exclusively given to African-Americans. He won it, only to have it taken away from him. You see, he was African, but white….

    Racial obsession can is so stupid.

  6. 11 June 2008 6:08 pm

    LOL, I’m surprised I never thought of that, Father. He’s not black but is literally an African-American!

    (Though he’s not really African either as he didn’t grow up there and never really knew his father.)

    The Scylding, some kids in the US cleverly made fun of that stupid, officially backed race obsession a few years ago by electing a white South African immigrant their school’s African-American of the Year.

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