I have promised for some years to write about becoming black in the States. It is about another way of becoming ordinary, or experiencing a different kind of ordinariness. It is about the thingness of blackness, the hypervisibility of invisibility. And is such a banal story that its telling, its unfolding might be better passed over in silence. That I weigh silence over the over-told untold is itself part of this narrative, whose preamble might well be its most interesting part.
It is a story without parts. It lacks a plot.
Race happens in my Nairobi, simply differently, and the relative absence of the terms race and racism makes visible and invisible relations between and among racially (un)defined groups.
We are more apt to speak of “how” Indians treat Africans, to speak of “that’s how they are” than to diagnose the workings of race or term it racism. Race and racism exist “there,” usually a there outside of Kenya. The Indian-black (I betray something when I write Indian-African, and let it stand as “evidence”) is something else, something “ontological.” That we usually do not frame Indian-black relations in terms of race and racism, though the affect and experience might qualify, requires its own meditation, one which must be conducted as a conversation.
As a recent letter to an Indian friend demonstrates, the “get out of Kenya, you Indians” mentality still pervades sectors of the country. Others can pursue how class and economics and minority status and religious practices contribute to shaping the status of Indians in the country, including the designation “Indian” which, like all other descriptors, is an inaccurate generalization.
Race happens in Nairobi, and its publicness makes it difficult to discern: at expensive restaurants, for instance.
Traveling while black around Nairobi is different from traveling while white and black. A friend tells me she is mistaken for a prostitute when traveling with her husband. And it is astonishing how much better much the service is when one travels as white and black. While shopping with a friend, I received a level of service that was truly amazing. It didn’t hurt that, unlike my mother, for instance, my friend tipped very generously. I will say, though, that I do get faster service when I’m with my mother. So, the fault might lie with me.
Once, I might have claimed all whites receive better service in Nairobi. But backpackers are treated a shade differently. Just a shade.
More often we complain not about the structures of race and racism that shape service encounters but about the “blacks” with an “inferiority” complex. That “their” inferiority complex” says something about our own “liberation” is implicit. That our complaints betray our class prejudices—“I have just as much money as them”—remains unspoken. This “our” also merits a discussion I will defer.
These Kenyan-based experiences of racialization are different from what one experiences abroad. If we were to be responsible, for instance, we might note that Indians have never been numerically superior nor have they ever been the majority political rulers in Kenya. We might also note that colonialism was a rule by a minority over a rather limited period, 80 years if we choose to be generous. These distinctions in numbers (as compared to the U.S., for instance) and duration (as compared to Jamaica, for instance) demand that we attend to the specificities of differential racialization. We cannot simply map U.S. racial politics or Jamaican racial politics or even South African racial politics onto Kenya.
Yet the relative dearth of public conversations on racial politics—now being tackled by Awaaz Magazine and others—has left our conceptual and quotidian vocabularies impoverished. And so, when some complain that Kenyans talk “too much about race,” as an acquaintance does, it is a justified comment. It is justified to say that Kenyans who have been abroad import discourses on racialization that might not be embedded within Kenyan histories. At the same time, it is equally justified to say that living abroad, where racial discourse is “more developed” provides been-tos and joss-koms with needed vocabularies.
And so the innocent, Good Times watching, Jeffersons loving, interracial buddy movie knowing Kenyan lands in the United States. Like Eddie Murphy, one screams “Hullo America!’
One travels to the U.S. with the elaborately crafted Kenyan handbook in which racialization is mediated through intra-racial interactions, salted with inter-ethnic discussions. That whites might treat one differently does not register and, in fact, what whites do is less under scrutiny than what blacks do. It has taken me a while to recognize how this intra-raciality is embedded within Kenya’s own structures of racialization.
Thus ensues the fascinating drama of “black like me.” To be sure, this drama does not play out the same. Location makes a difference. And I suspect, now, that had I spent most of the last many years in DC, I might be telling a different story.
One travels to the U.S., and is offered the chance to be black, differently. Some of us take up this invitation. We become the blacks who are “not like” the blacks in the U.S., though we are in the U.S. We mean to talk about history. “These blacks” are and “these blacks” are. This is not uncommon. It is, tragically, more common than I’d like.
Others of us forge attachments, and are nurtured into attachments. We become attached through lovers and friends, food and games. Cornbread and collard greens create bonds of filiation and affiliation. We are adopted and fostered. And our racial politics are flavored differently.
To argue that race is a question of affiliation, of choosing, seems counterintuitive, yet right. We choose our affiliations, mediate across histories, adopt and try paradigms. Sometimes they fit inexactly.
But it is this inexactness that adds depth, texture, richness, and possibility to intra-racial encounters.
There are, of course, the more banal aspects of becoming black.
The first time a white woman clutched her purse tighter and ran down the street away from me. I was 20.
The first time I was “nigga” this and “nigga” that. And stood, silent, understanding the affiliative impulse but resisting its terms.
The first time I was called a “black gay man.”
The first time an unattractive white gay man paid me the “supreme compliment” of telling me that he was, in general, “not attracted to black men” but there was “something different” about me.
The first time I heard rumors that I wasn’t really smart, just black.
That these are “firsts” should not signify. One could speak of the more banal ways racialization continues to function.
No, I still don’t know how to do the “secret black handshake.”
When I first thought of writing this post, or something like it, about 5 years ago, I envisioned narrating a series of “firsts,” speaking of the banal ways racialization happens, how one comes to think of oneself as “black.” That this is not what I have written does not surprise me. It seems more crucial to invent or imagine a “deep” history, a way to trace how what happens here and now is related to what happens there and then.
And I have to admit something feels old about this post, stale, as though what it narrates is so then, so unnecessary. And not only because we live in a post-racial age. I am interested in that “then-ness,” that palpable sense that something is over, the insistence on it, an almost frantic insistence, as though if we dare look back “then and there” we might get stuck, held in thrall, caught off guard, trapped.
That race might be capable of arresting motion, holding one in thrall, remains one of its biggest attractions, albeit one with dangerous consequences. This work continues.