Not Black, Ethiopian. Okay?

Abel Asrat, Founder of Addis Insight

The title of this piece may have already caused a certain kind of feeling inside you. Whether its resentment, pride or disagreement- it is the core of why I was inspired to pen this article. To give you a little bit of a background, let’s revisit undying words of the Hip-hop legend Jay-Z. I refer to his most recent album 444, particularly that of ‘The Story of O.J.’.

In the song, Jay-Z reminds us that regardless of O.J’s wealth and fame, he was a Black person first.

‘O.J. be like, “I’m not Black, I’m O.J.” …okay’

This makes me think of how we, Ethiopians, stereotypically perceive ourselves as a different sect altogether. It is true that we are a longstanding sovereign country, who do not hail colonization in our history, and our great-grand and grandparents have given their lives to make it remain so. But that does not give us an exemption from our Blackness.

The colonial powers didn’t see us as any different than the rest of The Continent when they decided to invade us, to enslave our people, loot our resources and degrade our humanity. Had that been the case, Ethiopians would entirely fail to relate or connect with the Black identity. Historically, however, Ethiopia has been a beacon of light for a lot of African countries’ liberation and hope. Their pride in our was due to our shared Black identity. It is true we didn’t experience the segregation and racism others faced, but the color of our skin doesn't make us immune from being profiled.

Ironically, the first time I was racially profiled as a Black person was at Axum Hotel in Mekelle, in my own home country. I was a university student working with students from Ireland at the time. After some fieldwork, we went to Axum Hotel and right at the gate the security guard allowed my white friends to pass without searching them, but he started to search me.

Two of my white friends were shocked at the scene and I reacted, “Why are you searching me but not them… it because I am Ethiopian and they are Ferenj……..Do you think they will tip you because you did this ?”

My friends wanted to speak with the manager and for some reason, I didn’t want to cost him his job and he may not be really aware of his actions as racial profiling; rather he might be over-reaching to please the whites to get tips. Plus, he was an old man who probably has a family to feed.

As I start taking notice of the trend of how white people receive privilege in Ethiopia, a country that assumes to be immune from colonial influence, it didn’t take me long to realize we are enslaved mentally. This is also backed by highly renowned movie director Professor Haile Gerima who shares his experience of being asked to leave his seat for whites at a restaurant in Addis, he also adds a similar treatment that happened at the swimming pools of Ethiopia’s five-star hotels.

If we assume all foreigners from the West are rich, then how come Oprah Winfrey was racially profiled in Ethiopia a few decades ago? Assuming most white people are better positioned economically than Black people may be true statistically. But serving them with upgraded hospitality is what I call mental slavery. Unfortunately, the experience doesn’t end here. Rather it is cascaded within many of my Ethiopian friends who find it difficult to identify themselves as Black or do not get offended by white privilege in their own country.

In fact, white faces have been a key to unlock bureaucratic vaults in some of the companies we visited for sponsoring our events. I remember a fundraising event where the speaker switched his speech from Amharic to English to comfort one American, while there were 90 Ethiopians in the crowd and where the majority can’t even speak English. I reacted on social media two years ago when TEDxAddis turned the stage as if it was a sports match in which there were 7 Ethiopian speakers matched by 7 white speakers. None of the speakers were speaking in their local language even though TED Talk allows any language at the stage. What worse was that out of the 13 TED Talks that had Amharic subtitle none of the speeches were made by Ethiopians.

During my high school days, I read Malcolm X, watched Roots and listened to Tupac. However, I cannot say I was very conscious of the color of my skin at the time. The realization of myself as a Black person starts to take shape before my Axum Hotel experience. Listening to Professor Haile Gerima and how he discovered his Black identity in the 60’s when he traveled for his studies in the US awakened me. When I came to the US, I was very prepared and realistic about the challenges I will face as far as racial profiling was concerned. I wonder how many Ethiopians are mentally prepared to absorb the shock of racial profiling when they arrive in America or Europe.  But I am sure they gradually become aware that they too- are Black.

I wrote this article as a response to those Ethiopians who took President Trump “Shit-hole” statement lightly. In fact, some had the courage to agree with him because of political difference with the incumbent in Ethiopia. What they failed to realize is, Trump does not have the sophistication to analyze and insult governance in Africa. Rather he simply brushed his racial broom on Africa and Haiti because of the color of our skin.

I personally didn’t stop by expressing my frustration and rage on social media.  I took one step further and made a petition form demanding the US embassy to officially denounce the president’s remark. Counting on my 10,000 social media friends in all platforms I made the petition target to be signed by 10,000. Despite my rich social media circle, only 41 people filled the form in which 23 of whom were outside Ethiopia and fourteen were not even Ethiopians. In fact, to my surprise, they were mostly whites. These three questions crossed my mind.

  1.  Do people in Ethiopia feel insecure to sign a petition against US Embassy fearing their name will be archived one day when they go for a visa interview?
  2. Do Ethiopians in the diaspora feel afraid that they might lose their asylum or immigrant status because they signed this petition?
  3. Do Ethiopians really understand their position in Africa beyond its geographical context?

It is too important to embrace our identity as a Black and African more than the attention we give to the West. We cannot take pride about Adwa at a time where our brothers and sisters are auctioned in the Libyan slave market. We cannot sing or perform about Adwa at a time were celebrities and public figures run to the US to give birth for the sake of getting US citizenship for their newborn. We cannot embrace Adwa when we still close borders with Eritrea and are best friends with Italia.