Racism is one of the most vicious forms of tribalism. It demeans, degrades, victimises, dehumanises, and destroys. It’s one of the ideologies that underpins genocide — the world’s most abominable crime. It’s born of the hegemony of culture, language, religious imperialism, mercantilism, raw power, and intellectual arrogance. But it largely segregates by skin colour and biological ancestry. These are usually the physical markers. Often, racism presents itself as benign, as it did to justify colonialism and the Christian and Islamic conquests of the world. Thus the colonised becomes a facsimile of the colonizer and identifies with the tormenter.
A facsimile is a copy – it’s not the real thing. The colonised can never be the equal of, or fully become, the coloniser. The colonised is just a dumb copy of the original. I remember an encounter with a black Zanzibari in Zanzibar while on a UN human rights mission. Pointing at me during a heated argument about culture, the black Zanzibari man told me it was they – Muslims – who brought civilisation to primitive black Africans. I was dumbfounded. I presume he meant Arab Muslim invaders who forcibly Islamised black Africans. He was probably a descendant of black Africans whom Arab Muslims had enslaved. That story tells you the sword of racism can be turned inwards – towards self against self.
Lest you misunderstand, I am not here to bash Islam, or any religion. But messianic faiths, and there are only two – Islam and Christianity – came on the backs of colonial white and Arab oppressors. This is historical fact, not conjecture. Nor is it a denunciation of religion. The two religions, which share an ideology of supremacy over others, have often been used to advance racism. The most blatant was the Dutch Reformed Church which supported Apartheid by arguing that Ham – the “cursed” one – was the father of all Africans. Christianity demonised African culture as savage, sub-human, and devoid of the grace of God. That’s why Africans were forced to convert and take on European names.
Where am I going with this exposition? My point is that we can’t think of racism without exploring the impact of other phenomena like religion and culture. But today I want to focus on two racist demons that torment people of African descent wherever they live on earth. I am talking about hair and skin colour. The two are the most toxic symbols of white over black racism. White society, especially in the West, has done a lot to create a cultural narrative of beauty. The ideal for a woman is one with a slim physique, blonde hair, and green or blue eyes. This may sound strange, but a lot of white women have invested in this image of beauty.
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This is the question – why do black women, and blacks in general – invest in this image of beauty? To be sure, popular Western culture presents itself as angelic. Young white brunettes dye their hair blonde because it makes them feel gorgeous and “loved.” But it’s not enough the hair has to be blonde. No – it must also be long, shoulder-length. Admittedly, not many people of African descent walk around with their hair dyed blonde. Even they know that looks ridiculous – tragicomic – against black or dark complexion. Most reach for the next best image of whiteness – long hair. Except most blacks don’t have hair that naturally grows to shoulder-length. This is where “weaves” and “extenders” — synthetic, animal, or human — come in.
I have interrogated many a black person with these “fake hairs.” Some tell me to take a hike, or mind my own business. Others almost get violent. Then there are those who grow “dreads.” Dreads have a complex history because of the Mau Mau and Rastafarian culture. In my university days, I wore dreadlocks as a way of giving the middle finger to the Kenyan post-colonial state. My motto was – Not Yet Uhuru. For me, it was a statement of protest. Many people tell me it’s just fashion, and that I should relax. Should I? I get the impression many who wear dreads are cleverly disguising their submission to Eurocentrism — white supremacy. They crave long white European hair.
While did I write all this? I did so because I am intrigued by racial and racist self-hatred and how it’s perpetuated by victims and presented as benign. It boggles my mind why blacks invest so much money and emotion in whiteness. You might ask what has this to do with culture and religion. I think once you break down a person’s spirituality and culture, you can sell them anything – especially garbage. That’s because you’ve robbed them of their dignity. You’ve convinced them that they — and their culture — are inferior and subordinate. Call it mental enslavement. Deep cultural emasculation. Whatever. It’s very sad.
The writer is SUNY Distinguished Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and Chair of KHRC. @makaumutua