“There is only one race – the human race” – Oliver Tambo.

‘There is only one race – the human race’. The statement is attributed to the deceased long-time leader of the ANC in exile, Oliver Tambo. He is not the only one who has said this – many others have said it as well – and in doing so, they have only stated what is blatantly obvious from the zoological point of view. In fact, from the time that the first European sailors set foot on African soil, they have been actively contributing to the massive body of empirical evidence that underpins this statement.

But of course, this is not the same as to say that all human beings are equal. There are important differences. These differences are not based on skin pigmentation or genetic differences. They are based on language and, more importantly, on culture. Europeans know this, of course. Polish, Germans and Dutch all look alike – but they are very different from one another. Africans, of course, know this as well – see this post from Minda Magero for example, for a moving illustration. Communicating in spite of these differences is always a fascinating and very often surprising and rewarding experience.

Why, then, is there still so much talk about race and racism in the United States? Why, for example, are people with different shades of pale skin colour supposed to be ‘Caucasians’? The US is probably the only country in this world where this type of designation is used.  What makes the US so obsessed with this notion of ‘race’, even to the present day?

One explanation can be found in the history of the United States. Like Apartheid, slavery made use of an irrational ideology of ‘racial’ difference to justify a rational but immoral system of exploitation. But slavery was abolished in the US in 1865 – almost150 years ago. Martin Luther King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 – almost 50 years ago. Are Americans so stupid that it takes them such a long time to learn the necessary lessons?

No – there must be another reason why racial prejudice is regenerated and reinvented in the United States generation after generation. This reason cannot be based on differences in skin colour – that factor by itself is too trivial, is literally only skin-deep. The reason must, therefore, be based on something much more important – on cultural differences.

It’s pretty obvious once you think of it –  African Americans use the language differently, have different likes and dislikes, behave differently from other Americans. They form, in effect, a different cultural group within the U.S., just like, for example, the Jewish and the Italian Americans. Anthropologists know this and have documented many aspects of African-American culture. Many people think of culture as something that has to do with art, music and the like. But culture permeates everything and shows itself as soon as, or even before, a person starts to open his/her mouth.

In Africa, many cultures co-exist – and everybody knows that culture and skin colour are not related. The same is true in Europe. But for African Americans, this is not the case: there, uniquely, skin tone does overlap very largely with cultural difference. This explains why, in the U.S., racial stereotyping continues to exist and is constantly reinvented. Encounters between African Americans and other Americans are experienced as encounters between people of different cultural backgrounds. And because, uniquely, skin colour helps to identify the other person’s culture – skin colour is identified with difference and thus, racial prejudice is reproduced time and time again. The illusion is created that the difference in skin tone is, somehow, a cause for the other differences – whereas Africans know that this is not the case.

So – “it’s the culture, stupid!”. It would be good if this mechanism would become a much more explicit part of the American consciousness. Americans should accept and understand the cultural differences that exist in their country in a much clearer way. Then they will realize that the challenges blacks and whites face are related to the universal challenges that people of different cultural backgrounds face in communication, independent of skin colour and no matter where they are from. Challenges, yes – but opportunities for enrichment as well.  This insight, I believe, would go a long way to help to heal some of the wounds that exist in the U.S. Wounds that currently cannot heal, because the mechanisms I described above continue to rip them open.

It is this challenging but essentially optimistic lesson that Africans have to offer Americans. Once one starts to think about this, a host of other questions come to mind. There is the interesting case of Barack Obama, for example. But that will be the topic for my next post.