Identity Politics: The Ambiguity of Race and the “End of Racism”

Identity Politics: The Ambiguity of Race and the “End of Racism”

The Atlanta Post

Ezinne Adibe

Professor and author Kwasi Konadu discusses identity politics and what it means to be African

One hundred years from now what weight will race and/or ethnicity have on our understanding of identity?  Are we moving towards a society where race will become so ambiguous that notions tied into race will become a thing of the past? The concept of a post-racial society seemed to gain further traction during the election of President Barack Obama, but as author Dr. Kwasi Konadu notes, there hasn’t been much of a post-racial anything in the years since President Obama’s election. Dr. Konadu recently shared his thoughts on identity, post-racialism, and what it means to be African.

Ezinne Adibe: How has your identity shaped your work?

Dr. Kwasi Konadu: My work been very personal in that a lot of my research has been shaped by my ancestry. For instance, it was after a number of years of doing my family history through family elders that a dream about my great-great-grandmother led me back to Ghana to find out more. That led to my dissertation in Ghana, which led to a decade of research and partnership in Ghana, another home of mine in the African world. So, indeed, identity shaped by ancestry has been critical to how I choose what I am interested in, how I approach those matters with a kind of passion, and always the quest for getting the story right.

Ezinne Adibe: I come across many conversations about identity, especially with regards to national identity. There are some that feel national identity is more important than racial or ethnic affiliation. What are your thoughts?

Dr. Konadu: If we make the matter of identity an either or question, whether it is the clan or the nation, in terms of how we define nations and nationalism, or it is some other kind of affiliation, I think we miss a very subtle but important point about how Africans, and other humans, have historically identified themselves. Humans tend to have concentric circles of a composite identity. So, at the same time I can be a father, a husband, a professor, a brother to my own biological kin or a brother in a communal sense. And there can be no conflict with either of those circles, because these identities are not in conflict but are expressions of a composite, whole identity. I think they become conflictual because of the historical experiences that brought Africans to whatever side of whatever ocean/sea they now find themselves. Whatever means by which Africans were exported from their homelands, they have endured a certain kind of transformation where blackness became the demonic inverse, that is, it became the opposite of Judeo-Christian whiteness, and blackness also became a synonym for Africaness. And so, it’s not surprising to find that many of our peoples worldwide, but certainly in North America, are offended if called African, because African, in their mind, is shorthand for this package of barbarism, backwardness, idol worshippers, lacking beauty and intelligence. All this is packaged into being African. So, who wants to be African?…

…Ezinne Adibe: There is another interesting conversation related to identity, which is this idea that we will all be mixed sometime in the future. There are a lot of people who say that it will be great once we can move to that point where race is so ambiguous, because then people won’t be racist. What are your thoughts on this post-racial idealism?

Dr. Konadu: Well, I’m sorry to disappoint the people that feel that way or have come to that conclusion. You can have racism without race…I’ll give you a historical note. In the 15th century Spain and Portugal, there were dominant and pejorative ideas about African peoples as savages, barbarians, non-Christians, and therefore heathens, and under Papal or Catholic doctrine these Africans could be enslaved. The concept of race wasn’t truly refined as we know it today, but there was racism. Take for instance, the first group of Africans taken from the Senegambia region, what is now Senegal and the Gambia, and transported to Portugal. They were stripped naked and paraded through the streets of the capital city, Lisbon. It was a spectacle. You can imagine, from the Africans’ perspective, the sheer terror of having all these white folks stare at you as kind of a voyeur, and especially with the belief these white folks were cannibals. That was the introduction of Africans into this and perhaps other early European societies. So, there were ideas about race and racism; however, race wasn’t fully refined, whereby it was linked to the institutional terror and injustices as we find today. But there was racism without race. So, racism need not race as an appendage in order to be real. You can have the end of race as the New York Times announced when Barack Obama was elected, “a post-racial society” (laughs). Since his election, whatever people think about him and his administration, African folks in Africa and in North America have suffered greatly. There is greater racial violence, whether it is the unleashing of these white supremacist groups and even allied Chicano Mexican groups terrorizing black folks. There is another kind of violence – economic violence. In this so-called recession, black folks have felt it the hardest, in housing, jobs, prisons, hospital and educational program closings, the poorest quality foods, criminalization, and so. The point is the quality of black folks lives has exponentially declined since his inauguration and since the New York Times announced a post-racial society. So, if that’s any cue that this is what post-racialism looks like, I don’t think African folks want anything to do with it….

Read the entire interview here.

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