Mythologies of Skin Color and Race in Ethiopia

Slave Market

Slave Market (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Keb Meh

Blumenbach…singled out a particular group as closest to the created ideal and then characterized all other groups by relative degrees of departure from this archetypal standard. He ended up with a system that placed a single race [Caucasian] at the pinnacle, and then envisioned two symmetrical lines of departure from this ideal toward greater and greater degeneration… his ideas have reverberated in ways that he never could have anticipated… (Gates, 2013, p. 5)”

The often told myth of creation in Ethiopia is that God, when He went to create man, placed a lump of clay (or dough) into His oven. God’s first effort was a failure, He had taken out the mixture too early and it was white, and from it white-skinned peoples were created. God, not happy with that creation, would try again but on this occasion He kept the mixture in the oven for too long. Contrary to His previous effort, it was black and from that God made black peoples. God, unhappy still, would place a third mixture in His oven. On this occasion, it would appear that the oft-repeated cliché ‘third time’s a charm’ rings true even for the God of Abraham. It would seem that having learnt from His previous failures that God knew when to take the clay-dough out of the oven and from this well-baked specimen were born the Ethiopians.

Hermeneutical approaches have typically (and rightly) recognized that this creation story should be read as a metaphorical explanation rather than a literal explanation (the literal explanation accepted by the Northern Highlanders of Ethiopia was and is the Orthodox Church’s Genesis Story). However, in this creation story there is an obvious rhetoric vision; the Ethiopian as the racial ideal with two symmetrical lines of departure, on one side stood black people and on the other stood white people – both below.

Slavery had been a custom in Ethiopia since antiquity as it had been for all of the trading empires of antiquity. However, the institution evolved from being a product of trade with other empires of antiquity (Rome, Greece, Egypt, Persia) to a consequence of warfare between the Muslims of north Sudan and the Christians of northern Ethiopia. Slavery, or rather slaves, was tied to warfare as opposed to racial constructs. Nonetheless, the Middle Ages and Early Modern would see Ethiopia enveloped in the extensive Arab slave trade and it is here one can trace the racialization of slavery.

From the Middle Ages, Ethiopian “people made careful distinction between themselves and Negroid people,” this was a consequence of Ethiopian merchants having been at the forefront of fulfilling the insatiable demands of the Indian Ocean slave trade. Ethiopians by being Christians were (technically) not to enslave one another. The result of Ethiopia’s participation in this international slave trade was the creation of what was to become a firmly entrenched pseudo-scientific racial hierarchy which placed the black peoples hunted for sale (denigratingly referred to as barya), who lived on the periphery of imperial Ethiopia’s then expanding boundaries, at the bottom and justified that brutal exploitation. Their intellect, religious customs, civilizations, and, most importantly, appearance would all come to be a racialized phenotype that could not be ‘cleansed’ by being included in the Ethiopian empire nor through inter-marriage.

So potent were these phenotypical delineations that a linguistic culture of slave/non-slave dialectic emerged to describe barya physicality (very dark skin, nappy hair, flat nose, thick lips) and behavior (oversexed, jovial, child-like, stupid). Furthermore, a complex (and ridiculous) racial classification came to be to categorize the children of mixed-heritage (slave and that of their Ethiopian slaveowner). There were names to describe those of 1/16th black heritage.

It is tempting for Western scholars to relate these racial constructs to Western ones. P. T. Tucker described Ethiopia’s racial distinctions between their brown, yellow and red selves from the darker peoples they enslaved as “peculiar kind of prejudiced” because it existed “in both America and Ethiopia”. Tucker makes a truly false comparison, ignoring that Ethiopia’s peculiar prejudices extended to the ‘poorly baked’ white races. The disastrous Jesuit efforts in the 16th century and the interactions of Ethiopian slave merchants with Muslim Arab traders as early as late antiquity had crafted an image of white peoples as ungodly, untrustworthy, mischievous and oversexed. Blackness was equated with a filial piety comparable to beasts of burden but whiteness with jackals, and that was so much worse. Furthermore, in Tucker’s determination to relate Ethiopia’s prejudicial racial structures he ignores the nuances that existed between the dominant ethnic groups of Ethiopia’s Empire (Tigrayans, Amharas, Oromos) and the minority castes that inhabited the middle ground between the black slaves, and the Northern Highlanders.

In our classes, we have critically discussed the use of historical narratives as explanations for the transnational constructs that exist in modernity. In these classes, we have touched upon authors that have discussed the historicity of lightness and its valorization in India, Korea, China and Japan. In this short essay, I wished to discuss the historical narratives behind Ethiopia’s beauty ideals (or rather the beauty ideals of Northern Ethiopia). Ethiopia in many ways makes for a fascinating discussion on beauty. The infrastructure of domestic slavery, black peoples as serfs tasked with menial and agricultural tasks, in Ethiopia existed until the overthrow of the ruling Imperial House of the Ethiopian Empire in 1974. The head of Ethiopia’s Stalinist Junta Mengistu Haile Mariam said, “In this country some aristocratic families automatically categorise people with dark skin, thick lips and kinky hair as ‘Barias’. Let it be clear to everybody that I shall make these ignoramuses stoop and grind corn!”

That system of enslavement was inextricably tied with a racial hierarchy and pseudo-racial myths for many centuries. It is, sadly, still a well-remembered institution among Ethiopia’s war generation, baby boomers and Generation X. Therefore, it still reverberates throughout society. Ethiopia is only now beginning to industrialise, its middle income minority is slowly burgeoning and consuming foreign media content. It is here, at this cross-roads that it will be interesting to see how beauty standards informed by Ethiopia’s centuries old racial hierarchy will evolve.

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The links between migration, trafficking, and slavery

Trafficking In Persons Report Map 2010

Trafficking In Persons Report Map 2010 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Alonso Meraz

There are many migrant workers who go to a different country to work and make money and send it home. Some do difficult jobs, but many are choosing to do those jobs in order to make money. But what if someone is being forced to work against their will? What if someone was sent to a different country and forced to do some kind of work that they don’t want to do? Well that is called human trafficking.

Human trafficking can be defined as the trading of people for forced labor, sex slaves, and commercial sexual slavery. Trafficked people are forced into forced labor such as prostitution, sexual pornography, or hard physical labor with little to no pay. Human trafficking can happen to people of either gender and even children. It often occurs in developing countries, but also occurs in developed countries as well. Often people are kidnapped and transported to other countries, and they can also be traded within their own country. According to the organization called “Do something” it is estimated that a slave costs $90.

And there are approximately 30 million slaves who were trafficked on earth today. The human trafficking industry is the third largest crime industry in the world, and can make a profit of $32 billion dollars a year. Many slaves are kidnapped, or tricked and deceived into slave work. Many women are promised a good job, and benefits. Some are offered an education, or something better than the life they are living now. But once they are taken and realize what kind of work they must do, it is difficult and dangerous to escape. They are lied to, and are forced into becoming slaves. Run away teens, homeless, drug addicts, tourists and people living in poverty are common victims of human trafficking.

It is sad to think that such a thing is occurring in the world today. These people are having their lives, their freedom, and rights stolen from them. They have no choice but to obey their owners. Woman are forced to have sex, and perform sexual acts for their owners. And children are forced to work long hours for their owners. Most slaves have no way out, and don’t know how to escape. They may have no where to go, or fear being punished by their owners. Many of them even join the criminal organization and help bring in new slaves in fear that they might be punished if they disobey their owner.

The question is why are these human trafficking organizations still around today?? Why hasn’t anyone put a stop to them? Well there actually are many organizations who are fighting and trying to stop human trafficking. Organizations like, The IOM (International Organization for Migration), are trying to save trafficked humans and put an end to it. There needs to be more awareness of what is going on in the world, and people need to understand the dangers that are out there, and understand how to keep their guard up and recognize human traffickers. I think the more awareness that is raised the less likely it is for someone to be traded into human trafficking.

Tackling human trafficking, the modern form of slavery

Trafficking of women, children and men

by Anastasia Maillot

As I read several parts from Rhacel Parreñas’ Illicit Flirtations: Labor, Migration and Sex Trafficking in Tokyo she introduced me to a rather terrifying fact. Philippine women migrating to Japan in search of hostess jobs are the most trafficked population in the world, working in conditions where their passports are taken and where they have no other option but to continue working in what I would call modern slavery or servitude with a nonexistent salary. As a response to the growing issues concerning Philippine migrants, the Japanese government has imposed stricter rules to entertainment visas, which has in turn barred the route for legal ways into the country and caused illegal entry through middlemen to flourish. Although Parrenãs brings out the positive in hostess work by explaining that few of the Philippine women feel like victims but instead see it as a way to gather money for their future or their families back home, I think there is a huge problem here, something that seems almost ignored; these women live in servitude, a form of modern slavery. This is not a job they do out of good will but because they have no choice.

Wasn’t slavery supposed to be over since the civil war? After reading Parreñas, I had to investigate and see it for myself. The truth is, there are more people living in slavery today than ever before. The site Free The Slaves estimates that at least 27 million people live in slavery, half of them being children. Moreover, I was shocked even further to find out from Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State, that human trafficking more specifically is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world. This means that today, what crosses our borders most often are not drugs or weapons, but human beings treated as mindless objects and sold into servitude. So, no, slavery is not over and it would be a mistake to say that it does not exist in the Global North, because it does. There seems to be this misconception that whatever atrocities happen in the Global South do not happen in “our countries”. We fail to understand that this phenomenon is everywhere around us, in factories, mines, brothels, farms, restaurants and construction sites. We simply close our eyes from the fact that we carry clothing made with extremely cheap labor and eat food from farmers that are deliberately exploited. Sometimes we even convince ourselves that anyone working as a stripper or as a hostess is most likely doing it because they chose to do so and want to.

Parreñas does say that people get involved into this because of the need for money. The Philippines is a good example as a country, because of its economic dependence on these women who leave their country in search for a better income either as hostesses or nannies. But this also puts these women in very fragile positions in host countries, as some of them might be ready to do anything to feed their family back home. This sense of necessity exists everywhere. There have even been cases in the US where parents have sold their children into slavery, although it remains more marginal than in the Global South. Still, we participate into this process by providing the demand to those middlemen, who then go out to look for these women, children or even men. We need to stop ignoring the alarming fact that more and more people are becoming victims due to economic necessities and do something about it, as trafficking and thus slavery is an issue that affects every nation in the world.

Governments have generally been slow or reluctant to do anything about trafficking, preferring to cover the issue with a band aid and hoping that things will eventually get better. Now, I understand the difficulty of tracking down the middlemen who sell these victims, not to mention the buyers or the customers. However, I came across a reading, Not For Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade and How We Can Fight It, by David Batstone, that introduced me to several different cases of slavery and trafficking in different countries and how the problem was successfully dealt with. Most often people have witnessed face to face the difficulties of the victims, felt compassionate and started searching for alternatives. In Thailand for example, a woman set up a jewelry business in which she recruited women from brothels, giving them a proper job, opportunities and restored their self-confidence. In Peru, a local woman provided temporary housing and activities out of benevolence for street children who face violence, trafficking and uncertainty every day. In many countries, most notably in Italy, churches work actively to rescue victims of trafficking and pulling them out of slavery by giving them a better life with opportunities. By working locally, we can make things change, but this requires the effort of everyone, not just “the chosen few”. As the example of Parreñas on the Japanese government showed, simple restrictions and ignorance of the actual heart of the issue will not solve anything, but instead create more illegal routes for trafficking and slavery to happen. A wider safety net for trafficked people is needed and the victims should not be punished for coming to the police and asking for help.

It is easy to ignore these issues, to think that it isn’t happening in your country or that it is too difficult to get involved. By thinking like this we will never be able to change things and rescue victims from the unacceptable conditions they live in all over the world. I acknowledge that with the resources we have now it is not possible to save everyone, but in order to tackle these issues we must think positively and proceed step by step. There are many options out there for us to explore, many cases in which local people have taken a step forward and done something about it. Even one victim with better opportunities, a real job and a much better life is already a victory in our battle against human trafficking and slavery.

Can “color talk” be a proxy for “race talk”?

by JeeJee Yoon

Throughout the centuries, the world has evolved to become closer and smaller society, as trade between countries and the world population have increased. People share each other’s cultures and economical interests in daily life within this global village. The number of immigrants and migrants occupies a large percentage, so it is easy to find people who look different from the local people in many places (except some closed societies such as North Korea). As situations are changing in this way throughout the world, it is not an abnormal situation to see people with different outlooks anymore.

As the world becomes more and more diversified by having all different types of people, however, the category has been created to divide people into superiority of haves and have-nots. Because of the long history of colonization and African slave era, whites take up the higher part of the stratification of the category while blacks occupy the bottom part. With the appearance that one possesses, whether the person has bright skin color, pointed nose, or oval facial shape of white features became a criteria of racial categorization.

Talking about race, however, can hurt people as it reminds them of their history of the past being oppressed and ruled by the invaders (mostly whites). Thus, some places are trying to avoid talking about  race and rather, talking about how one’s skin color looks. In Veracruz, Mexico, people freely express the darkness or whiteness of one another’s skin color. When Veracruzanos are asked to speak about race, they hesitated and tried to avoid the question. Instead, Veracruzanos brought “color” talk, just saying that their skin is brown, light brown, or dark brown. One reason of this color talk is that Veracruz was one of the largest importers of African slaves in Spanish America where their ancestors were suppressed. Therefore, people in Veracruz avoid speaking out of the race that hurts the feeling and reminds of the oppressed history of their ancestors.

As we can see the case study of Veracruz, Mexico, it is hard for people to say about the race directly because of the history. However, it seems much easier for people to indicate how the color of skin looks like. Raising the issue of skin color seems less aggressive to others and less sensitive to listeners than bringing up the race. Not only the feeling of the people, but also “color talk” is efficient for today’s globalized world. It is unclear to trace one’s race for some people as they have complex mixed family tree. Moreover, there is no clear dividing line on indicating one’s race in many nations. It is not easy to understand one’s race fully because it can hurt people and also the society itself does not have clear boundary lines on race. Thus, I believe “color talks” can replace the realm of “race talk”, which is happening in Veracruz.