Who Is Black? Serena Williams Vs. Naomi Osaka, By Bunmi Fatoye-Matory
Nowhere could brown-skinned Naomi be possibly mistaken for a blonde, but Mark Knight, following a well-worn racist path, made her white, claiming her success for whiteness, and pitting her against an unflattering image of Serena. The fact is, Naomi and Serena are both black; they are both descended from people whose ancestors came from the continent of Africa.
One of the surprising consequences of emigration is re-learning what the colour black is. I know what black looks like on cars, clothes, furniture, books, and even animals, but with humans in this society and other former slave societies like Cuba and Brazil, black is highly fungible. Black is not “black” and White too is not “white” in the Western Hemisphere. Decades after living here, my African-American spouse, who has been reared and trained in the way of knowing, gently corrects me when I enthusiastically call someone black or white. I am often wrong, but not because of an early onset of senility or learning disability. Telling who is black or white here at times is like learning a difficult new language as an adult.
The cause of this confusion for me and probably for many immigrants to this country came from the painful and protracted history of race and slavery in the United States. Enslaved Africans built the foundational wealth of the United States. Slavery was the economic and social engine of the southern part of the U.S. for a very long time. It brought so much wealth and power to the region that wealthy white planters and slave owners could not imagine their lives without it. South Carolina was one of the wealthiest states back then because West Africans from the rice-growing regions now known as Liberia and Sierra Leone were specifically captured to grow rice in the swamps of South Carolina. They possessed the knowledge and technical know-how European immigrants lacked, because rice was not grown in Europe. Enslaved and unpaid skilled Africans made white planters very rich from the production and exportation of rice. You can then imagine what rich Southerners must have felt when abolitionists were calling for an end to slavery.
On May 22, 1856, Senator Charles Sumner from Massachusetts, a leader of the Abolitionist movement, gave a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate. He condemned slavery and ridiculed two of his colleagues who were avowed supporters of this abominable institution. One of the colleagues was a South Carolina senator, Andrew Butler, who was not present that day.
Notwithstanding, Sumner poured opprobrium on him, saying that Butler was in love with a filthy harlot, who to everyone was ugly and polluted, while Butler saw her as chaste and lovely. The harlot in question was the institution of slavery. Preston Brooks, a South Carolinian senator and slavery defender, was so offended by the speech that he cornered Sumner in his office and hit him repeatedly and severely on his head with his metal-capped cane. Sumner was carried out of the Senate with his head bleeding profusely. Brooks was censured for his violence and he resigned, but his people promptly reelected him back to the Senate. He died soon after at the age of 37, while the abolitionist Sumner served another eighteen years in the Senate. This was all before the Civil War that would free enslaved black people in the United States. But, I digress.
The population of enslaved black people was higher in some of the slave states than that of European immigrants. Wealthy Southerners who did not want to be taxed according to the population in their region made an agreement called the Three-Fifth Compromise with the North. This strange maths stipulated that a black person was not a whole human being but three-fifth of a white person. It gave more political power to Southerners to entrench slavery. Another heinous crime perpetrated under slavery was the rape of enslaved black women by white planters and slave owners. These forced cohabitations produced a new kind of people, a blend of Africa and Europe. They were neither black nor white but many of them had skin tones closer to their white fathers. Some of them could easily be called white. Fearing that their white-looking children from enslaved black women might upset the rigid racial social order, the white fathers of these children invented the one-drop rule, which says that regardless of how white your skin colour is, if you have a single African ancestor, you are black. They disinherited their own children to maintain the social order and enabled their white children from their white wives to gain power and wealth. This categorisation is still in place till today, causing confusion for someone like me, who cannot tell with exactitude if a person is black or white by just looking at them. There are sad stories of white-looking black people who “passed.” This means such people are white enough in skin colour to live surreptitiously as white people, even though one parent is – usually the mother – black. They abandon their black family forever to enjoy the rights and privileges given to whites, but denied to black people.
Living in Brazil was probably one of the most disorienting experiences of my life, with an absence of a black middle class, and the taken-for-granted servitude of dark-skinned Brazilians by their lighter-skinned compatriots. They explained this obvious racism as class differences. The perfect correlation of political, social and economic with skin colour is naturalised.
My new orientation did not help me while living in Brazil. The white/black categories are so numerous and byzantine a visitor needs years of training to get them right. Brazil imported millions of enslaved Africans and it was the last country to end slavery. African culture and presence permeate Brazilian identity to this day. While they did not have the one-drop rule, they created endless categories of identities that use hair, skin colour, nose, lips, and social class to cement them. But in all of these permutations, the dark skin is at the bottom of the social order, while light skin is at the top. Imagine my confusion when I discovered that many people who are called white in Brazil will be black in the United States, because they have African ancestry. Brazil said it has something called racial democracy, that black and white people live in harmony and equity, dancing samba together.
Living in Brazil was probably one of the most disorienting experiences of my life, with an absence of a black middle class, and the taken-for-granted servitude of dark-skinned Brazilians by their lighter-skinned compatriots. They explained this obvious racism as class differences. The perfect correlation of political, social and economic power with skin colour is naturalised. A Ghanaian professor at Brown University in the U.S., who had studied Brazil for a long time, said the colour of workers in an establishment lightens as one walks into its recesses. The guard at the door is dark-skinned, the receptionist a little light-skinned, the administrative staff and managers are lighter still, and then the boss is white. It was in Brazil that I first learned that black people are supposed to be unattractive, and that hair could be good or bad depending on how African-looking or European it is. I found out later that this depiction of black hair as good or bad is among all black people in the Western Hemisphere.
In the United States, the media has a strange habit of darkening or lightening the pictures of black people when they want to depict them as nefarious or good. President Barack Obama’s picture was darkened on the covers of some publications when he was a candidate in 2008. The photos of O.J. Simpson, the footballer acquitted for murdering his ex-wife but not forgiven by white society, were darkened, and in numerous cases, the pictures of black entertainers or public figures are lightened to accompany positive stories. The pernicious symbolism of light/dark colouring of black people by the media is often debated fiercely by black people in the U.S.
Australia is not far behind in racist attitudes, except that historically Asians have been the target of its racism, along with Aboriginals they colonised and displaced. Black people are not present in their national imagination, but this did stop Mark Knight, an Australian cartoonist with the Herald Sun from making a racist and offensive caricature of an angry Serena Williams, the Queen of Tennis who lost the U.S. Open to Naomi Osaka. In spite of racial taunts and hatred hurled at her over the years, Serena has ruled the tennis world with talent, grace and hard work. Twenty-year-old Naomi Osaka is the daughter of a Haitian father and a Japanese mother. She had been interested in tennis since she was a little girl, watching Serena and Venus play and vowing to be like them when she grows up. Her father was teaching English in Japan when he met her mother and they got married. The marriage was never accepted by Naomi’s Japanese grand-parents, not even when Naomi and her sister were born. The family moved to Florida where Naomi grew up. She has worked very hard at her sport and finally got the opportunity to face her idol. During the match, Serena got angry with the umpire because of what she saw as an unfair penalty against her. While she may have been right, her manners from afar looked like the frustrations of a reigning queen being torpedoed by a younger rising star. She broke her racquet and did not hide her feelings from the umpire. Knight in his cartoon grossly exaggerated Serena’s African features, while Naomi mysteriously turns blonde with a pony tail. It took a lot of mental contortions to make Naomi, the daughter of a Haitian man and a Japanese woman, blonde. She is a brown-skinned girl as a result of this racial mix. Haitians are the most African-looking people in the Western Hemisphere. Nowhere could brown-skinned Naomi be possibly mistaken for a blonde, but Mark Knight, following a well-worn racist path, made her white, claiming her success for whiteness, and pitting her against an unflattering image of Serena. The fact is, Naomi and Serena are both black; they are both descended from people whose ancestors came from the continent of Africa. The twist to all these is that Serena is married to Alexis Ohanian, a white American internet entrepreneur and venture capitalist. They’ve just had a baby girl who, by the American classification system, is black because of that old one-drop rule. But could a Mark Knight in the future whiten or darken her image depending on the racist message being conveyed? The answer may be yes since the goal post for white and black is always shifting.
The notion of a Master Race led to the gruesome murder of six million Jews in Germany last century. No skin colour is better than the other, and hair is neither good nor bad. Africa is the cradle of humanity, it should always be the umbrella under which all strands of fair-minded and peaceful humanity find refuge.
The idea of racial purity is not rational, and racism is neither logical nor sustainable. People who are infected with this idea have to constantly invent new lies to sustain it as old ones unravel. When the lies don’t work, they resort to violence. Naomi represented Japan in the tournament, but she is not accepted by the Japanese because of her mixed heritage. However, since she became a winner, she has become a star in Japan and her maternal grandparents have come around because they are proud of her. Some Asian countries engage in blatant racism, so much so that even their men bleach their skin so that they could look lighter. This, undoubtedly, is as a result of European colonisation, but another explanation I’ve heard is that historically darker skin carries the stigma of a lower status. It shows the bearer of that hue as a manual labourer who works in the sun. The higher the status in these societies, the lighter the skin, so the narrative goes.
Pigmentocracy and colourism is also among black people in the Western Hemisphere. Enslavement and oppression had reified light skin as desirable among many black people. This is also encouraged by the preference of whites in positions of power who give more opportunities to light-skinned black people than those of a darker hue. This trend is so internalised, that some dark-skinned black women who adopt children, intentionally choose light-skinned babies and reject those who share the same colour with them. It is self-hatred.
World-wide discrimination against the black skin is rampant. Some of it is due to the after-effects of slavery and colonisation, so also are the enduring and continuing intellectual, political, and economic efforts by those who engineered these destructive systems, to savage black humanity. Africans, too, can retaliate and engage in some notions of racial purity, but I think the present open acceptance of anyone into the wide African tent is the way of progress for humanity. I come across people of all races who have visited or lived in different African countries. Universally, they recall positive and warm experiences because they were treated with kindness and love by their African hosts. While visiting a senior colleague of my spouse in Stockholm a few years ago, the esteemed Swedish anthropologist told us he feels at home in his village of research in Nigeria, as much as he does in his village of birth in Sweden. He has returned to visit many times because he considers people in those communities his people. They share a common humanity. The idea of depicting other people as less than so that some can feel superior is a mental health issue, but ideas don’t have to be logical or healthy to gain traction, they just have to be useful to the propagators. The notion of a Master Race led to the gruesome murder of six million Jews in Germany last century. No skin colour is better than the other, and hair is neither good nor bad. Africa is the cradle of humanity, it should always be the umbrella under which all strands of fair-minded and peaceful humanity find refuge.
Bunmi Fatoye-Matory was educated at the Universities of Ife and Ibadan, and Harvard University. She lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina. She is a writer and culture advocate. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org