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

July 11, 2011  |  

by 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: Yes, some take being referred to as African as an affront.

Dr. Konadu: To the heart of your question, the crux of the issue is realizing that where you are and who you are don’t have to be in conflict. That is, I can be an American citizen as a political status, but culturally defined by my ancestry. You can be both African as a cultural identity and still remain a political citizen in whatever nation-state you reside. For instance, in Ghana, you can be Asante, and at the same time you can be a citizen of the Republic of Ghana. You can also be of the Oyoko or Agona or Bretuo clan. And similar familial systems exist among the Yoruba, the Hausa, or the Igbo and so this idea of concentric affiliations and therefore identities is not exclusively a Ghanaian matter. For those Africans in whatever diaspora they find themselves, they can be political citizens of Brazil, Cuba, North America and the like and still culturally self-identify as African. And the cumulative weight of one’s African ancestry, underlying our mannerisms, the way we use language, the ways in which we greet, the subtleness of culture is a critical frame of reference in determining cultural identity.

There’s a game that’s played with the term African, especially in the media and in our school curricular or textbooks. At one point, the term African is homogenized, that is, “you are all Africans.” So, for example, if there is corruption of whatever sort in Zimbabwe or in Nigeria, then it is an “African” problem, where the behavior of specific people becomes homogenized and the integrity and humanity of all Africans come into question. A more common example of homogenization is that “Africans sold other Africans during slavery.” The story is not that simple, nor should it be. All or most Africans were not slavers nor did they engineer the transatlantic slave system. Their humanity should not be undermined by such sound bites that –after a while—becomes an unquestionable truth. The term “African” also fluctuates between its homogenized form and its opposite. Thus, if Africans in the diaspora self-identify as culturally African via their ancestry, claiming, “Well, we too are Africans,” the media or school curricular response is “No, you’re not. You have nothing to do with them.” So, when it suits certain purposes, we get situational and contradictory responses, such as “you’re all the same” and “you’re not same.”

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