‘Shades of Black’ by Nathalie Etoke: An Excerpt
One might say that the womb of death—the Middle Passage, slavery, and colonization—gave birth to Black populations. Taking this observation as her point of departure, Nathalie Etoke examines Black existence today in her riveting new book, Shades of Black. In a white-supremacist world, Black bodies hold a specific position, invested with a range of meaning that maintains them in a fixed role, with a script they did not write. The white world has invented and defined the Black person according to its own interests, endowing her with a bereaved humanity. The Black person is confronted with an essential paradox—exist as Black or as a human being? Does the Black person exist for herself or for the other? In the white world, is the Black race the embodiment of a sub-humanity?
Translated from the French by Gila Walker.
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Racial identity is a social, cultural, and political invention rooted in relationships of domination. e white-supremacist projects at the origin of contemporary geopolitical imbalances have upended the lives of human groups on several continents. Some were completely wiped out, others were kept alive for purposes of capitalist exploitation. e enslavement of people of sub-Saharan origin went hand in hand with a will to dehumanize them that has persisted across time and space. e transatlantic slave trade and colonization were not historical parentheses. They were foundational events that engendered the world in which I live. From a scientific standpoint, race’s fictive origin is now a proven fact. Yet, the concept continues to have very real consequences on human destiny. Some people assert that Black people cannot be racist. Others bring up anti- white racism and hatred of the other. is way of speaking about racism comes down to hurling anathemas back and forth. e clash between Blacks and whites remains mistakenly dependent on an approach informed by resentment and morality that mask the real political problem—namely, the way society organizes itself. Living in black and white means recognizing the relationship of powerlessness and power, disadvantage and privilege that in influence the way individuals live.
Dylann Roof’s flight, after killing nine Black people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, was short-lived. According to the police officers who caught him, the young white supremacist did not resist arrest. Roof was calm and silent; he simply complained that he was hungry. The men in uniform hastened to feed him. They drove him to a Burger King. No doubt, the criminal did not deserve to be subjected to a punitive diet. Tamir Rice, a Black twelve-year-old who was playing with a toy gun in a City of Cleveland public park, was not entitled to such lenient treatment. A police officer simply shot the boy down.
Roof and Rice are both Americans. One was treated with com- passion, the other with cruelty. When a white man commits a mass killing, the media talk of mental illness. They try to understand what drove him to put innocent people to death. e individual is not reduced to the sum of his deeds. He possesses a measure of humanity that is ours too. is mutual recognition should be universal but it remains selective. When you describe the condition of Black people, many would rather shift the conversation to social class and common humanity. But if poverty sufficed to build bridges between human beings, the face of the world would have changed long ago. Donald Trump, Matteo Salvini, and Marine Le Pen are merely personifications of the racial exasperation that characterizes economically disadvantaged white populations that see themselves as left behind and disdained by a globalized bourgeois elite. A non-negligible portion of the extremist electorate thinks of itself firstly as white and only thereafter as poor. Racial identification transcends social status. It confers a power that, when expressed in the ballot box, testifies to a specific concern: that of maintaining hierarchy and privilege. Consequently, when I speak of the Black person in a white world, I am referring to the degradation at once human, social, and political of populations of African descent.