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Immigrant voices: Somali-Canadian on race

Navigating our way through the maze of race in North America

IDIL ISSA

Contributed to The Globe and Mail

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Idil Issa is a writer based in Ottawa.

Growing up as a Somali Canadian in Winnipeg and Toronto, the concept of “black” was largely absent from my life. The first-generation Somalis around me rejected the concept entirely: “I’m not black,” they would say, “I’m Somali.” There was no subtext to this declaration – it was earnestly felt. They tended to think of themselves through the lens of culture and nationality, not race and skin colour.

But many people of my generation have had to navigate our way through the maze of race in North America. No one can escape the blunt scythe of the U.S. concept of race, both its privileges and its oppressions. These implications have been thrust back into the limelight this week, with the case of Rachel Dolezal of Spokane, Washington, who was born “white” but has strongly identified – some would say deceptively – as black.

Race, as we currently understand it, has a lot to do with the United States. The forced migration of African slaves from their homelands to the Americas over the course of centuries created a new world of “white” races and “black” races. It is in America that the “one-drop rule” – the notion that even a fraction of African ancestry made you “black” – could have had cultural and legal currency, or that something like the “paper-bag test” – the idea that African-Americans with skin lighter than a shopping bag could get away with being almost white – could have caught on.

It is this tradition of racial “passing” into which Ms. Dolezal has been thrust. The Internet’s outraged have seized on her reverse-passing, categorically declaring that black women could never escape the reality of their identity. This belies the historical record on passing: Americans with some African heritage, failing the one-drop rule, did pass as white, gaining the privileges that came with that label. The “mulatto” who passes until being found out seems like the only role black women could get in Hollywood in the 20th century. Philip Roth wrote a novel, The Human Stain, on the topic. Passing is simply in the water in the United States.

On one hand, Ms. Dolezal’s easy transgression of the colour line only serves to confirm that race is a fiction. How else could one concept, “black,” link the disparate peoples from Somalia and South Africa, the Congo and Libya, Canada and Europe?

On the other hand, most of the commentary I’ve read says that Ms. Dolezal was wrong to pass herself off as black, as if black is a real thing. So those who are outraged about this are invested in the concept of “black” as if it were real – otherwise there wouldn’t be any outrage.

Why are we so invested in identity built around the oppression and marginalization of people of African heritage, to the extent that the mere possibility that someone of a different ethnicity could surreptitiously occupy this category causes such revulsion?

This episode indicates that there is still some currency to the concept of race. Perhaps America is moving toward the postracial era that some felt Barack Obama’s election seemed to promise. It might not be so easy: the bell of transatlantic slavery can’t be un-rung. The black experience, created through the extraction of dark-skinned people from their myriad and complex identities in Africa, is a fact of history.

What remains to be seen is whether it will soften into an aspect of identity, alongside gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, and other data points, or whether it will retain a certain alchemy. Perhaps it will take some final and monumental payment of reparations before this process can be dissolved by the waters of restitution.

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