Sunday, February 01, 2004

This is rather intriguing. A sixteen year old South African who emigrated to the US with his parents six years ago has been suspended from school, and labelled a "neo-nazi", for nominating himself for the "Distinguished African-American Student of the Year" prize. As the article points out, he was, in fact, the only person in the school who had actually lived in Africa. Yet, it was argued that he could more sensitively, and appropriately, have described himself as a "First Generation White (or European) South African American."

I don't know much about the racial politics of the US but the reaction to this strikes me as rather bizarre. Leaving this case aside -- it does seem that the youngster's motivations were largely mischievous -- I think that most South Africans would feel rather uneasy about reserving the term "African" solely for black people. What about the Afrikaners, who are white, but have lived in Africa for centuries and speak a language not found elsewhere? Conversely, what about black South Africans who grew up in exile and feel more culturally attuned to countries such as the UK? More worryingly, once the term "African" is reserved solely for blacks doesn't a Zimbabwean scenario -- in which part of the population is turned upon as, in some sense, not belonging -- become all the more possible?

In truth, in a globalising world, I tend to be rather suspicious of labels such as "African" and "European." I have English roots but have been powerfully shaped by growing up in South Africa. Likewise, even Thabo Mbeki, who espouses the African Rennaissance, and hails from the rural Transkei, owes much to his time in the UK. Besides, isn't Africa such a huge and diverse place that the label "African" becomes rather meaningless? What do Zimbabweans have in common with Algerians, or Nigerians with Namibians?

Fundamentally, I think, our identities are far more specific and detailed than terms such as "African" and "European" can hope to capture. I accept that Black Americans have a shared history and wish to settle upon a term to indicate that. But, at the risk of courting controversy, it does seem to me that the way in which the term "African" is employed in this article is not only unfortunate, but also rather dangerous.


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