Recently my Facebook homepage has been populated with a litany of race commentary from all walks of life. It doesn’t matter what the topic was about. I found that the issue of race keeps coming up over and over again in politics, sports, fashion, education, you name it. First it was a white girl who painted her face black with a permanent marker to poke fun at black people. The commentary there was: the joke is on her because she will remain black like that forever, which of course in not true. Then yesterday an admission by a Kenyan Socialite that she has deliberately lightened her skin to make money because her body is a business drew much attention from local and international networks. Comments on that story were highly judgmental against “black “women’s general lack of self-worth and self-esteem.
So what is it about race that matters so much? What is it about the colour of one skin that makes it so important above everything else we share as human beings on this earth that we have to kill each other for it?
Why is race important today in the 21st century when we have more than enough scientific proof that there really is absolutely no biological difference between races except of course the colour of their skin. Maybe the shape of your nose and mouth or eyes… but isn’t that different anyway regardless? Why are people judged often solely on how they look?
I met a man the other day who said he often borrows from nature to answer life’s big questions. So I will learn from him and use “nature” to try to explain why I think race matters today more than ever but of course not for the same reasons we have been conditioned to think it does.
RACE: A KIND OF LANGUAGE
To use nature to explain the challenge of race I will not go on a wild African safari. Instead I’ll start at home. Using an example of an animal said to be the human’s best friend. The Dog.
Yes I am comparing humans to dogs.
In the world of dogs: there are different types of dogs, different colours, personalities, characters and strengths. But they are all dogs though, and the only thing that helps us tell them apart – is their shape/size and colour/character. If dogs were only short and black and didn’t come in any other variety, I’m sure humans would run experiment testing what would happen if mixed a dog’s genes with those of cats for example. But ultimately, if that were the case we would not be able to tell the difference between one short black dog to another. To tell the difference we’d have to spend time with each dog in order to discover its unique peculiarities which sets its apart from the packs in order to know the difference.
So there you go. Humans are like dogs. We’re the same. And since we are so much alike in every way imaginable, race becomes important. If we were all black and looked exactly like me – exact copies of who I am, Jedi Ramalapa with my history and everything that I am now there would be no US, but only ME or as the Rastafarians like to say, there would only be I and I. I will be the only person I know because there would be no one else who is different from me. There would be no “other”one who would be me, I would be you. So I need there to be white people, Chinese, Indian people, black people, short people, tall people, all colours because that’s the only way that I will ever know that I exist as a human being . I know I am human because you are human, but I know I’m me because you are not me even though you are, like me, human.
This is where I think where the notion of I am because you are –” umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu “– I am human because you are human comes from. I know I am me because you are not me. If you were I wouldn’t be who I am. I will not be able to tell myself apart from any other human person because we would all be exactly the same. Imagine if we all had the same thought, at the same time, felt the same, had the exact same families, backgrounds, histories, and training, skin colouring, feelings at the same time what would make you different from me? Nothing. If you were me, the whole world would be sitting at Lucky Bean in Melville, Johannesburg writing this blog post. But there would be no one singing, cooking or making food because the whole world would think like me, feel like me want the exact same thing as I want right now. Nothing else would be happening.
You wouldn’t exist as an individual, because I am exactly the same as you so we are ultimately, one.
BUT THAT’s NOT THE REASON WHY RACE MATTERS
So race matters only in so far as like the clothes we wear helps us to tell each other apart even though we are all part of the same thing or source. That’s the only thing. There are of course many other things which make people different. Where you grew up, your environment and what you were taught. Depending on where you come from and how you were educated about yourself, that differentiates you from the next person. The differences between humans though are beyond skin. Take for example my siblings and I. We were all raised by the same parents, lived for the most part under one roof. But we are all distinctly different from each other and we all want to do different things with our lives. My brother has chosen a different life for himself where he feels needed and wanted as an entrepreneur, my younger sister is married with children, my oldest sister has not lived anywhere else but at home with my parents since I’ve known her, I have traveled the world and still have itchy feet to this day. We all love music, we appreciate dance, education and the value of hard work but we appreciate those things in our own unique way. So even though we share the “same” DNA we are all different, even if we may share similar features, even though our skin colour is the same and from the same person. We are as diverse as the vegetation in nature.
IT’S OUR DIFFERENCES THAT MAKES US WHO WE ARE.
So I am Jedi Ramalapa, only because there is a Peace, Victoria, Didi and Immie in my life. I am who I am because no one else is like me, even though we share the same genes. I “wear” my genes differently and how I “wear” my genes changes also with time and the environment. But Victoria the “quiet” one in my family has strengths and skills I don’t possess, she knows things I don’t know, understands and interprets the same facts we both know differently. Her perspective is different from mine. Same with Didi, Immie and Peace. We have the same reference point but not the same perspectives, understanding or way of doing things. And that’s what makes us individuals. The me I am, only make sense in the difference that makes you who you are. I need an Immie, a victoria, a Didi, a Peace in my life, because they in their difference complete me. They compensate for my shortfalls or should I say make my strengths more visible or are strong where I am weak and vise versa. We all have a role to play in life and our roles are as unique and different as life itself. I need another to be me, you need me to be myself not a copy of anyone else to be you. That is why we’re all, regardless of our colouring, irreplaceable.
Perhaps this is only a notion parents with more than one child can understand, but I’m definitely sure that if I can understand this so can you, child or no child.
So in all the debates about race, the issue is not race necessarily, but the desire to control and have power over another human being or a particular group of people that we decide at some point or other is inferior. They are not intrinsically inferior they just have different strengths and weaknesses to us. In order to control anyone or anything, you must insist on their weaknesses, highlight the points at which they are wrong, more than the points where they are strong and ‘right’.
Needless to say there is no wrong or right necessarily, what exists are the norms which we decide as a community should be deemed right or wrong in order to further perpetuate the notions of superiority, power and ultimately control.
In the cycle of life we are all equal, yet different. What makes nature so magnificent is the one thing we refuse to acknowledge in our human relationships. Difference makes harmony possible. There is no harmony without difference.
So yes you matter, your race or whatever colouring you are matters. But not anymore or less than the next person who appears different from you. They make you who you are. Without them. You can’t be. You.
So instead of focusing on the superficial race arguments, lets talk about how to change the systems that make discrimination based on skin or anything else possible. Why should we fight about the very thing that makes us stronger as a human race. Why should someones skin be the basis on which you decide how to treat them, when you yourself need and want the very same things as the other person? Food shelter, love, community, understanding, freedom. Why should someone else die for your comfort? Why can’t we use our strengths as individuals, races and or communities to build a better world. We all need each other. No one is wholly and entirely self-sufficient. Not even the people we label crazy. I cannot exists without you, is the bottom line, and neither can you. Even if we all looked exactly the same, we’d still be different or find reasons to discriminate against each other based on other differences such as country or continent, age , gender, sexuality. Race would not matter then.
So why should it now?
What you choose to do with your body or skin, is ultimately up to you and no one else.