Race and ‘nativism’

Race and ‘nativism’

This week’s blog is concerned with more thoughts sparked off from the tendency in some new settler colonial writing to treat race in binary ways as always already a conflict between black and white brought about by colonialism and with no prehistory to it. The next book in the pile waiting to be read takes a very different approach and focuses on the complexities of the thing we call ‘race’.

This is Christopher Lee’s (2014) Unreasonable Histories: Nativism, Multiracial Lives, and the Genealogical Imagination in British Africa (Duke University Press). It challenges the de facto assumption of the primacy of at basis essentialist thinking about race and indigeneity, through exploring in rich detail instances of ‘mixed race’ across a number of central African states that are former-British colonies, and taking seriously how groups of people who have ‘multiracial lives’ have responded to the situations they were in. Lee’s approach is a genealogical one concerned with the micro-histories involved and it focuses on communities and experiences that appear to be ‘without history’. His key term of ‘unreasonable histories’ includes three elements, which are methodological, categorical and socio-political. There is the need to find satisfactory ways to restore occluded histories, to explore the ways in which the local states impacted on matters of identity, and to trace how people mobilised and created their own bonds using alternative ideas about blood, kinship and genealogy to those of African-ness.

‘Race’ is based around descent and genealogy as well as often linked to skin colour and it provides a usable set of ideas for explaining many inequalities in the world. But as Lee points out, in fact and practice it is “irreducible to any single context or explanation” (5). Nonetheless most research ignores the complexities and analytical issues and in both historical and contemporary studies treats race as a fixed and usually binary category. Alongside this, race has also “typically been perceived as fixed to the colonial era – the system of intellectual belief introduced by European contact – having no deep or meaningful history prior to this period” (6). But in actuality many ‘racial’ diversities have existed including in relation to ethnicities and localities, and these have long histories in different times and places.

However, a crucial question concerns the fact that these complicated histories have been largely marginalised, and why this might be. For Lee, the system of thought associated with nativism is crucial in this. Certainly the classification of native/non-native was central to colonial discourse and its prevailing ruling practices. But it is not only a structure of colonial rule, but what Mudimbe calls an ‘episteme’, and as such it not only pre-dated colonialism but its structure of ‘us’ (who belong by descent and kinship) and ‘them’ (who are other to this) is a more general way of constituting established and outsider groups.  Certainly nativism in the context of race has the assumption that African-ness is linked to colour, kinship and descent within the in-group. Those who in the South African context call themselves and are referred to as ‘coloured’, an example Lee discusses, are outside this, they have been positioned as them and not us.

These ‘unreasonable histories’ of peoples seen and responded to as ‘them’ are the focus of Lee’s attention; and as he points out, ‘the chronological depth, wide-ranging spatial distribution, and historical meaning of these experiences have frequently been disregarded, making scant impression on how the term African is defined and understood’ (11-12). Certainly the term ‘coloured’ has specific geographic and historical origins and it is important to recognise that it belongs to a consolation of ways which people strategically use to describe themselves in relation to others. But this pre-dated as well as post-dated colonialism, although it often used variations in skin colour even in its earlier manifestations.

Lee makes some interesting observations about postcolonial nativism as an intellectual project closely associated with political transformation in promoting indigenous identities, languages and cultures as a response to colonialism (9-13).  This results in a hierarchy of not only credibility but also belonging, and is what Edward Said referred to as a misfortune of postcolonial nationalism. In the postcolonial zeitgeist, the claim of black autochthony over other identities has been privileged, giving rise to a range of exclusions (13). One of the products of the postcolonial imaginary is that often when the terms black and white are used, this homogenises social experience in an unhelpful way “that streamlines an otherwise diverse set of histories”, while the unreasonable histories of Lee’s attention are locally produced markers of diverse identities and tell of the particularities involved (15). Relatedly, understandings of kinship, descent and genealogy have been essential to pre-colonial as well as colonial and postcolonial ways of thinking and organising social life, providing idioms for organising social relationships and hierarchy. In this, ideas about family, descent, race and political belonging often map onto each other.

One aspect of Lee’s conclusion is that ‘To stress race alone oversimplifies the problem at hand… Although race and racism are recurring themes that explain patterns of identification and discrimination, a specific ruling language of nativism and non-nativism structured the opportunities and constraints of multiracial people, as it did for other communities under colonial rule’” (239-40). Another aspect goes wider, and it is concerned with “our basis of knowledge for defining what counts as African – a deeply racialized epistemology that has foregrounded black political and cultural life exclusively, subjugated alternative assemblages of collective experience and information, and created hidden histories as an aftereffect” (241). This is because nativism has become the key mode of reasoning and thinking the world, it is the basis of the current episteme, and “It has revitalized African histories and cultures in positive fashion on the one hand. It has also generated practices of political exclusion and violence on the other hand – from genocide in Rwanda and xenophobic bloodshed in South Africa to ethnic massacres and tense land struggles in Zimbabwe.” (242).

Lee is certainly not proposing that this is simply taking over a colonial epistemology and episteme, but he is making the point that nativism is a deeply rooted way of thinking about the world and groups of people in it. It provides a coherent structure of knowledge that enables people and behaviours to be placed and understood and so gives a basis for action towards them. But it is also based on untenable essentialist and binary thinking that leads to discriminatory hierarchies. Attending to inequalities on ground of racism requires its use, attending to equality requires its demolition.

Last updated:  25 January 2018