There is a pervasive discourse of Africa as a non-racial continent, a place where racial thought and practices are rare and where the manifestation of race is an aberration. Africans, it is assumed, express their identities through ethnic and cultural signatures and not through the language of race. In the land of black people, in a supposedly racially homogeneous continent where race is taken for granted, racism and racial consciousness are said to be meaningless. Race, in this narrow understanding, is a legacy of interactions between black and white people and is thus non-existent in today’s African society. Africans, such discourse suggests, are incapable of comprehending or exhibiting racial awareness.
Say we set aside South Africa, where everyday interactions between white people and black people continue with their attendant tensions. Say we also, for the moment, ignore the historical anti-black racism that caused a severe backlash when, earlier this year, Khadija Ben Hamou, a black Algerian woman, was crowned Miss Algeria. We may, for the sake of argument, even sublimate widespread anti-black social prejudice and even enslavement in Mauritania, Sudan, Libya, and other Northern African countries, and the plights of marginalized racial minorities such as the Somali Bantu and the Tuareg (Amazigh) in Somalia, Niger, and Mali. Even when these obvious indicators of race and racism are discounted, the premise of race as an enduring variable of social relations in Africa remains. Yet, there is a reluctance to acknowledge Africa’s racial reality because of the flawed construction of Africa as a homogeneously black continent.
ON DISCUSSIONS OF RACE IN AFRICA
The narrative is simple: postcolonial Africans have no capacity to understand and express race or to even recognize racism because they come from non-racial societies. It is taken for granted that Africans ‘discover’ race when they migrate to racialized societies such as the United States, and receive a heavy introduction through statutory demographic classification, social interaction, and everyday experiences.
Discussions of racial manifestations, even for the purpose of analytical analogies, are regularly dismissed as attempts to racialize geographies and social relations that are, in fact, non-racial. Such was the case when, in 2015, Achille Mbembe argued that black South African expressions of xenophobia during the attacks on African ‘foreigners’ in South Africa that year indexed a variant of racial pathology derived from a narrative of national chauvinism that is itself located in a notion of exceptional South African blackness. In the article on Africa is a Country, Mbembe argued that South African black exceptionalism is derived from and animated by the same white South African exceptionalism and nationalism that provided ideological sustenance for Apartheid. Responses to this argument typified the widespread discomfort of Africans with intra-African discourses of race, including comments admonishing Mbembe to ‘stop using the word racism when discussing black on black crime in Africa.’
To advance the social consequences of racialization—the process of constructing, appropriating, and recalibrating racial and neo-racial meanings and giving them utilitarian social valence—is to risk being accused of mistaking other forms of social difference—class, ethnicity, culture—as racial manifestations. Racial conversations about Africa tend to devolve into the past tense, framed by colonial realities pitting undifferentiated European colonizers and similarly undifferentiated African colonial subjects against each other. Racial denialism runs deep.
When it comes to Africa, race and its discursive offshoots are often understood only in this relational, dramatic, adversarial context of encounters between weak, noble Africans and racist, domineering Europeans. Even in this context of the colonial and early postcolonial relational framing, the denial of race and its resonance is rife. In Citizen and Subject, Mahmood Mamdani isolated and critiqued two strands of this racial denialism: scholars who ascribe the formation of racial and neo-racial thought and discourse to colonial intellectual and administrative projects, and those who advance the agency of African elites that purportedly appropriated colonial ethno-racial modes of differentiation. Either way, race is advanced as something alien to Africa.
The concept of a non-racial, postcolonial Africa seems plausible on the surface, for how can race be meaningful in the absence of large-scale, consistent relations between people of different races? How can racial bias operate in the absence of sustained race relations—and in the absence of statutory racial difference? These questions are considered irrelevant in conversations about race and racism in the United States and other multiracial contexts because it is recognized that race can disguise itself in institutions, in societal norms, and in seemingly innocuous practices and gestures. In Africa, the same questions continue to be posed in a rhetorical sense, with the answers presumably embedded in the questions. In response, we must consider one of the cardinal insights of critical race theory: that racism does not require the physical presence of racists or even physical interactions between black people and white people.
Even accepting the problematic premise of racial homogeneity and considering countries with no obvious racial divides and constructs, it would be wrong to posit the absence of race consciousness. Moreover, the notion that racism and racial consciousness only result from the interaction between black people and white people ignores the different varieties of racism, the persistence of racism long after white racists depart the scene, and, more crucially, the prolific ability of black elites to wittingly and unwittingly carry on the mantle of racism through practices that many misunderstand as classism and other non-racial tropes.
What if, instead of fixating on race as a relational phenomenon forged only in the crucible of interracial interactions, we considered it as subtle, invidious, banal, and disguised—something that is powerful precisely because of its obscurity?
COLONIAL MENTALITY AS RACE FORM
Racial pathologies in Africa often exist in the form of ‘colonial mentality’, a term Anglophone Africans use to describe the conscious and subconscious mimicry of behavioural and cultural standards established by European colonizers, expatriates and other perceived agents of Euro-American modernity. The rubric of colonial mentality is used to express or lament many practices and attitudes, and functions in multiple contexts. In one context, it could mean buying into powerful ideas about individual worth, dignity, and prestige that have origins in racist perceptions of Africans. It could also be the imitation or re-enactment of lifestyles and mannerisms associated with colonial and postcolonial Euro-American culture and thought. Alternatively, it could refer to the habit of seeking validation from Euro-American or colonial institutions and locales. It could, finally, mean a conscious or subconscious devaluation of African aesthetics and a preference for their Euro-American counterparts.
Much of this landscape recalls race only in silent re-enactments of proactive and reactive responses to the ubiquity of racial signs. The African ‘big man’, a staple of postcolonial African fiction, is an example of how Africans of varying social classes aspire to standards emanating from colonial racial standards of respectability. The characters of Obi Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease and Chief Nanga in A Man of the People depict this postcolonial self-fashioning. These fictionalized examples of ostentation and exclusive conspicuous consumption bespeak the postcolonial caricature produced by the internalization of modes of self-worth grounded in colonial, neo-colonial, and global infrastructures of whiteness.
These postcolonial aspirations are conditioned by long-established binaries of superior and inferior cultures, mannerisms, and physical appearances, and are acted out in ways that are not outwardly racial but that are, in fact, grounded in unacknowledged racial codes. Furthermore, exhibitions of ‘white’ aspirational standards by Africans are often preceded by equally subconscious acceptances of racial stereotypes about Africans’ supposed cultural and character deficits. The acceptance of these stereotypes and the desire to transcend or compensate for them often produce ‘colonial mentality’ and the pathologies of ‘big manhood’ associated with it.
Colonial mentality can be found in many seemingly unremarkable practices and behaviours. The aesthetic value of ‘whiteness’ manifests itself in the popularity of skin bleaching and hair straightening and other seemingly non-racial zones of African life. Many ‘been-tos’, Africans who have visited or lived in Europe or North America, return with exaggerated ‘white’ mannerisms, accents, and a pronounced attitude of snobbery toward compatriots, particularly those of lower socioeconomic and educational backgrounds. This attitude is a classic case of racial anxieties manifesting through class and status insecurities.
In Africa, the fluid interplay between race and class routinely results in racial bias being disguised as class stratification and conceit. Thus, for many observers of Africa, race is not a useful tool to explain social relations in a supposedly non-racial society.
After independence in the 1960s, newly empowered African political elites competed to replicate colonial cultural and political traditions, and, in essence, became collective caricatures of the prototypical haughty and self-absorbed white colonial official. In some cases, this inherited colonial attitude defined the political identity of postcolonial political elites.
Colonial mentality has evolved in recent years despite harbouring signs of hidden and unspoken colonial racial legacies. It is no longer exclusive to Africa’s ‘been-tos’; privileged Africans who live in certain areas also receive the honorific status conferred on African returnees. Postcolonial Nigeria is host to some of these subtle manifestations of racial pathologies. Before Maitama and Asokoro neighbourhoods in Abuja emerged as arguably the nation’s most desirable places to live in, the ultimate status symbol was owning a house or plot of land in the Ikoyi neighbourhood of Lagos. Ikoyi, however, was established as an exclusive European residential area in 1919 and became the neighbourhood of important colonial officials, including the governor-general. With superior urban planning, social amenities, and enforced sanitation, Ikoyi was considered safe from the ‘dangers’ of ‘African’ or ‘black’ Lagos and the disease contagion that African living was believed to engender. Ikoyi was thus founded on colonial racist segregationist logic.
Ikoyi exuded the colonial privileges expressed through the language of racial difference. Racist colonial ideas about blackness and disease, about the nexus of culture and pathology, made Ikoyi an intensely racialized space, charged by both the prestige and oppressive power of whiteness. Outcry against this brazen residential segregation among Lagos’s vocal intelligentsia and professional class eventually forced colonial authorities to open the Ikoyi Reservation Area to Nigerians in 1947, but its high standards and costs of living, and status baselines were indirect barriers to entry to locals.
Prestigious and coveted Ikoyi street names like Osborne and Bourdillon now symbolize and constitute a link to the prestige and power of the white colonial officials they were named for. Residency on such streets in postcolonial times projected a colonial valence of whiteness that has endured to the present. When I was growing up in Nigeria, Osborne Road in Ikoyi, in particular, symbolized the residential apex of privilege and power, but very few Nigerians knew or were willing to acknowledge that this symbolism was framed by the continued cultural sway of the colonial idiom of white superiority. Ikoyi retains the segregationist aura of colonial racism to date.
In Senegal, Dakar mirrored Ikoyi’s embodiment of racialized privilege in colonial spaces, but residential racial segregation and its legacies were more profound here. As Liora Bigon explains in her book, A History of Urban Planning in Two West African Colonial Capitals, Dakar Ville and the Dakar-Plateau were designated European quarters, their exclusivity marked by improved sanitation management, enforced building regulations, and fastidious urban planning. French colonial authorities went further to embrace a realm of abstract racial signification and exclusivity signposted by a pattern of street naming and strict social and cultural requirements. These policies effectively kept local Senegalese out and transformed the neighbourhoods into exclusive zones of white colonial and expatriate habitation.
The late colonial period, the 1950s, was one of identity flux among western-educated Africans, with the radical rhetoric of anticolonial nationalism and the aspirational discourse of independence. Africa’s urban elites oscillated between a rejection of European ways and a subconscious appropriation of European idioms of self-fashioning, in which residential choice was a critical component. This ambivalence was rooted in the power and normativity of colonial whiteness, and, on some level, anticolonial nationalism was ironically indexed partly by a desire for the exclusive, racialized privileges of Europeans. European colonizers modelled segregation, social prestige, and also normalized a set of racialized social practices. Whether they were envious malcontents or eager cravers, African western-educated elites would replace Europeans in this social space.
Some African recruits of the colonial civil service and conglomerates were sometimes accorded swanky accommodations in exclusive Government Reservation Areas (GRAs) usually reserved for white colonial administrators, giving them a taste of what it was like to live like the white man. In his acclaimed memoir, A Mouth Sweeter than Salt, historian Toyin Falola writes about growing up in Ibadan and seeing the Government Reservation Area from afar. According to Falola, the GRA was a zone of exclusivity, which the ‘white colonial officers had created’ and buffeted with a forest reserve ‘so that the natives would not come near.’ In the 1960s, however, a radical shift occurred. When Falola began to visit the GRA, the residents of the ‘European quarters’ were now western-educated black people.
The aspirational allure of designated European abodes intersected with the impatient desire of ambitious western-educated Africans to replace Europeans in exclusive residential zones and in other realms of white colonial privilege. The transition period to independence witnessed a gradual Africanization of exclusive European colonial residential spaces, but only in demographic terms, as the trappings and symbols of colonial whiteness remained intact in these exclusive zones and in the newly adopted habits and mannerisms of the new residents.
Despite being opened up in 1947, newly politically empowered Nigerians only moved into Ikoyi when the European colonisers left after independence, claiming the social status of the departing officials for themselves. Residentially segregated from regular Nigerians like the colonial officials before them, members of Nigeria’s postcolonial elite proceeded to distance themselves from the culturally ‘backward’ Africa and Africans of racist colonial discourse. This strange colonial obsession interfaced uneasily with a new, seemingly contradictory political epistemology of African nationalism.
The new Ikoyi landlords not only craved the accoutrements of colonial whiteness; like the European residents of Ikoyi before them, they regarded regular Nigerians with calculated, strategic scorn as uncivilized compatriots. By this time, owning property in Victoria Island, a glitzy island abode named after Queen Victoria, had become an important postcolonial status symbol.
THE AFTERLIVES OF COLONIAL RACISM
Colonial mentality has also influenced urban nomenclatural decisions. Cities and neighbourhoods with British colonial names carry a certain cultural cachet and are magnets for local elites seeking to distance themselves from their socioeconomically disadvantaged compatriots. Here, Port Harcourt is a strong example. The city of Port Harcourt in Southern Nigeria is named after Lewis Vernon Harcourt, who was the British Secretary of State for the Colonies at the time of Port Harcourt’s formal colonial beginning in 1913. Port Harcourt is the oil industry hub of postcolonial Nigeria and attracts a high number of foreign and local immigrants looking to establish themselves in Nigeria’s lucrative oil industry. But there is another unmistakable and rarely acknowledged attraction to Port Harcourt: its name evokes the symbolic debris of a certain non-’native,’ European, white colonial aura.
This image of Port Harcourt as a European urban space permeated by the symbols of ‘white’ modernity was carefully cultivated from the city’s colonial inception. European colonial officials and merchants resident in the city not only monopolized all political resources but, in a rare departure from British colonial indirect rule, administered the colonial township directly and in the process gave Port Harcourt an unmistakable European social imprimatur. The vestigial symbolism of this colonial racial investment has stuck to the image of Port Harcourt, repackaged as the popular claim of the city being a ‘garden city.’
This portrayal of Port Harcourt as a pristine, clean, salubrious garden was especially appealing because of what Port Harcourt purportedly was not: another African town characterized by dirt, inferior culture, and a threatening, unhealthy backwardness. This ideology of conflated racial, environmental, and cultural semiotics has its origins in racialized colonial residential and urban planning practices designed to give Port Harcourt a European modernist identity. However, it is now part of the identity and lore of postcolonial Port Harcourt, proudly embraced by the city’s present Nigerian administrators and residents who routinely posit their city as an exclusive zone of comfort and modernity comparable to Euro-American cities.
The Nasarawa neighbourhood or Nasarawa G.R.A in Kano, northern Nigeria, is analogous to Ikoyi in that it is a spatial repository of the residual prestige of colonial whiteness. The name is derived from Nasara, the Hausa word for British colonizers. The word literally means victory. The popular etymology of its contemporary meaning as a racial designator is that it was applied to conquering British colonizers because they had been victorious over the pre-existing Sokoto caliphate polities. With time, the word came to stand in for other Europeans who operated in colonial Nigeria. In this case, then, the name of the neighbourhood literally communicates whiteness. Similar to the case of Ikoyi, Kano’s new African elite moved in and inherited the cultural, honorific, and status constructs associated with Nasarawa when the white officials began to vacate the neighbourhood after independence in 1960. The new occupants also inherited the racial, cultural, and segregationist sense of superiority of the departing colonial officials and began, for good measure, to live out the latter’s socioeconomic conceit. The segregationist racial impulse of colonialism was simply appropriated and refashioned as class stratification, but the social continuities of Nasarawa evoked the sentiments of British colonial urban investments that made whiteness a paradigmatic social enterprise.
Today, residency in Nasarawa confers an obvious class privilege and status but a measure of this comes from the residual history of Nasarawa’s original status as the abode of Turawa (white people). The prevalence of these inherited constructs has also depended on the vast postcolonial culture of expatriation in Kano. In particular, Nasarawa’s postcolonial aesthetic biography rests largely on the intersection and symbiotic convergence of two things. The first is the continuous preference for Nasarawa’s residential appeal by European, Lebanese, South Asian, and East Asian expatriates. The second is the equally passionate longing for Nasarawa’s social prestige by local elites, a system of valuation that is animated by its established and expanding reputation as the abode of whiteness. Nasarawa, for the postcolonial elite of Kano, represents an aspirational space, but that aspiration derives from an understanding and acceptance of the normative capital of whiteness.
During my university days in Kano in the 1990s, I observed the subconscious psychological attachment to symbols of colonial white privilege. In Sabon Gari, an area in Kano which colonial authorities had designated for the habitation of Southern Nigerian and Christian migrants to the city, several streets were/are still named after colonial officials such as Balat-Hughes and Aitken. Residents and those who had business here took unmistakable delight in enthusiastically announcing (whether prompted or not) their association with these streets. Even in the 1990s, a certain conscious attempt to mine the racial, cultural, and symbolic capital of those white, European, colonial names remained.
RACIAL DEFERENCE OR AFRICAN HOSPITALITY?
Colonial mentality’s most poignant manifestation is in the widespread culture of social deference to expatriates with lighter skin tones—Arabs, Indians, Chinese, Levantines, and Europeans. Across Africa, local interlocutors accord those with lighter skin and straighter hair embarrassingly generous amounts of deference, even veneration, often at the expense of their own or other Africans’ dignity and in disregard of pre-existing protocols of hospitality. Across the continent, the lingering social currency of whiteness—nuanced and complex but still discernible—appears to govern significant aspects of social and official relations.
In some contexts, this instinctive psychological deference to whiteness is hidden behind codes signalling professional competence. The practice of recruiting white, Chinese, Indian, or Arab technical partners to shadow projects, initiatives, and contracts proposed and produced by African actors has become an unspoken rule of business and official transactions in many parts of the continent. In some cases, not making an appearance with a ‘white’ business partner or expatriate could indeed jeopardize or prevent project approvals.
Sometimes, open social and bureaucratic discrimination against black people is contrasted sharply with exaggerated obsequiousness to white visitors. Apocryphal examples of this phenomenon are fairly common. Matthew Hassan Kukah, a Catholic Bishop and a preeminent Nigerian public intellectual once narrated how, on a road trip with white colleagues from Kenya to Tanzania, the colonial mentality of Tanzanian immigration officials led to his humiliation and a rude awakening on the contemporary work of race in Africa. In an article titled ‘No Nigerians Welcome’ and published in the online platform, Nigeria Village Square, he explained:
The next morning, I arrived at the Park, bought my ticket and boarded a bus. There were about eight of us in the bus and I recall that apart from the driver, I was the only black face. We stopped for refreshments and finally got to the Kenya-Tanzanian border. The bus driver pointed at the border post and told us to go and have our passports stamped. For some strange reason, I took the lead, feeling that this being African soil; I should be the one to lead the four white men and the three women to the post. I got there first and feeling like a tour guide, I smiled at the officer and then depleted the only Swahili I knew: We are all traveling together, I said. The mzungus [whites] handed in their passports and I made sure that mine was the last almost as a courtesy. The officer had no hesitation in stamping the passports of the seven mzungus. When he handed them back to us, mine was missing. Hey, I said, where is my passport? He sized me up and said: My friend, you are from Nigeria. You will have to wait a while. What for? I demanded. Because you have a Nigerian passport, he said.
The encounter progressed to an increasingly heated exchange over the inexplicable refusal to honour a valid visa obtained from the Tanzanian embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, when the officials had courteously allowed his white companions through the border into Tanzania.
In the course of an exchange peppered with jargon-laced repetitions of a fictitious missing item on his visa, Kukah was questioned about his current engagements. He responded that he was studying at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. The mention of Harvard, arguably the world’s foremost academic brand of Euro-American privilege, prestige, and power, proved to be the seminal moment in the encounter; it immediately reversed the intransigence of the immigration officials. Kukah remembers that melodramatic moment in which Harvard proved to be a powerful signifier of race and class privilege, rescuing him from the tyranny and colonial mentality of his fellow Africans:
As if stung by an insect in his pants, [the immigration official] jumped up. You are from Harvard? A Nigerian, an African at Harvard? My goodness. Let me shake your hand again Father as he surged towards me. I am proud of you as a Catholic and an African. Harvard, he repeated with the reverence of a babalawo in a shrine. Sorry about all this Father. Felix, he called out to the officer, stamp Father’s passport immediately. Please get him a soft drink.
Kukah is an African intellectual, a Catholic Bishop with a doctorate degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, and a prominent, much sought-after African scholar and speaker. Yet these distinctions had little sway in this interaction. Being a fellow African and having engagements connected to African institutions proved to be irrelevant in his difficult conversation with Tanzanian immigration officials. Only his connection to an American institution synonymous with white educational, economic, and political prestige and privilege secured his passage into Tanzania.
Harvard, a precinct of Euro-American educational prestige, in this context served as a symbol for a prevalent, internalized veneration of a certain racialized ethos of privilege. The immigration officer’s highfalutin reaction to Kukah’s casual invocation of Harvard attests to a fairly pan-African obsession with the signification of Euro-American bastions of perceived technological and technocratic superiority—an obsession with institutions and phenomena that for many Africans embody this superiority. The overarching operative code here is that of the perceived socioeconomic superiority of the non-African Other, a chronic incident of xenophilia that derives its meaning from colonial racecraft and its everyday legacies.
EXPANDING PERIMETERS OF WHITE PRIVILEGE
Incidents illustrating colourism and pigmentocracy have become more frequent in recent years. White privilege extends to the fields of scholarship, policy, research, and expertise. Recently, Somali author, scholar, and freelance journalist, Rasna Wara, drew in part from personal experience to lament the displacement of African expertise and voices in policy conversations on the continent’s future and destiny. In her viral essay, ‘Visas, Africanists, and White Privilege’, Wara decried a variety of invidious but normative practices that favour white Euro-American perspectives and experts and marginalize African ones in matters of Africanist intellection and policymaking.
At a conference in the University of Windsor, Canada, a senior Cameroonian-American academic and distinguished professor in an American university, shared his encounter with this continued mental subservience to elements of whiteness in Africa. While leading a summer exchange program to South Africa, he was shocked when the black South African immigration officials swiftly processed the entry papers of his white students but detained him for rigorous questioning for a substantial length of time.
He was repeatedly asked what business had brought him to South Africa even though it was clear that he was the leader of the same student exchange delegation the immigration officers had just let in. He was also questioned repeatedly about Cameroon. Even his American passport could not shield him from the ensuing humiliation and only when this humiliation was complete did they let him into the country. From this experience, he concluded that racialized self-understanding and its associated pathologies are still prevalent among black people in post-Apartheid South Africa. The ways in which the privileges of whiteness and the concomitant suspicion of blackness continue to shape bureaucratic logics and the attitudes of postcolonial African state agents substantiate contentions about the banality of unacknowledged racial codes in Africa.
When this issue came up for discussion recently in the Toyin Falola-moderated USAfricadialogues listserv, Ghanaian historian Professor Kwabena Akurang-Parry shared this story:
A Ghanaian scholar then teaching in a Canadian University (by now retired) took some students to the Fante area of Ghana on a study abroad trip. The Ghanaian scholar wanted to use the occasion to interview one of the Abora chiefs and so visited the palace several times, but to no avail. One day, he sent the oldest of the students to find out when the interview could come on. Lo and behold, the Chief granted the student the interview.
Indeed, African scholars conducting research on the continent are well aware of white-scholar-privilege on the continent. White scholars not only dominate Africanist knowledge production institutions in the West, as reiterated in Professor Jean Allman’s acclaimed African Studies Association Presidential Lecture in November 2018, they also enjoy privileged access to the cultural, archival, material, and oral resources of the continent. African scholars must either lean on their white colleagues for access or navigate a labyrinth of bureaucratic processes.
A Nigerian anthropology professor at a leading US public university told me of his experience while conducting research for his book on the oil insurgency in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. His friends who worked with a governor in the Niger Delta region assured him that the governor would grant him an interview on his administration’s policies regarding the militancy. After waiting to be called in for an interview for nearly two weeks, the professor received a message from the governor saying he was too busy to be interviewed. He left in frustration. A few weeks later, one of his white American former students who now works as a freelance journalist and researcher contacted him and gleefully told him how the same governor had not only granted her an interview on short notice, but had also put her up in an expensive hotel and provided her with a chauffeur-driven car. The governor had even given her his direct phone number in case she had follow-up questions. Her whiteness had opened doors for her in Africa.
QUOTIDIAN RACIAL LEXICONS
If the case of white Europeans attracting deference and subservience is within the realm of comprehension given the colonial history that underpins it, the extension of deference to other non-African expatriates indicates a larger racial register at work. Like the subtleties of class, the political economy of expatriate privilege conceals the work of race as a conferrer of status and power in postcolonial Africa.
Light skin, straight hair or a combination of the two routinely supplants class as the supreme signifier of status and respectability in contemporary Africa. In Ghana and Nigeria respectively, the popular terms Oburoni and Oyinbo are used for white people and are largely reverential and affectionate. Broadly, they are also descriptive constructs for a range of light-skin tones and for people deemed to embody a certain understanding of behavioural and cultural whiteness. The people so adjudged do not have to be physically white.
Oburoni and Oyinbo are social referents that often combine physical attributes with a xenophilic belief that these markers are accompanied by superior ability, intelligence, and socioeconomic capital. This conflation exemplifies colonial mentality, for it is a manifestation of the afterlife of colonial racial philosophies. Oburoni and Oyinbo have origins in a socio-historical ethos in which a binary of white civilization and black backwardness is a central defining idiom.
In the Swahili speaking countries of east Africa, Mzungu is a term riddled with similarly important socio-political semiotics. It refers literally to white people, but also connotes light-skinned, straight haired racial morphologies believed to correlate to intellectual capacity, prestige and status. Mzungu has several derivatives that retain the racial idioms inherent in the root word, racial codes that are rarely acknowledged because they have been rendered banal through everyday conversational use.
The word Uzunguni, an example of such a derivative, refers to the European area of a city or town. To claim or be recognized as worthy of the appellative word Uzunguni, a resident of the European[ized] quarter, is to be associated with the prestige and status previously reserved for white colonial officials or settlers. Conversely, the word Uswahilini, denoting the Swahili (in colonial parlance, ‘native’) area of a town or city, is reserved for Africans resident in urban and rural spaces perceived to be untouched by European modernist, residential, architectural, and social interventions. To be associated with Uswahilini, or the ‘native’ quarter, is to be devalued as uncivilized, rustic, and stuck in the ‘backward’ African world of colonial construct.
Vestigial and recalibrated racial biases are embedded in certain African spaces and in the sociolinguistic and social conversational lexicons of contemporary Africa. These racial forms may be subtle, but they are nevertheless discernible in multiple facets of everyday social interactions and inherent in many institutions disguised behind the language of class and status. Africa’s racial landscape is complex and is, thus, not as radically different from those of multi-racial Western societies as some might assume. In many African countries, as in Europe and America, race conceals itself in the idiom of class and vice versa⎈