• The more I listen to the narratives surrounding race, the more familiar they start to sound.
• Like tribe, race today is a largely invented concept, a relatively recent product of western religious, scientific and industrial thinking.
What do the debates about race roiling the US have to do with us here in Kenya? Just as the US was built won a legacy of slavery and oppression, so Kenya was established on the foundations of white supremacy and racist oppression, only here we call it tribalism.
The more I listen to the narratives surrounding race, the more familiar they start to sound. Like tribe, race today is a largely invented concept, a relatively recent product of western religious, scientific and industrial thinking.
“Nothing comparable to the virulent colour prejudice of modern times existed in the ancient world. The ancients did not fall into the error of biological racism; black skin colour was not a sign of inferiority; Greeks and Romans did not establish colour as an obstacle to integration,” noted the late American historian, Frank Snowden Jr.
Similarly, what we call “tribalism” today has little to do with how precolonial societies understood identity. It is purely a creation of colonialism.
“No one was white before he/she came to America. It took generations, and a vast amount of coercion, before this became a white country”.James Baldwin
As Snowden implies, racism is also inextricably entwined with the idea of white supremacy. In fact, in the US being black can be a descriptor of what you are not than what you are. It serves a perverse ideology of racial purity for the whites as evidenced by the “one drop rule” — meaning that a single drop of "black blood" makes a person a black - and the currently favoured appellation -person of colour – which establishes the “pure” white as the default standard human being with everyone else defined by the extent they are removed from whiteness.
Yet whiteness is itself an invention. US author and race-theorist, James Baldwin, wrote: “No one was white before he/she came to America. It took generations, and a vast amount of coercion, before this became a white country”.
Even in colonial and apartheid Africa, the construction of whiteness was not, as might be assumed, just a matter of skin colour.
As Duncan Money and Danelle van Zyl-Hermann point out, “The category of “white” was never an automatic or natural one—it was diligently and carefully maintained.”
In truth, racism, while sometimes signified by skin colour, is not really about that. Just as tribalism is really not about heritage. Rather, they are related systems for establishing hierarchies and justifying exploitation. Racism’s primary function is to allow those coded as white to appropriate and live off the sweat of the rest, particularly those coded as black. Tribalism supports this exploitation by fracturing any resistance to it.
To be white is, as Baldwin says, above all a moral choice - a choice to consign others to blackness. This choice has become the basis for a global caste system which divides the world into races, with the white at the top and blacks at the bottom, and justifies a continuing brutal system of colonial extraction that to this day consigns more than a billion people to lives of misery and penury.
In Africa, tribalism was created to generate islands of relative whiteness or privilege which “tribal” elites could compete over by ingratiating themselves with the colonial regime. This coopted them into the system and allowed them to aspire to be white, which, like elsewhere, is only achieved through domination and exploitation. That then sets up the all too familiar zero-sum political fights where “tribes” violently struggle against each other for a vicarious, if fleeting, elevation from the depths of their blackness.
Kenyan elites appear to have completely bought into this hierarchy. It is why, more than six decades after “independence” they are unable to imagine a country configured differently from how the colonials left it. It is why when they encourage us to think of a bygone age when systems worked, such as the talk of Nairobi’s “lost glory”, they are almost always referring to the colonial era when most blacks were excluded from the city.
It is why President Uhuru Kenyatta, who spent his formative years and now nearly a decade of his adult life in the colonial governor’s mansion (now called State House), is unable to implement the 2010 Constitution and prefers to rule using laws written by the colonials.. And it is why discussions over revenue allocation are seen, not as opportunities for articulating compelling national visions, but rather as vicious life-and-death ethnic supremacy contests.
Although racism in the US is the product of a particular history, it still reflects the wider themes of racist domination as does the tribal system in Kenya and across the continent. Paying attention to the debates about what is happening there can thus teach us a lot about why similar things continue to happen here.