Christopher Adams: "Reverse Racism"
by Christopher Adams
A monsoonal storm descends on Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, as I make way home through the district of Bole. It is a cold wet season evening. Addis sits at 2300 metres above sea level, and the chill of the damp air finds its way into my bones. Pushing ahead, the ground receives my attention in order to avoid the deepening puddles. But my focus is suddenly shattered by a voice calling out to me. Looking to my left – I see that the voice belongs to a young, male taxi driver. When we make eye contact he repeats himself.
‘Babylon!’ he says, with a mocking facial expression; an accusing finger jabs in my direction.
His statement may seem a little strange to the reader. Why would an Ethiopian taxi driver be shouting the name of an ancient Mesopotamian city to a rain soaked foreigner? The answer lies in the fact that the taxi driver wasn’t using Babylon in its literal sense; he was using it in its metaphorical sense. Babylon is also a Rastafarian term, metaphorically linking the biblical imprisonment of the Jews in ancient Babylon with the more recent experience of African slavery in the New World. In its Rastafarian sense, Babylon refers to oppressive political establishments and the police, as well as European oppression of Africans. The term arrived in Ethiopia through the Jamaican reggae music which is popular in that East African nation. Many Jamaican Rastafarians also live in Ethiopia, given the fact that it is their Holy Land – Zion.
The taxi driver’s taunts still astound me. I’m cut off by at least a generation from the colonial era, and countless more from that of New World slavery. But in the eyes of that taxi driver my white skin still represented an evil history draped in chains and shackles.
Could the taxi driver’s labelling of me be considered an act of racism? The politically correct viewpoint here would be that it wasn’t - that a history of subjugation excuses the taxi driver from being racist. I must disagree. That taxi driver’s taunts hurt me and made me self-conscious of my skin colour. What could I do about what my ancestors may have done to the African people? Such are the joys of so-called ‘reverse racism’.
A few months later I find myself passing through the town of Shashamene, in southern Ethiopia. Shashamene is a Rastafarian stronghold. The last Ethiopian monarch, Haile Salassie I, the Rastafarian’s ‘Devine Majesty’, gifted a large tract of land near the town to the Jamaicans in the 1960s for the purpose of ‘repatriation’. As I pass the town’s Rastafarian quarter, I notice a couple of young Ethiopian guys sitting in the shade of the Black Lion Rastafarian Museum. They spot me sitting in the back seat of the Corolla, and style their right hands into the shape of mock pistols before aiming them at me. I’m shocked by their violent gestures, obviously provoked by my skin colour.
A week or so later I’m in Jah Rastafarai – a Jamaican run nightclub in central Addis Ababa. While standing on the balcony, a Rastafarian woman approaches me. She wears the flowing robes of traditional West African dress, which look slightly incongruous on a petite Ethiopian woman. A carefree, almost serene air pervades her presence. After a few minutes she invites me to meet ‘The Father’, who turns out to be an ageing Jamaican Rasta with flowing dreadlocks and a bushy white beard. He came to Ethiopia during the first ‘Rasta migration’ in the early 1960s. After making small talk with him for a few minutes I proceed to recount the incident of the mock pistols in Shashamene. I explain how I am at a loss to understand the thinking of those two young men; how I believe we are all just people – whatever our colour. ‘The Father’ nods knowingly, before piping up.
‘That’s nice,’ he says in his glorious West-Indian accent, ‘But you should tell your people that first.’
So, what he was saying was that I represented Babylon and there was nothing much I could do about it - that I should go and disseminate my liberal ideas amongst ‘my people’. My Ethiopian wife’s grandfather, being a member of the land owning class before Ethiopia’s monarchy was ousted by communists, actually owned slaves. My mother’s father was a pilot; my father’s father a humble printer. Yet in the eyes of that Rastafarian I constituted nothing but Babylon.
How did phrases such as ‘your people’, ‘those people’ and ‘our people’ come about? They are merely constructions of race, nationalism, prejudice and history intertwined. In a future utopia we could forget these phrases, though this is quite unlikely to ever happen. The darker shades of humanity will continue to be looked down upon by some ignorant and chauvinistic members of the lighter hues. The age of western liberal guilt will continue to make people of European origin feel bad about the dark side of their race’s history. ‘Reverse racism’ is a misnomer. Prejudice is prejudice - just because it’s going backwards doesn’t make it ok.
Humanity’s freedom can only be reached when our hearts are released from the shackles of our minds - the shackles that make people see the world through an ‘us and them’ mentality. We must beware – a little bit of Babylon lurks inside every human being.