WHY BLACK LIVES MATTER; IN AFRICA (A Kenyan Perspective) Part I
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
Like most cultural influences of the 21st Century, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement exploded out of the United States and took the world by storm. Thanks to social media, this explosion was impressive not only in magnitude but in how instantaneous and long lasting it was. BLM appeared on a worldwide scale, overnight, and lingered for several days despite the modern short attention spans social media reinforces.
The BLM movement exploded on popular social media platforms like Twitter through the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter - and it was easy to see why. First, police brutality against African Americans in the United States has been a longstanding issue. In fact, BLM has been around since 2013. Second, the COVID-19 pandemic left many at home. This meant people were more receptive to any slight change in their environment through the synthetic human antennae we know as our phones. The pandemic also left many frustrated from being cooped up at home and possibly out of work. Third, the death of African American George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer was the match that set off the combustion of the two preceding situations. Any unjust and frustrated society would explode from seeing such a traumatizing event.
Although it’s only human to feel like we should care about BLM, we never actually can until we understand why. We forget that as part of our biological engineering as social beings, we act out appropriate reactions to remain part of society. We act so convincingly that we fool even ourselves. It’s well and good for a man to voice his support of women and avoid being complicit in the inescapable misogyny of a patriarchal society, but if he doesn’t understand why to do those things it is nothing more than a convincing act. It’s the same with the BLM movement. In Kenya, one can certainly identify with being black, but not with the racist police brutality.
Police brutality is an equally significant issue in Kenya. Yet, Kenyan police are as black as the citizens. When viewed form the surface, it does not appear to be racially driven. Racism in Kenya is more obvious in less extreme contexts. Black Kenyans, especially the poorest, are given less-preferential treatment in services, either by government or private business like restaurants. Since the racism and violence appear separate, does BLM matter in Kenya the same way it does in the United States?
Do we as Kenyans and Africans appreciate the deep and structural nature of racist police brutality? To avoid a mere social media ‘act’ of solidarity, have we asked ourselves: Why should BLM matter in Kenya and Africa?
Welcome to this short series of articles on BLM in Africa, written from a Kenyan perspective. Although these articles will be written from the perspective of one African country, it is written with the understanding that the issues discussed apply to many other African countries as a result of a shared colonial history.
Racism, the Root of the Evil
At the heart of BLM is the fight against racism. Without racism, the movement would not be about “Black Lives” but about “All Lives” in response to police brutality alone. In fact, #AllLivesMatter was a counter hashtag on social media that aimed to steer the narrative away from race and keep attention on solely police brutality in the United States. It’s true, as a universal principle all lives do matter. Article 3 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR):
“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”
The UDHR is a document setting out the world’s intention, through the United Nations, to set out fundamental human rights to be protected by all governments. People and societies being imperfect means there is a continuous struggle in every country to ensure that everyone’s lives matter. Imperfection means there will be occasional failures on this front. However, what BLM aims to highlight is that when the failures begin to affect people of African descent specifically, as a result of intentional or complicit actions, then there is a clear sign that the lives of those people matter less. That, is racism.
With the struggle against racism as the foundation of the movement, we begin to see why we should care about BLM in Africa and Kenya. The systematic failure of the United States to protect the lives of African Americans stems from the historical racist treatment of African slaves. Slavery and segregation may have ended, but the idea that the lives of Africans matter less is still strongly prevalent. Yet, there is even more reason we should care. Colonisation in Africa produced the same racist treatment of Africans on their own continent.
In Kenya, the root of many social evils experienced today is still racism. However, the history is different, and the manifestation more complex. Kenya’s history is one of colonialism; another child of racism. Unlike its rougher siblings - apartheid, slavery, and segregation - colonialism is more finely clothed. All of colonialism was, and continues to be, justified by the idea that the coloniser brought knowledge, culture, and civilisation to the natives. But at its heart, colonialism involved the subjugation an exploitation of Africans by the coloniser. Such subjugation created a racial classification system based on the belief that the coloniser was intellectually and culturally superior to Africans. This is the very origin of racism.
For most history books, everything wrong with colonialism ended when Kenya became independent. However, we fail to realize that the racist the attitudes experienced during colonisation have lasting social effects. Independence is a legal state that may change with the stroke of a pen. Racism is a mental state and is not so easily dismissed.
Kenya’s independence left a power vacuum when colonial administrators left the country to govern itself. When Kenyan elites rose into government positions left behind, the idea that the Africans mattered less than the colonisers transformed into the idea that ordinary citizens mattered less than the ruling Kenyan elites. In addition, the classification of the colonisers as the preferred racial group was maintained. Instead of re-educating the newly independent Kenyans of their own worth, Kenyan elites used their wealth and influence to equate themselves to the colonisers. This created a classism that has permeated Kenyan society to this day, masking an internalized racism towards the ordinary citizens of Kenya.
Internalized racism is the complex manifestation of Kenya’s racist colonial past. Internalized racism is a social product of racial classification systems that existed in a society such as apartheid, slavery, segregation, and colonialism. It is, in a sense, a grandchild of racism. Through it, members of a racial group reproduce the oppression experienced under previous racial classification systems. People of one race treat each other as inferior in relation to other racial groups considered “better” under the racial classification system.
When Kenyan elites used wealth and influence to equate themselves to the colonial racial group, they admitted subconscious idea of inferiority. Worse still, having elevated themselves, they continued to spread the racist idea other Kenyans remained inferior. Thus, many more Kenyans become subconsciously racist against themselves by taking up colonial beliefs: that they as ordinary Kenyans matter less. Less than those of the colonial racial group, and less than the Kenyan elite who use their wealth and influence to “equate” themselves to the colonial race.
Recognizing that this destructive type of thinking still exists helps us see that even in Kenya, black lives matter less.
Having introduced the genesis of Kenya’s own problems with recognizing the value of its own black people, the next article in the series will outline the key events in Kenya’s colonial history that created the problem, and led to the police brutality we see today.