The confusions of definitions across borders

By Razib Khan | April 28, 2010 6:59 pm

blackheadofstateJust reading this article in Slate, How To Throw an Election:

On paper, that’s what Sudan’s 21-year civil war was all about. More than 2 million people died in that terrible religious-themed conflict between the Muslim, Arab-led north and the pagan and Christian black south. In reality, almost no one in the south bought the unity line except their charismatic (and autocratic) leader, John Garang. Garang, a favorite of the West, negotiated Sudan’s 2005 peace treaty, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, that finally ended the war. The document was essentially written to ensure he would be elected Sudan’s first black president.

How is it that the current president of Sudan (picture to the left) isn’t black, but Barack Hussein Obama is black? I’m in the category of people who think the world “race” has some utility and maps onto real patterns of human variation, but sometimes it’s just funny. The distinction between the Arabs of Sudan and blacks of Sudan is kind of weird, because Arab is not a race, and Arabs can be of any race theoretically (there are even Arabs in Yemen’s Hadhramaut who have a lot of Malaysian ancestry because of international trade), though generally they are of the olive persuasion. Perhaps the Sudanese Arab elite wouldn’t want to be identified as black because that isn’t particularly prestigious, but they’d certainly be identified as such in other Arab countries. Anwar Sadat was the subject of some racist attitudes within Egyptian society because of his Sudanese ancestry (his mother was Nubian) and his dark skin.

Anyway, my amusement was mostly the fact that they went with this text, and, added a picture of a man who most Americans would identify as black but noted implicitly that he wasn’t black. American journalists are generally punctilious about following the rule of hyodescent when it comes to Americans, even when those individuals object to this framing, such as Tiger Woods (who is twice as Asian ancestrally as he is black). But I guess in an international context they will bend more. It reminded me of stories that Afro-Arabs were often allowed to stay at “whites only” facilities in the USA when segregation was the norm because they were foreign.

Note: Hypodescent isn’t just an American issue. There are controversies about a new biopic of Alexandre Dumas where he is played by Gérard Depardieu. Some people wanted a non-white actor cast because Dumas’ mother was mixed-race. But of course Dumas was mostly white, and he seems to basically have looked like a white guy. France of the 19th century was not the American South of the 19th century, and a drop of black blood did not make you persona non grate within white society. If you want real accuracy, perhaps cast Wentworth Miller as a young Dumas, he’s a white-looking mixed-race actor.

Image Credit: Slate & Whitehouse.gov

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture
MORE ABOUT: Sudan
  • Jason Malloy

    Perhaps the Sudanese Arab elite wouldn’t want to be identified as black because that isn’t particularly prestigious, but they’d certainly be identified as such in other Arab countries.

    Yep:

    “Northerners think of themselves as Arabs, whereas the Arabs [sic] think otherwise. Northerners’ experience in the Arab world, especially in the Gulf [where many have migrated for work], proved to them beyond any doubt that the Arabs do not really consider them as Arabs, but rather as ‘abid’, slaves . . .. Almost every Northerner in the Gulf has had the unpleasant experience of being called ‘abd.’ Northern Sudanese aspire to full inclusion in the Arab community, Mukhtar concluded, but their experiences in the wider Arab world, combined with their experience of being categorized with ‘blacks’ when they migrate to Europe or North America, have compounded their anxieties.”

    For a good treatment, check out the book Race and Identity in the Nile Valley.

    Anyway, I think it is understood that ‘black’ is a social category. The complexities of racial identity in the Sudan are legitimately outside the scope of the Slate article, IMO. There doesn’t need to be a one to one correspondence between the Sudanese and the American definition.

  • patrick

    Northern Sudanese are both “Arab” and “black”- in other words, they are Arabic speakers of predominantly sub-Saharan African descent. They differentiate themselves from other Sudanese groups, who tend to have darker complexions on average and speak Nilo-Saharan or Niger-Kordofanian languages rather than Arabic. While the Arabs of Darfur are herders and their non-Arabic-speaking Fur, Massalit and Zaghawa enemies are farmers, the Arabs of the Nile Valley (President Bashir’s people) are also mostly farmers.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    in other words, they are Arabic speakers of predominantly sub-Saharan African descent.

    yes, but that’s not the definition of “black” in many parts of the world. in the USA it is anyone who has any visible african features, or, who has black ancestry and self-identifies as black. barack obama is not predominantly SSA, he’s 50%, and that’s well above the necessary threshold. in fact, in the recent DNA special on PBS none of the black people henry louis gates jr. interviewed or discussed (himself inclusive) were more than 50% black. most were majority white. in contrast in sudan the metric is inverted obviously. it all makes historic sense, but it’s kind of funny when you’re talking internationally.

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    Dumas is an example I find personally interesting. I had not known of his mixed ancestry until recently. The first time I saw a picture of him, I had serious cognitive dissonance in that he did not look French to me almost at all. I suspect this was exacerbated by the fact that in my mind Dumas is an almost prototypical Frenchmen.

  • Jason Malloy

    What the Slate article could’ve done was put up a picture of Garang with Bashir, and then All Would Be Understood.

  • toto

    What the Slate article could’ve done was put up a picture of Garang with Bashir, and then All Would Be Understood.

    Eh!

    The folk concept of “races”, like many social constructs, is a translation of messy realities (in this case, differences in allele frequencies) into essential in-groups and out-groups. The corollary is that they are intrinsically comparative and relative, and thus depend very much on the social situation being discussed – i.e. which groups we are considering.

    So Bashir is “Black” relative to a European or a Syrian, but “Arab” relative to Garang.

    I suppose the same reasoning applies to “class”, this other social construct based on similarly messy, but very real, bases. E.g. the British well-off insisting on calling themselves “middle class”.

  • http://www.sonicrampage.org/blog Pearsall

    American journalists are generally punctilious about following the rule of hyodescent when it comes to Americans, even when those individuals object to this framing, such as Tiger Woods (who is twice as Asian ancestrally as he is black). But I guess in an international context they will bend more.

    See also the widespread idea that Dominican baseball players are somehow not black because they are Latino.

  • M-K

    Just for the record, it was the father of Dumas, pere, who was half black, his mother having been a Haitian slave and his father a French aristocrat. Dumas, pere, was thus a quarter black.

  • Jason Malloy

    So Bashir is “Black” relative to a European or a Syrian, but “Arab” relative to Garang.

    I should note that Northern Sudanese probably don’t have much Arab admixture, rather they are mostly indigenous Nubians who have adopted Arab culture. Cavalli-Sforza found that they were most genetically similar (nearly identical) to Ethiopians and populations from the Horn of Africa. Surprisingly they were also quite distant from the populations of Southern Sudan.

  • http://www.iSteve.blogspot.com Steve Sailer

    A white actor wouldn’t be allowed to play, say, WEB DuBois in America. If he got made up to look partly black he’d be accused of “blackface.” For example, Sir Anthony Hopkins was supposed to play an Anatole Broyard-style passing character in “The Human Stain” but they didn’t dare put any makeup on him that made him look like anything other than a Welshman. In the flashbacks, Wentworth Miller was terrific, however.

    But, Depardieu is something of a national monument in France, like Dumas in his day.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    but they didn’t dare put any makeup on him that made him look like anything other than a Welshman.

    but the “stereotypical” (or at least distinctive) welshman is quite dark!

    compare ion gruffudd
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:IoanGruffudd-20070504.jpg

    anatole boyard
    http://wrightswords.files.wordpress.com/2009/08/broyard_anatole_head_300.jpg

  • JL

    A white actor wouldn’t be allowed to play, say, WEB DuBois in America. If he got made up to look partly black he’d be accused of “blackface.”

    Angelina Jolie played the somewhat black Mariane Pearl in “A Mighty Heart”. She was made up to look black for the role: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/photo/2006/10/11/PH2006101100490.jpg

  • Jason Malloy

    compare ion gruffudd…

    Or Catherine Zeta Jones, who looks quite Mediterranean.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    she’s not fair. 1/4 greek. but from what i know the dark welshman is a british “type.” that doesn’t mean most welsh are even dark, just that really dark british people who have deep native roots are much more likely to be welsh.

  • Gav

    … or black Irish indeed.

    “… some say he’s black,
    But I say he’s bonny,
    The fairest of them all,
    My handsome winsome Johnny”

    Interesting contrast with Dumas that (approximate) contemporaries George Bridgetower and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor are usually described as black.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    gav, both those individuals were half black half white. that’s a big difference from someone with only one black grandparent. barack obama’s niece is 1/4 white and 3/4 asian, which is obviously very different from his sister, who is 1/2 asian and 1/2 white. i recall watching a documentary about obama in his chicago days, and a local black activist talked about the fact that south siders had no issues with his associations with white north shore types. after all, “his sister is white.” which goes to show that she was perceived as white as a eurasian, while her daughter, who is 1/2 chinese, 1/4 indonesian and 1/4 european, probably would not be.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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