By Fikru Helebo and Ephrem Madebo
Obang Metho of the Anuak Justice Council recently asked a rhetorical question: "Is there racism in Ethiopia?" Yes, there is racism in Ethiopia, no doubt about it. What may be debated is in what forms is racism manifested in Ethiopia and the degree to which that racism affects one’s social life. It would not be far from the truth to suggest that there is some form of racism in every country around the world -- Ethiopia is not an exception. Sadly, one of the worst kinds of racism, slavery, existed in Ethiopia until about three generations ago.
Slavery was officially abolished in Ethiopia only in 1942! It was even used by the Italians as a justification for their invasion in 1935. Unfortunately, the vestiges of the ugly legacy of slavery are still with us today. This legacy is primarily manifested in the form of prejudice towards our compatriots who come from the peripheral regions in the southern and western parts of the country. Ethiopians, as a people, should be ashamed for allowing this kind of racism to continue unabated in the dawn of the 21st century.
By the way, what is racism? When we think of racism, we mostly think of the institutionalized form of racism that we see in the West which is directed mostly towards people of African descent. In reality, however, racism is a phenomenon that exists anywhere between groups of people when one discriminates against the other based on any inborn physical attributes and considers their group to be superior. Ethiopian racism is based on the tone of skin color and physical traits such as facial features and hair texture. For the purpose of this article, racism is discriminating against or denigrating a fellow Ethiopian or human being based on skin color and/or physical characteristics.
Mind you, though racism in Ethiopia has its roots in our ethnic differences, it should not be confused with discrimination based on ethnic affiliation or economic status. This is true because in Ethiopia ethnic slurs are different from racial slurs, and no matter what one’s economic status is, he/she might not be free from racial abuses. Some ethnic groups might be bombarded with bone piercing ethnic slurs, but not necessarily with racial slurs, whereas some other ethnic groups, especially from western and southern Ethiopia, face both ethnic and racial abuses. Even today, social contacts (for example, marriage) with Ethiopians of Nilotic origin are considered a taboo. We all know that any Ethiopian whose physical characteristics has resemblance to Nilotic or Bantu people faces daily verbal abuses and is showered with ugly and discriminatory nick names such as baria, mesheto, wefcho-lash, etc…
The other strange face of Ethiopian racism is that it is not limited to within Ethiopia or between Ethiopians. When we travel abroad, our racist attitude travels with us. Here in the United States, Ethiopians display splendid respect for white Americans, but do not accord the same respect to black Americans. Some of us even use the derisive Amharic word baria to refer to darker-skinned black Americans. In whatever foreign country we are, when we see a black person with straight nose, large eyes, and zoma hair, we tend to say “he/she looks like an Ethiopian”, knowing that the person is not an Ethiopian. On the other hand, our heart does not accept a darker skin, a flat nose or a kinky hair person as an Ethiopian. Basically, in Ethiopia or outside Ethiopia, we Ethiopians have certain physical characteristics and features that we ascribe for ourselves, and anyone outside that artificial provenance is subject for abuse or ridicule.
In the last 35 years many Ethiopian expatriates have lived in places like Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Djibouti, and Somalia (pre-1991). Some oral and written accounts and many real life experiences in these and other African countries have indicated that many Ethiopian refugees displayed superficial cultural and racial superiority, and in many cases bombarded the natives with racial slurs. However, the cultural superiority and the racial slurs were non-existent among Ethiopian refugees who lived in Somalia and Arab countries. The reader can easily guess why! I [Ephrem] very well remember my personal experience when I was a refugee in Kenya. I had a Kenyan girl friend from Machakos who has to endure daily mocking and racial slanders [monkey, baria] from almost all of my Ethiopian friends [male, female]. To some Ethiopians, racism might look like a simple joke among equals, this is not true because when racism is expressed in the form of joke, the joke is always one directional and it is based on one side always taking pride in its superiority.
Racism is a broad topic and probably as old as humanity itself. We recognize that racism in the Ethiopian context has its own unique characteristics and should be addressed with care and sensitivity. We also recognize that there are some cultural preferences that are exhibited by some Ethiopians that could unfairly be labeled as racist in some quarters. Be that as it may, Ethiopians must rid ourselves of any kind of prejudice towards any one based on his/her skin color or physical characteristics. If and when anyone of us exhibits such foolish and backward racist behavior, as was clearly the case when the AigaForum web site attempted to denigrate the tireless human rights campaigner Obang Metho, we have a moral responsibility to confront the perpetrators and unequivocally condemn their behavior. Not only must we condemn such racist behavior, we should also put the perpetrators to public shame. If we fail to do this and turn a blind eye to racism, then we are just as guilty as the offending party.
Obang has made an eloquent call for Ethiopians to address the issue of racism in Ethiopia. We concur. We believe that the time is now for us, as Ethiopian people, to acknowledge that racism in Ethiopia is a real problem that must be confronted sooner than later. Trying to deny, hide, or downplay this very sensitive and agonizing problem will only compound our existing political divide. We do not see any valid and over-riding reason to delay this issue from being discussed at this point in time. Fighting racism is as important a human rights issue as any and by proactively and responsibly addressing this very important issue at this time head on (lest we regret not heeding this call), we will only help ensure that our struggle for human rights and democracy will be a more complete one.