What a delight to see a perfectly executed café latte! Expresso coffee floating neatly over steamed milk, an impeccable black and white artwork topped with a decorative crown of milk foam. How would anyone disturb such a stunning arrangement?
I stir my café latte with a spoon, almost feeling a sting of regret for having disturbed the beautiful color display. I watch mesmerized as the colors swirl around in synchrony, melting into each other until they create a uniform blend, a blend that gives the café latte its distinctive and addictive flavor renowned the world over. There is nothing I can do now to undo my concoction but to sit back, relax and enjoy.
My moment of engrossed reverie brought home to me the issue of race, a topic certainly much more complex and far less pleasant than my café latte experience.
Heinous crimes – all committed in the name of race – have rocked the US in recent times, putting the spotlight on an increasingly glaring racial divide in the American society. Whenever one talks about race in the US, the first thing that comes to one’s mind is color.
Race relations in the US have always been defined along strict color lines and heavily tainted with racism. In the color-coded America, white comes on top with all the privileges and rights attached to it, whereas black is given the lowest rank, made to bear the brunt of perpetual discrimination.
Color-coding – a notion so prevalent in the West, yet a painful reminder of a tragic legacy for Africans and people of African descent; a concept dating back to the early days of slavery and colonization, when Europeans used it to codify race relations and perfected it as a guilt-free strategy to plunder Africa’s riches and citizens with all impunity and unmatched cruelty. A dark past Africa wants desperately to leave behind…
Today, as the world is witnessing a surge in anti-black sentiment on all four corners, one particular incident stood out for me.
The incident took place in March this year at a Chinese restaurant located in one of the posh suburbs of Nairobi, Kenya. The Chinese restaurant at the center of a racial scandal was accused of routinely barring black African customers (China Restaurant in Africa has a ‘no black Africans’ policy).
The news came to me as a complete shock. Such a blatant display of racism reminiscent of a not-so-distant past of racial segregation in Africa unfolding right before our eyes! In our own backyard! How can this be possible?
Just as we were thinking our dark past is behind us, the vestige lingers like a bitter aftertaste of a bygone era. It looks like old habits die hard and racism is once again rearing its ugly head on our continent. This time though, it has a new face – a Chinese face.
The incident has reopened an old wound, a wound that never healed completely.
The news sent shockwaves throughout Nairobi and beyond. Following public fury and outcry, the establishment was eventually shut down by local authorities for lack of a valid operating license, a crime punishable by law (Nairobi county govt closes ‘racist’ Chinese restaurant).
Meanwhile, the scandal went viral on social media under the hashtags #NoBlacksAllowed and #RacistRestaurant. Kenyan citizens were quite vocal in denouncing a lesser-known face of racism (Kenyans on Twitter show Chinese #RacistRestaurant that Africans Run the Town). But they were also critical about the handling of the incident by Kenyan authorities, calling for a greater crackdown on racism by Chinese nationals as well as stricter measures to avert such occurrences in the future.
Instances of Chinese racism in Africa are not as isolated as we would like to think. In his outstanding book China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa, veteran journalist Howard French offers us a unique insight into the relations between African citizens and Chinese migrants who have settled in Africa.
The candid views of his Chinese characters reveal one upsetting truth: Chinese racism in Africa is real, manifested in a mostly disguised but at times overt manner.
Those of us who have followed the news of violent confrontations between Zambian copper mine workers and Chinese contractors, the ordeals of African citizens living in Guangzhou, China’s Chocolate City (Chocolate Cities and Men in Boxes), the online abuses towards African nationals (If Online Comments are any Evidence, China has an Anti-African Racism Problem), or even witnessed or experienced Chinese racism first-hand see in these incidents a trend in the making.
Is history repeating itself? Is China aiming to become Africa’s new master?
On the face of it, China’s relationship with Africa has a different look and a different feel to it. China approached Africa with a new mantra: a win-win relationship based on equality, mutual respect and benefits.
To sell its strategy, China engaged in a charm offensive to win over Africa. Easy financing, mega development projects in a wide range of sectors, assistance of all sorts, training and scholarship opportunities began flowing into the continent like never before. Special Economic Zones have started to take shape while Chinese military bases in Djibouti and Zimbabwe could soon become a reality.
New diplomatic ties were forged expanding Chinese presence within Africa and its regional institutions, as testified by the recent inauguration of China’s permanent office to the African Union. Existing relations were strengthened with the refurbishing of African embassies in Beijing, even as Chinese news broadcasting services spread across the continent in a bid to convey a positive story of Africa.
China’s sales pitch is set against a historical backdrop of Sino-Africa relations. China is quick to point out that it is not a newcomer to the continent as many Africans have been led to believe. In his book entitled ‘A History of Overseas Chinese in Africa to 1911’ (Exploring the History of Sino-African Links), Chinese author Li Anshan retraces the relations between the two sides to Zheng He’s expedition to Africa in the early 15th century, which predates the arrival of Europeans to the continent.
The book seeks to shed light on the peaceful and amicable ties between China and Africa back then, which stand in sharp contrast to the merciless and brutal invasion of the continent by Europeans. It also drew attention to similarities shared by both sides, including instances of racial discrimination they experienced at the hands of Europeans.
Then as now, China has come to Africa in peace and friendship, and its presence on the continent is devoid of any imperial aspirations. Or so it seems.
Nonetheless, its attempt to woo Africa has fallen short. Its charm offensive targets primarily the African leadership and their entourage, which are the main recipients of much of the attention and the pampering.
As a token of friendship, China rolls out the red carpet and throws lavish receptions to welcome African leaders and their delegations, sponsoring meetings and conferences on their behalf while showering them with gifts and attending to their every need.
The much-touted win-win relationship belies the reality on the ground. China’s strategy has failed to trickle down to the majority of African citizens, diffusing a palpable sense of uneasiness throughout the continent.
Chinese racism incidents are adding fuel to the fire, raising further doubts in the minds of many in Africa. To them, the colors of this relationship are just beginning to unravel, calling into question the true motivation of China in Africa.
Will China play the race card in Africa just like Europe did before it?
At an official level, the Chinese Government does not have an explicit race policy nor endorses racism. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that China, as a country, will make race its playing card – at least not for now.
However, for Chinese migrants who have settled in Africa, it is a different story altogether.
Over the last decade, Chinese nationals flocked in droves to African shores in search of their ‘African’ dream. As Howard French’s book put it so eloquently, Chinese migrants who have chosen to make Africa their new home are motivated by the prospect of starting over and building a freer and more prosperous life – a much better option than the one they had back home.
For all they know, Africa is this ‘hot spot’ in so many ways, yet this land of opportunity that is calling on them, luring them into adventures that could change their fortunes.
And that is about it.
Their limited knowledge about the diversity of the African continent and its peoples, compounded with their culturally-ingrained bias towards the black color, is quickly turning their joyous ride to happiness into a journey riddled with headaches and heartaches.
So, is it the case of a gulf between China’s words and deeds, a difference in perceptions between Chinese officials in Beijing and Chinese settlers in Africa?
I doubt that. Here is why.
I am always shocked whenever I come across the remark thrown so casually by Chinese people, officials and media alike: ‘Africans are lazy’, a racially charged comment that has become a catchphrase among Chinese nationals when referring to African citizens.
This prejudiced view is tantamount to an affront to the ordinary African women and men, who toil every day to create a better life for themselves, their communities and their nations. They are the unsung heroes of Africa, the living examples of African citizens’ incredible resolve and resilience in the face of countless trials and tribulations.
Is it not the same remark that Chinese officials use to justify the import of Chinese labor to Africa?
By and large, Chinese authorities, kin on showing Africa-China relations in a positive light, tend to downplay and dismiss such racist instances as minor blemishes that won’t tarnish the bigger picture. However, letting Chinese racism fester in Africa will only bode ill to a relationship that has yet to grow and mature, a relationship heralded as one of Africa’s most promising partnerships of the 21st century.
If recent events in the US are any indication, sweeping racial issues under the carpet is bound to backfire. At the core of the cycle of hatred and violence is America’s tumultuous racial past that is continually intertwined with its present.
By choosing not to face its demons and coming to terms with its past, the US is in for a big social crisis. It will not be long for the simmering racial tensions to reach boiling point and burst open the lid of the American ‘Melting Pot’, leaving the color-coded society in tatters.
Playing the race card will prove disastrous for everyone involved. The US is a perfect illustration of a race strategy that has gone wrong. Closer to home, a similar fate awaits South Africa, the ‘Rainbow’ nation where its notorious history of apartheid has left an indelible mark, where racial tensions are left unattended for the sake of ‘national reconciliation’, and where the threat of a social time bomb is all too real.
What is it about race that inflames our feelings, brings out the evil within us, and tears our humanity apart? Is it an issue of color or is there more to it that meets the eye?
In a not-so-distant future, color will soon fade into oblivion. With the mixing and fusion happening around us, color lines are fast disappearing as colors blur and bleed into each other. Eventually, the world will end up with a blend of races and colors that will defy all demarcations – just like my café latte. As we are heading towards that color-blind future, racism will become a baseless and useless strategy.
What is racism if not a flimsy excuse that hides one important fact? By focusing our attention and our energy to combat racism, are we not missing a crucial point?
It is time to lift the veil on racism. We have to decode and demystify race relations, dig deeper to uncover the truth of the matter. What remains is a constant that underlies all human relations: power.
To me as a woman, racism is not so different from sexism. It is all about power relations.
Racism, just like sexism, comes into play whenever there is a power imbalance, perceived or real. At the heart of race relations lies the eternal quest for wielding power over the Other, considered as an existential threat for some reason.
Far from being an end in itself, race, just like gender, is a tool to oppress and assert supremacy, often through violence. In his speech at Charleston funeral service, President Obama referred to acts of racial violence as “a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress” (Obama gives searing speech on race in eulogy for Charleston pastor).
However, such acts are intended to confuse us and divert our attention away from the main issue. Unless we see racism for what it really is – a means to achieve an end – it will continue to distract us and prevent us from tackling the power equation.
In a world where power is the end goal, what matters most is the situation we find ourselves in. How well we play the power game and which side of the power divide we fall will determine our fate. So, are we ready to fight and win the power game? Or are we going to surrender and turn the other cheek?
I let you decide. I have decided: Never again! Not during my lifetime, not ever!
I have a message to all of you involved in this race issue and my message is this.
To those of you coming to Africa as partners, business people and migrants
The days when color-based racial discrimination was Africa’s cross to bear, when the continent was coveted for its riches while its citizens were rejected and sidelined on their own soil, when Africa was the elephant in the room, when its needs and priorities were relegated to an afterthought, are over.
We refuse to subscribe to any color-coding scheme meant to limit us, stunt our growth and hold us back from achieving our potential. If you think you can recycle a dysfunctional system, think again. Africa will not go back in time, repeat the same mistake, or turn its cheek, even for its closest friends.
What Africa wants is to start on a clean slate, to build a relationship on its own terms and on equal footing with its partners, both old and new. The international playing field has never been this even for our continent, and we will make sure to take advantage of the windows of opportunity that have opened up to scour for better deals. Besides, why get stuck in a bipolar world – the West versus China – when there is plenty to shop around?
To the tens of thousands of Portuguese, to the waves of Indians and to the one million-plus Chinese and many more who have migrated to Africa in search of greener pastures, if you are misreading the signs and mistaking our hospitality for weakness, you are wrong.
We welcome all our guests but Africa will not be the unwanted guest in its own house. You can make yourself comfortable in our house but we demand to be treated as any host should be – with utmost respect.
Times have changed and so have we. We will not let the mistake of our past be our mistake.
There is no turning back the hands of time. Those who still wish to see Africa through a color-coded prism should know that their views belong to another era. They have to accept that the world has moved on, lest they remain on the wrong side of history.
To you, African leaders
Have you not learned anything from our tragic past? Can’t you see that color and racial lines are intended to divide and weaken us, making us easy prey for those whose sole intention is to exploit us? Are you really willing to gamble and sacrifice your people’s freedom and dignity, yet again?
I believe none of you, African leaders, would like a rerun of our past.
It is precisely for this reason that we should not dismiss racist instances, however trivial. Africa cannot afford to turn a blind eye to racism happening on its own soil. And as leaders of this continent, you should say: not under my watch, not in my backyard!
We need to be mindful that the specter of racial segregation is still looming large, lurking in the dark and ready to strike when we least expect it. Racist incidents such as the one at the Chinese restaurant in Nairobi are stark reminders of how quickly things can get out of hand. Before we know it, overt display of racism could take root and become commonplace in Africa.
This is why the African leadership, together with its Chinese counterparts, should deploy all efforts to deter and nip in the bud racist tendencies and intentions, by being on the look-out for telltale signs, closing all loopholes and refusing to give legitimacy to such acts.
China, on its part, should clearly state its position on this issue and take swift actions to avoid speculations and escalations. It also needs to educate its citizens about Africa and African citizens, establish a clear code of conduct for its nationals settling on the continent, and ensure that its win-win strategy delivers on its promises for the majority of the African population.
But until we see that in action, we cannot rest assured. As China becomes increasingly assertive with the shifting world power, the likelihood that China will use the race card as a wild card cannot be ruled out.
Not addressing racial issues is not an option for Africa. But if we get too lenient, the possibility of violent racial clashes on the continent, like the ones in the US, may not be a far-fetched idea.
As leaders, you should give a clear and strong message to all of Africa’s current partners and potential suitors. We have to let anyone dealing with us know that we have no tolerance or room for racism, and indeed any other forms of disrespect, in today’s and tomorrow’s Africa.
African leaders, ask yourselves whether the special treatment reserved exclusively to you is not impairing you from seeing the flaws in relationships and pushing you further away from your people.
History has shown us, time and again, that whenever the gap between the African leadership and its citizens is at its highest, Africa finds itself in a most vulnerable position vis-à-vis the outside world, putting it at a high risk for manipulations and invasion.
African leaders, you cannot stay divorced from the very people you govern. If the 21st century is to be African, the renaissance of our continent should start with us.
Let us embark on a healing journey to close our past wounds and gaps, a healing that comes only through reconciliation among ourselves. Let the past be the past, let us extend hands to one another, and let us stand united to stave off any potential threat and indecent proposition.
African leaders, listen to your people and be sensitive to their plights and needs, for they are also your own. Remember, your people’s failure is your failure; your people’s success is your success.
For Africa to stand on its own two feet, give your people the opportunity to grow and thrive, the space to claim what is rightfully their own. Show your people the possible and they will give you the impossible. There is no greater recognition than the one coming from the hearts of your own people.
Make your legacy count, a legacy to be remembered for generations to come. Start by putting your people first and ensure that your deeds match your words so that your words ring true to every citizen. No one would want to hear excuses, empty rhetoric and unfulfilled promises or read your regrets for failing to act when you could have in your memoir long after you have left office.
African leaders, now is your time to do right by yourself and by your people, when you have the power to make decisions affecting your nation and your continent. Give answers to your people right here, right now – not later. Build the might of your people while still in power so that Africa can fight and win the power game.
My final words to you, the African youth
Wake up young daughters and sons of Africa! This is a call for action. Don’t let your guards down as the fight is not over. We should not rest until we rid our continent from the remnants and the new forms of racism that keep holding our continent in shackles. We will continue to combat this evil until we become powerful enough to assert our will and our ways.
You may feel disengaged and disenfranchised for being a generation of mere bystanders to the affairs of your own house. I hear your frustrations every time opportunities that are rightfully yours are snatched from under your nose, leaving you out in the cold.
I can imagine how depressed you must feel looking at the few signs of hope and the slow pace of transformation on your continent, when you were expecting to witness sweeping changes and concrete results during your lifetime. I know you are tired of waiting, of promises that ring hollow, of dreams that keep eluding us.
I, for one, share your fear. I am completely distraught over the idea of waking up every day to the sight of a China town in the making in my own neighborhood. I may stand accused of fear, but not the fear of the Other, rather the fear of another invasion. But who wouldn’t, given Africa’s unfortunate past?
I know you are missing out on many fronts. However, your frustrations and fear should not stand in the way of your future and make you lose sight of your ultimate goal. These are roadblocks that should be lifted and this struggle is your struggle.
Color will remain an issue as testified by recent events unfolding in many parts of the world, from the ill-treatment of African citizens in the Middle East, China, India to Europe using color as an excuse to turn away African migrants that have arrived at its doorsteps.
As Africa’s hope, you can change things on our continent.
You have the possibility and responsibility not to let our tragic past dictate our present and future. Immerse yourself in your own history to understand and learn from the mistakes of the past. Your generation has the unique privilege of having cutting-edge technology at its disposal. Today, social media is the name of the game. Make a wise use of your time, your knowledge, and technology to alter the fate of your continent.
Pay attention to warning signs, report and publicize racist instances, blow the whistle, do the naming and shaming to arrest racism in its tracks and prevent history from repeating itself.
African youth, the onus is on you to do better.
Reject color-coding and racial demarcations for they are tools to subjugate us. Refuse to be pitted against each other and remove all those artificial barriers that are put up to divide us: gender, ethnic, linguistic, religious, rich versus poor, public sector versus private sector, leadership versus civil society, rural versus urban. Undo what has been done to us.
Let us not give the chance to the likes of Sarkozy, France’s former President, or anyone for that matter, to disrespect Africa (The Unofficial English Translation of Sarkozy’s Speech). What an irony that Sarkozy dared to make a mockery of us on our own soil, robbing us of our own history while Europe works tirelessly to glorify its past by tying it to one of the greatest civilizations on earth, Africa’s Ancient Egypt!
As long as bigotry remains etched in the human conscious, we might not win the war on race. However, we can choose our battle and direct our efforts to fight the power war, a war so decisive for our continent and our people.
Let us unite to build a strong and powerful Africa. Let us join forces to fend for our own interests in this unforgiving world that knows no excuse.
After all, isn’t present-day Greece’s story a power story?
(22 July 2015)
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