Hazim Mohamed, alumni of QF partner university Georgetown University in Qatar, on why the political is as important as the personal in combating racial injustice.
Like many middle-class Africans in the global diaspora, instances of racial injustice around the world always leave me with more food for thought about being Black in the 21st Century. It was easy for me to neglect this question in the first 22 years of my life, because the economic expectations of living abroad meant that I shared more with other expatriate nationalities in my host country than I did with Black people anywhere else.
The goal of every foreign resident in Qatar, where I grew up, was the same: work hard, pursue quality education, and use these experiences as a springboard for better opportunities back home or elsewhere. When the time came for me to step out into the world, I got a taste of cultures from almost every continent, built professional networks in international youth conferences, and even completed a year-long graduate degree in the US from an elite university.
It was not until I saw the living conditions of black communities abroad that I realized that I’m the Black person the world doesn’t have an issue with. In every university website, you will find at least one friendly Black person promoting the school with other ethnicities on the front page. That was me—an educated African kid participating in various international opportunities that always seem to vie for the highest number of foreign nationalities represented.
Ensuring that there is adequate representation across the major sectors of an economy is every nation’s way of telling the world that it is not racist
Diversity is the world’s response to racism. Ensuring that there is adequate representation across the major sectors of an economy is every nation’s way of telling the world that it is not racist. That is probably why I have no recollection of experiencing racial discrimination throughout this journey. Wherever I went, and for whatever purpose, the world seemed to anticipate my arrival, and everything felt uniquely furnished to receive a Black person who spoke a certain way and knew exactly why they were there—and for how long.
The cultural capital of being a cosmopolitan person of color also comes with numerous social advantages. Interacting with communities who might otherwise exhibit unchecked racist biases is much easier when your apolitical presence in their country does not provoke their deeply-held prejudices. Like a starry-eyed tourist with no interest in how these places governed themselves, I posed no danger to the people I came across, and whatever disagreement that surfaced was worked out intellectually.
Having lived between worlds all my life—born in Sudan, studied in Qatar, and obtained my Master’s in the US—I always had a lingering sense of identity crisis. I just never knew that the same crisis was my ticket out of racism all along. I was fortunate to have positive experiences wherever I went precisely because people didn’t care where I was from, occasionally finding it exotic that I come from nowhere—and everywhere. There is no doubt that Black people with more entrenched identities cannot relate to me any less.
If Black people can distinguish between different shades of their own complexion, and use that as a pretext for determining the criteria for inclusion, it should not be surprising when non-Black people do the same
Wherever they are in the world, Black communities are there to stay, and that is a political statement in and of itself. It is a statement that is uncomfortable because it lays claims to citizenship and civil rights, despite requesting nothing more than the recognition of the state and the equal treatment to its citizenry. It may not seem that these are impossible demands, but they are dangerous ones because they threaten to unhinge the racial relations around which societies are organized.
As one of the African American friends I made while studying abroad in the US put it: “It’s like their idea of being American is so white that accepting us as one of their own risks erasing their sense of who they are.” It was three years later in a political science class that I discovered that Jamaican philosopher Charles Mills already called this “the racial contract” in 1997. Regardless of where racism came from, it seems to have been such a wide-reaching export that almost no existing society today can make sense of its identity in relation to Blackness. Not even African societies.
As a citizen of Sudan, I witnessed first-hand the racial abuse of the ‘falata’ in my country, a term reserved for tribal minorities whose cultural difference is further accentuated by a relatively darker pigment. When this hatred is politicized, it leads to conflicts like the Darfur crisis, where tribes have been suffering from ethnic violence since 2003, and the even longer South Sudanese civil war, which was so unbearable to the people of South Sudan that they decided to create their own country in 2011.
If Black people can distinguish between different shades of their own complexion, and use that as a pretext for determining the criteria for inclusion, it should not be surprising when non-Black people do the same. Whether it is African populations migrating to predominantly white nations, or Black citizens residing where their ancestors before them have lived for centuries, the assumption is that they are not the ones the land was created to serve, an attitude that justifies the need to resort to a totally different set of laws to deal with said individuals—even if it means a knee to the neck where handcuffs to the wrists usually suffice.
As long as combating racism is left to multinational organizations that endlessly advocate for more representation, we will manage to repent for demeaning portrayals on the screen much faster than addressing systemic oppression on the street
Now that I can no longer neglect these considerations, it seems that the question of where someone is from is foundationally linked to the problem of racism. Whoever benefits from this institution, it appears that they have managed to subjugate Black people where they live, and reward them with diversity where they don’t, essentially uprooting them from any place that they can call home. If there’s one lesson I have taken away from the sans-papiers movement of 1996 in Paris, it’s that even African countries, where Black people can supposedly live in peace, are so structurally dependent on their former colonizers that their citizens are forced to look for more caring governments overseas.
Of all these ways of being Black in the 21st Century, it is not surprising why the world would prefer that Black people be a little more like me: “cut off from a branch”, as we say in Arabic, and zig-zagging between countries for unique but necessarily fleeting opportunities. At least that way they will live in the progressive spaces carved out for their kind in each country before eventually packing their bags and moving on to the next one. These are the college dormitories, the Airbnbs, the company residences, and the international festivals that pose no threat to the national concerns of the ‘original’ inhabitants.
Quite the contrary, they strike the best of both worlds by achieving just enough open-mindedness to declare that they’re caught up with the times, all the while preserving a centuries-old racial identity that somehow seems to evolve slower than the technology they invent. It is this uncompromising attitude toward one’s racial status, and quick reflex to defend it from disappearing into the palette, that I think will not go away anytime soon. But something tells me that any genuine effort to fight it will have to acknowledge that it’s a problem far beyond the healing powers of diversity.
As long as combating racism is left to multinational organizations that endlessly advocate for more representation, we will manage to repent for demeaning portrayals on the screen much faster than addressing systemic oppression on the street. We already saw Jimmy Fallon publicly apologize for impersonating Chris Rock in blackface, and now the pressure is on another Jimmy – Kimmel – for his portrayal of NBA's Karl Malone in The Man Show from 1999-2004.
The fight against racism is not a fight for representation. It is a fight that is political as much as it is personal. At the very least, it will require the kind of self-reflection that often helps us understand the forces that hold us back from extending to others the values and norms that we feel entitled to by birth—and sometimes, dangerously, by nature.
Hazim Mohamed is a writer and researcher who will be joining the PhD program in Political Science at the University of Toronto in September 2020. His research interests combine political and legal theory with public policy in a global comparative context. Mohamed earned an MA in the Social Sciences from the University of Chicago in 2018, and a BS in Foreign Service from QF partner university Georgetown University in Qatar in 2016.