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Kwasi Enin and the “Ethnic” And “Regular” Black Divide

It’s the end of April—and probably safe to say the Kwasi Enin thing is played out. I’m going to be “that guy” who annoyingly resurrects a topic long after everyone else in the convo has buried it. While Kwasi’s specific headline may have had a one-week expiration date, the American media manufactures these frenzies every so often. Think Amandla Stenberg, Richard Sherman, and others who have faced the same racial blow-ups witnessed through social media. But let’s put all that aside in favor of another thread from this discussion: the “regular black” vs. “ethnic black” dynamic.

Earlier this month Diana Eromosele penned an op-ed in The Root called Parsing ‘Regular Black’ and ‘Ethnic Black.’ Others in the blogosphere followed suit, commenting on a range of issues: whether it’s fair for “ethnic blacks” to benefit from affirmative action, what the divide between “regular” and “ethnic” blacks entails, and of course what “regular black” and “ethnic black” even meant to begin with.

Anyone want to take a stab at defining “regular black”? Fine—how about “ethnic black?” I’ve spent 23 years trying to figure out where exactly I fit in. I have a foot in both worlds: a father born in apartheid South Africa and a mother born to a Great Migration, slave-descended American family. So believe me, I’d nod my head in appreciation of any insight you might offer (and probably burst out laughing at your expense.) Both my feet are rooted (and were planted) firmly in America. I’ve witnessed this divide on a college campus with separate Black Student and an African-Caribbean Student unions; I’ve played both the role of “African booty-scratcher” and “wannabe Zulu” (in America and South Africa, respectively); and I’ve had the conversations about why there are so many Kwasi Enins at elite colleges and universities.

I couldn’t possibly count the number of first-generation Africans who attend my college. If you widen the scope to include other diaspora blacks (Caribbean, South American, etc.), the number grows even larger. Affirmative action policies have been integral in affording those of us resembling Amistad passengers access to institutions once reserved for those resembling Mayflower passengers. Let’s parse the phrase “those of us resembling Amistad passengers.”

The black people on the Amistad got to turn around and go home. Those thirty-five fortunate Amistad survivors returned to a continent on the cusp of unfortunate colonialism. Many Africans, like my ancestors in the Zulu Kingdom, would find their societies ruined by European political manipulation, economic exploitation, and ultimately military conquest. What they did not lose, however, was their identity.

Identity is what the divide between “regular blacks” and “ethnic blacks” comes down to. American—*ahem*—“regular” blacks do have identity. Nikki Giovanni put it well in a recent interview with hip-hop DJ Sway:

Europeans came to America but really they remained Europeans, they just transformed it here…[African-Americans] are the only people that came to America and became Americans because we had to completely re-create ourselves.

You’re blind if you don’t see the unparalleled impact of African American culture. Our sound transcended the coasts and changed the world. But the pain we heard in the blues that gave birth to rock and roll, the soul that conquered pop music, and the rap music that every popular genre has appropriated attests to damage and abuse which exceeded that endured by African and Caribbean blacks.

African Americans have religion, surnames, language, and bloodlines given to us by masters. Identity largely shaped by—and in response to—masters. Colonialism too entailed all of these things. In South Africa, the apartheid government mandated that its third-class citizens learn Afrikaans and take a European first name. English, French, Portuguese, and other languages are still spoken by millions on the continent. Christianity has overtaken “animist” faiths.

These things were not given to Africans by masters. Conquerors? Missionaries? Sure. But not masters. Our identities were invented long before Europeans arrived and they endured colonialism.  Slavery extirpated those identities—our land, language, beliefs—our world. Vestiges of that identity survived in much of the Caribbean. But the American slave master whipped most of it out. We made who we are from scratch. We became Americans in a way no one else did.

It’s survived identity versus reinvented identity—an identity quite unlike any other in the world. The perpetual abuse and stigmatization of the “regular black” identity is what continues to set it apart from the “ethnic black” identity, even though we all could have been aboard the Amistad together.