Thursday, March 06, 2008

Regarding "African"...

From the comments at Feministing

A commenter by the name of GopherII writes:

Personally I prefer to identify along culture lines [rather] than color of skin. I prefer to see people along cultural lines, ie Italian, Jewish, Egyptian, African ect. so its more individualized. I hate to group people by skin color.

Now, I often see and hear people using "African" in the same way that we use "Italian" (for example), i.e. as if it were a national origin or a country. Rather than, you know, a continent comprised of over 50 seperate countries and 900 million people. The issue I have there is that distinctions between European (read "white") cultures are respected as being distinct- people generally recognize that there are cultural differences between Italians and Germans, for example- while the cultural distinctions between African (read "black") cultures are completely ignored. Africa is treated like a single, monolithic culture in a way that Europe is not. I pointed this out:

"African" is not a cultural line. "Africa" is not a country, nor is it a single monolithic culture. You lumped the entire African continent as one cultural line as though it's the same as talking about "Italian" cultural lines. Africa is a pretty damned big continent, and it's made up of 53 seperate countries, 900+ million people, and makes up about 20% of the total land-mass of the planet. As it happens, there are some pretty significant cultural differences that exist within the African continent.

GopherII responded:

Right. I know Africa is made up of other countries, thats why I mentioned Egyptian (which is part of Africa). I meant I prefer to see Americans who come from a variety of African backgrounds as African, just as for whites I prefer European.

and, later:

I wrote that I prefer to see Black Americans as Africans (because they come rom all over Africa) and prefer to call Western Europeans by their culture (or wherever theyre from) rather than just white, or Arab. I like to be more specific. For example, if youre from a variety of cultures within the European countries I prefer European.

And more recently:

I know to distinguish between the different races of africa. I meant as far as black Americans because their race is mixed from all parts of africa. Same with caucasian people which is why I consider them european. If you read my posts it was because I was looking for an alternative to identifying people by skin tone.

Which... ooookay. Quite frankly, I think that goes directly against the original claim that GopherII prefers to make distinctions along cultural lines, not skin color, so as to be more individualized. All it really does is replace skin color with broad continental descriptors. When you start lumping people together based on the color of their skin, it doesn't really matter what you call them after that- you're still lumping people together by skin color. You can claim that it's about cultural lines... but that doesn't make it so. And, really, I don't understand how broadly lumping all white people together as "European" and all black people together as "African" is somehow supposed to be:

1. More individualized.
2. More specific.
3. Remotely related to cultural values or identities.

The whole conversation sort of went downhill after I suggested that one could probably find greater cultural diversity within the continent of Africa- again, because it's makes up 20% of the land area of the planet, has 900 million people, and over 50 nations- than within the country of Italy- about the size of Nevada and fewer than 60 million people. That was when I was informed that I was a stupid, pompous, anti-Italian racist.

The list should probably have included obsessive, argumentative, and pig-headed, too.


FeministGal said...

Yea, i noticed they kinda ganged up on you... that happens on feministing sometimes and it's pretty annoying, especially since you didn't mean anything negative by the point you were trying to make. Sometimes i feel like the biggest obstacle to the feminist movement are the varied opinions among the feminists themselves. I'm glad you posted about it on your site though. :)

Sarah said...

Yeah, I came into that thread sort of late, but I completely agree with you and was shocked to read GopherII's comments about Africa. She thinks if she doesn't call herself "white" she doesn't benefit from white privilege? Like calling people "European" is any more accurate than "white?"

What about all the white people in Australia, NZ or South Africa?
"Europe" is not the home of "white people." If we're going to categorize all people by their ancestors' country/region of origin, we might as well call EVERYONE "African!"

The Snobographer said...

And besides, as I understand it, the Africans who were kidnapped and enslaved to become the ancestors of the people we now know as African Americans weren't from "all over Africa." They were from west Africa, which is still a broad range, but a lot different from, say, northern Africa.
The Europeans didn't go in there and kidnap a shlew of Egyptians.

Kristen said...

Not to mention that "culture" is *self* identifying. I am more about the culture I choose than I am about the dozen cultures that make up the experiences of my ancestors. But you'd have to know me pretty well to know what that it.

If you see me walking down the street you'd see a white woman, probably European. If you're particularly astute you might note that I'm Irish.

But I don't generally identify as such. My grandmother was particularly proud of her Welsh ancestry, so I do identify as Welsh. But mainly I identify as "local" in the context of the mix of cultures present in Hawaii.

So how are we to classifying people along cultural lines without knowing them? And if we know them...why not use the person's name?

butterflywings said...

Well said. Jeez. What idiots some people are. OF COURSE Africa which is like half the planet (well, maybe not, but you know maps are distorted so that white countries look bigger and black ones smaller thatn they really are?) is one big homogenous lump *sarcasm*.

Tribal affiliation is often more important than national identity(countries which were of course carved out by white people anyway) to African people. Or so I have been told, anyway. I hope that doesn't sound patronising to them.

Oh and thanks for the comment on my blog and welcome! Yay!

Peripatetic said...

Hey Roy, just found your blog though I've seen you comment often on feministing. I missed this post over there though, and I'm probably lucky I did. You had your hands full with abysmally out of touch Gopher. She/He actually went on to say later "Italys a nation?I always thought it was part of the European Union, and part of Western Europe." LOL, wow.

As someone who lives in Europe, I can say unequivocally that calling nearly anyone in Europe a 'european' is likely to be met with rebuke, and it's also so meaningless -- equally meaningless as calling a Burkinabe and a Senegalese 'African' in a homogenous manner to somehow generalize their existences.

Call a random Frenchman and Brit europeans and you'll quickly be told to piss right off. I'd have liked to join you in that discussion, you anti-Italian "racist"! (I'm surprised I haven't heard more about this mythical "Italian race.")