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On "Pan-African" vs. "Pan-Asian"

January 6, 2009

So I took myself a (relatively) long break from writing in this blog during my Winter Break from work. And I needed it. But it’s time to get back to work, and here I go.

While I was taking my break (outside of my quick-hitter about “Shooter”), a couple holidays went by: Channukah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa. Now, I, myself, (half-assedly) celebrate Christmas. But I’ve tried to do my part in at least partially understanding those other Winter-time celebrations that I did not grow up a part of. At this point, I probably know quite a bit more about Channukah than Kwanzaa.

So, being aware of that fact, I decided to do myself a little bit of Kwanzaa research over the break. I already knew the very basics behind Kwanzaa (that it had been created as an “African-American” holiday, drawing from various “African” traditions as a means to give African-Americans a true holiday of their own during this time). As a result, I had a basic appreciation for the intentions behind Kwanzaa, and the symbolism of its celebration.

But, as I got deeper into my research, I had some issues. While reading about the “Seven Principles” and the Swahili names given to them, I had a little bit of an itch. The problem being that I lived in Tanzania for a year and a half, and I actually speak Swahili (nearly fluently) and am very familiar with (recent Tanzanian history). And so I noticed that most of the words were taken from President Nyerere’s terms for the socialist experiment he engaged in with Tanzania’s fledgling independence. The meanings had been slightly altered to pertain to ALL Africans, but the roots were clear. And that all made sense – the problem being, of course, that – having lived in Tanzania – I know too well what a dismal failure that grand (and well-intentioned) experiment proved to be. Tanzania is now one of the poorest countries in the world and similarly corrupt, and so it just struck a sad chord within me to see those hopeful (but ultimately failed) terms as the foundation of the Kwanzaa celebration.

So I went further in and read of some of the traditions associated with Kwanzaa . . . and something about it all just hit me in a strange way. So much of it seemed like a bastardization of various African cultures. I had spent so much time correcting folks when I came back to the States about the difference between “Tanzania” and “Africa” – it just seemed so wrong that this whole holiday derived from attempts to further such confusion.

It really bothered me. And I had trouble understanding why. None of it pertained to me, directly. It’s not my culture, or racial background. I don’t have the same history. I live in a different time (Kwanzaa being conceived in the midst of the Civil Rights era). Why should I really care one way or the other? In fact, I should be for it, considering my heavy involvement in issues of race and general support for all things that give some pride and power to folks of color.

And yet it still bothered me.

And then I figured it out – my problem was that I was associating the “Pan-African” movement and ideals with all things “Pan-Asian.” And I am not a fan of Pan-Asian happenings.

Because, to me, “Pan-Asian” almost solely refers to the bastardization of Asian cultures. To me, “Pan-Asian” represents all those things that cause all the non-Asian folks out there to think we’re “all the same.” We all look the same. We all eat the same food. We all speak the same language. Etc. To me, that’s what “Pan-Asian” represents.

I hate it when I walk into a “Chinese” or “Thai” or “Vietnamese” restaurant that actually serves “Pan-Asian” foods. That people don’t automatically realize that “Pad Thai” is a Thai dish and doesn’t belong in a Chinese restaurant kills me. When people reference interchangeable Asian nationalities that eat dogs, I want to cry. When people listen to somebody speak Japanese and ask me if I can understand. When people think that Korean and Japanese cultures are “basically the same” (ignoring the history of hatred between the two). When people have “Asian fetishes” without realizing that Asian features run the full range of human skin tones, body shapes, and facial appearances.

All of this pisses me off to no end. All of this frustrates me and drives me nuts because I know I can do nothing to educate people out of any of it.

And so, when I relate “Pan-African” to “Pan-Asian,” I have so much inherent distaste bubbling to the surface that I can’t get over it – and so I find myself projecting those feelings onto Pan-Africanism.

And I realize that that is unfair. African-Americans (mostly) don’t have the privilege of knowing their actual ethnic roots. They can’t say which nation their ancestors came from. They can’t know which specific traditions their ancestors took part in. They can’t know which language their ancestors spoke. The ultimate insult and degradation of slavery is that it stole the slaves’ past and history and traditions. African-Americans who have come from slavery can never know where they truly, specifically, came from. All they can know is the continent. And so an equal embrace for all things “African” – whichever nation or ethnic group that stems from – makes sense in that light. Because what else is there?

“Pan-African” and “Pan-Asian” are not the same. Not even close. I came from immigrants whose ethnic and national origins I know. And that gives me the privilege of getting all hot and bothered when other folks don’t honor that specific heritage and instead lump me in with “all those Asians.” African-Americans can’t say the same – and so they do not have a similar privilege (or reaction). And, as a result, I find myself wondering if that can partially explain why so many African-Americans I know (friends and otherwise) don’t really care to differentiate between various forms of Asian-ness. And why Asian-Americans and African-Americans continue to have so much trouble connecting and finding common ground in this country.

Who knows? All I do know is that a little bit of research and self-reflection can go a long way – and that has allowed me to appreciate Pan-Africanism on a whole other level.

What do you all think?

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9 comments

  1. I really like the connection you made between this being an African-American holiday, as opposed to an African holiday, where it is next to impossibly for many African-Americans to know their cultural roots. I think another complication that comes with looking at Pan-African as compared to Pan-Asian is the way the African continent was divided into countries. I’m not very familiar with Tanzania, but I spent some time in Lesotho, and when it, along with several other southern African countries, were created, it was done without regard for tribal locations. So, when Lesotho and South Africa were created, many Basotho live in Lesotho, but many were then considered to be South African, which is not their cultural heritage. Its a situation that creates a lot of questions about cultural identity.


  2. I never celebrated Kwanzaa growing up and I still don’t. My mom always rolled her eyes every time it came up in conversation because it is a made up holiday.

    Your post reminded me of another post on this other blog that I read about the origins of Kwanzaa. You might find it interesting:
    http://www.blackgirlsrockit.com/2008/12/kwanzaa-aint-no-good-thing.html


  3. I see your point about how *Mainstream American* definitions of “Pan-Asianness” are used to homogenize people of Asian descent together.

    However, the very concept of Asian American itself is a pan-Asian type of identity that is not unlike Pan-Africanism in that it is about Asian Americans *themselves* attempting to create a broader ethnic/racial identification as a form of solidarity.

    So I would say that there are different ways to conceive of Pan-Asianness: the mainstream definition vs. the definitions that arise from Asian Americans themselves.

    While the mainstream definition is problematic for the reasons mentioned, the Asian American version is one driven by cultural community building and political solidarity.


  4. I really come from this with little to no background knowledge… I’m neither of African or Asian descent, and I’m not even American. All I know about anything you’ve discussed is academic.

    But I found this an interesting read. 🙂


  5. *I’m saying all this in response to how your comments @ Racialicious came off with the understanding that it’s not the way you meant it. And if anybody who wasn’t involved in that conversation reads this, this is not the whole story so please don’t get offended from this comment.*

    I did read this post and thought it was pretty good. I always like to see the ways in which others become more enlightened :). I guess your last comment at Racialicious pretty much answers my question, although I would like to say that having a “single” black identity and identifying as having multiracial ancestry is not mutually exclusive. And you handled the rest of what was bothering me with your other comments. But I do want to point out that what it sounded like you were saying (and this is something that gets said and goes unchallenged a lot) is pretty much what Marie spoke on. Most of the time, when black people do mention a multiracial ancestry, it's met with (black and non-black) people telling us it's not valid, and therefore it's irrelevant. Just because I can't talk to you about my great-grandmother and her family doesn't mean that I should keep quiet about that part of my heritage or that it's largely unimportant. In essence, it sounded like you were determining the value of another’s multiracial heritage, which is a huge problem.

    And then this:
    “So many of the kids I teach tell me, 'we have some Chinese in our family' or something like that – but they’re not sure. It’s also likely that it’s not actually “Chinese” blood, but other Asian blood (but their lack of knowledge makes them lump it all together). So they live a “mono” life with the question of what’s in the past.”

    Maybe it wouldn’t to be that way if being more vocal about it wasn’t discouraged by both black and non-black people and told that it doesn't matter because we're all black anyway? I’m sorry I can’t give you documents for my Native American great-grandmother, and the names of tribes and what-not. But my great-grandfather on the other side of my family made sure to tell my great-grandmother (who relayed the message to a very small few) about his family’s Native American heritage—going so far as to give us specifics, seemingly to pass that part of our ancestry down. Did it work? Not really. Everybody else just sees us as black; that’s not really much motivation to pass down other parts of your ancestry. Which is probably why those kids only know that “Chinese” is somewhere in there, regardless of if it’s actually Chinese or not. But it’s not really important because nobody can see it.

    Most of what we have are stories. That goes, largely, for just the black parts too. So I don’t have names and people to tell me about my African ancestors either. If lack of knowledge is the problem, why should I be told time and time again to focus on my African roots? By leaving it at that, we are continuing the process of stripping away the knowledge of ourselves. Which figures into the whole creation of Pan-Africanism; the collective narrative of where we come from, as told to us by whatever source of info. we can find that’s not degrading and oppressive.

    And in this particular post you said:
    “And I realize that that is unfair. African-Americans (mostly) don't have the privilege of knowing their actual ethnic roots. They can't say which nation their ancestors came from. They can't know which specific traditions their ancestors took part in. They can't know which language their ancestors spoke. The ultimate insult and degradation of slavery is that it stole the slaves' past and history and traditions. African-Americans who have come from slavery can never know where they truly, specifically, came from.”

    Exactly. We’re left to piece together a history, a heritage, and an identity. Talking about our multiracial ancestors is a part of that. It's not just about the African ancestors, and that doesn’t mean that I’m ashamed of them or don’t want to claim them (another charge that gets thrown around). If I were to lay out my family tree and had pictures to go with everyone, you would see a fair number of non-black people. From your comments, it sounded like in my quest to construct my heritage and identity, I should just skip over those people because they weren't able to sit me on their laps and tell me about their culture. And I understand that's not what you meant, but that's how it came off.

    What really bothered me with your comments was this kind of oversimplification of "monoracial" blacks and this tone that "Oh, so you don't actually know anything about your non-black relative? Well then, you're just black." Not that there’s anything wrong with being just black (that’s all I’ll ever want to be, racially); it’s that there’s nothing “just” or “only” about it. Sentiments claiming otherwise limit our knowledge of and access to our heritage.

    Again, I think it goes back to what Marie was saying. By talking about my multiracial heritage, I'm not trying to say that I'm just like you. I'm trying to say that I'm African-American, and this is what that entails. For me, and I would venture to say for most blacks in my position, it’s not about being able to claim a multiracial experience (which I agree is totally different from claiming a multiracial ancestry). It’s about having access to the totality of our history and the richness of our heritage.

    None of this is to take away from the fact that biracial people and "monoracials" will always have different experiences, but I think it will only be progressive if blacks can go ahead and learn about their heritage and draw connections to others through that. The aim would be to understand the depth and diversity of “blackness” and have that be our collective (yet nuanced) black identity instead of choking to death on the simple definitions constantly being fed to us (wherein “Black” is reduced down to a handful of individuals and rap and R&B music). People come in with their definitions of what African-American or black is, and historically it's the definition coming from or validated by the outside that rules.

    I understand that "real" multiracial people are struggling to construct their own identities in this country, and to have that respected. And that's the point I guess I'm trying to make. Blacks (and other monoracials) are doing the same thing, and talking about what makes us black is a part of that, and if that's having a multiracial heritage then it just is. That’s something that’s not subject to the validation of others.

    The most irking thing about this is, yet again, black people can't define black. We're constantly made to accept someone else's definition of black, and I'm tired of the bullsh*t. It's a little like when people won't allow you to define your own identity and force you to pick one because the rest don't matter. In these respects, I would think that being biracial would allow you to sympathize with that.

    In my comment to Little Mixed Girl, I wrote:
    “Just like your identity is not a matter of just one or the other (and not both), my African-American black identity is not a matter of just black (and nothing else). And just like you want me to see it from your POV, I want you to see it from mine. That’s the only way to really understand each other.”

    And it’s just a constant bother that so many other people have a say in what is and isn’t black enough to be deemed a part of “blackness”, and therefore what I’m allowed to identify with and as (sound familiar?). Just like I will never know what it’s like to be both and neither and have my race constantly questioned, you will never know what it’s like to have to piece together a history. The fact that it’s constantly challenged when I try to add to that history outside of “Africa” or “slave” or "Jim Crow" or "Civil Rights Movement" is demeaning.

    Anyway, so that was the gist of it.


  6. Wow, that is a loooong ass comment.


  7. L. –
    Thank you for the “loooong ass comment.” I’m all for those, really. It’s hard to learn much from a short-ass one.

    Anyway, I’ve got you. I definitely wasn’t implying that your less-specifically-known mixture meant that you weren’t “really” multiracial. To be honest, I appreciate those kids who tell me about the “Chinese” blood in them, because they are always saying that as a means to connect with me; it’s their way of saying, “look, we’re like each other in some way.”

    And that’s huge. That’s what I’m talking about when I hope that folks delving into the mixtures that make them helps folks find a racial common ground to stand on – further strengthening the fight for rights.

    The reason I was stressing the difference between the two situations (“directly” mixed versus “less-directly” so) was to point out how drastically it would affect people’s experience of race – not to say which had more validity.

    Again, the act of slavery and the history of black folks in America robbed you all of the full knowledge of your bloodline -and I’m not trying to further that crime by saying it therefore doesn’t exist.

    So, that’s where I’m at. Like you pointed out (and which, apparently, doesn’t apply to “LittleMixedGirl”) – my ambiguously-mixed experience makes me understand very well how fluid personal racial identity is. None of our experiences are going to be quite the same, so I won’t let anybody else tell me “how it should be” for me. And so I hope nobody would let me tell them “how it should be” for them.

    And – although I wasn’t actually trying to do that – you weren’t about to let me (or any other commenter) do that, and I fully respect that. I also respect your willingness to put it all down and make clear your stance and what bothered you, to begin with. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have made the clarifications I did, and I’m sure you weren’t the only one that was bothered by the initial comments.

    So – thank you. And, by all means, please feel free to hit me with as many long-ass comments as you like in the future (for or against what I’ve written).


  8. I’m just impressed you actually read all (or most of, or skimmed) that. It’s just that race has been on my mind for the last, IDK, 12 out of 20 years. So yeah, I kind of have much to say about it. And the fact that I learn things constantly and that my views are changing and maturing… you get to the point where you just want folks to understand that what they think isn’t always so. Anyway, I appreciate the fact that you didn’t completely shut me down and tried to find out with what and why I had a problem with your comments. So, thanks for the exchanging of perspectives.


  9. @L.
    No problem. Whether I always respond, I read all the comments through and actually appreciate dissenting opinions (when they aren’t worded as attacks).

    Which brings me to –
    @The Anonymous commenter whose comments I deleted –

    As much as I respect “anonymous” online commenters who hide behind that anonymity to run their mouths, there’s a way to disagree with me and accomplish something, and then there’s throwing racist epithets (I don’t care your background) and other ridiculous sh– that makes it a lot harder for me to take you seriously.

    So – I invite you to take a breath and try that comment again. The issue is obviously an emotional one for you, so I kind of get the anger coming from it, but I’m not really going to just let that happen on my blog. If you’re willing, I think an interesting dialogue/conversation and some learning could actually come from this.

    My take, so far? We’re coming from exact opposite ends of this situation – I’m a teacher dealing with the gang members who ARE “scared kids” trying to get out of the game. You dealt with it more directly as a kid and were strong enough to stay out, making it hard for you to sympathize with those that didn’t.

    End result? I still believe the kids I work with (middle school kids) are good, scared kids. Now, if they stay in it much longer, will they likely go past that point and do/become something more like what you are saying? No doubt. But I’m talking about the starting point – before the point of no return. You seem to be talking about the end result. Two different stories, but an interesting conversation, in my eyes (“half-chinky” or otherwise).

    I think a post on this should be coming soon.



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