Saturday, October 18, 2014

Labels and Identity

Raven-Simone said in a recent interview with Oprah that she was tired of labels and didn’t want to be called gay or African-American, but simply American because it’s all encompassing. She also added she didn’t know where in Africa her ancestors originated from, but knew her roots were in Louisiana. Oprah’s prediction that her comments were going to create a storm on social media came true shortly after the interview aired. People were up in arms over Raven’s interview with most feeling she was disassociating herself from African-Americans.

While I understand her reason for not wanting to be tagged with labels because they are reductive, I also understand the public backlash against her comment. As much as labels can be constrictive, they can also serve to highlight or identify a marginalized people. Usually, these people have been pushed to the periphery of society or have had their rights trampled on, so for them a label is their way of saying: “We exist, we are here, and you’re going to hear us out.”

For instance, the suffragettes of late 19th century Britain advocated for women’s right to vote. Feminists seek to highlight and end gender bias against women since they have long been denied parity with men on social, economic and political affairs, even though they constitute half the world’s population; while gay advocacy groups exist to fight homophobia, educate the public and emphasize the problems gay people encounter.

The term African-American was chosen by Black Americans as a way of identifying and connecting with their origins and ancestors, who were violently robbed of their identity when they were slapped with the religion, language and names of slave masters. Black Americans may have also chosen the label, in lieu of ‘American’, to shed light on the racial inequality that has plagued them as a people from the days of slavery through the Jim Crow era down to present day America.
Labels: They make for easy identification, but can be constrictive.
Photo: Buzzfeed
Some individuals may argue that differentiation and labels only exacerbate the problem of discrimination, but does sticking one’s head in the sand and pretending that the problem doesn’t exist make it go away? People normally won’t slap labels on themselves; external forces make them do so and sometimes the epithet is given to them by the oppressor. 

Therefore, if one wishes a label away, then more should be done to eradicate the source for the labeling. Case in point: Feminism will cease to exist once gender parity is achieved; gay rights will no longer be an issue the moment discrimination against the group ends, and perhaps African-Americans will call themselves Americans the day racism against them disappears or fades away.

Although labels have their advantages, they also have their disadvantages in that they diminish a group and force people to conform to certain social or cultural norms. 

I have been told by my Nigerian and non-Nigerian friends, much to my chagrin, that I don’t act Nigerian. Although they mean no harm, I find it rather annoying. What does it even mean to act Nigerian? Does it include knowing all of Fela’s songs or scamming people via the internet? Is there a scientific formula to being Nigerian? 

While I grapple with the Nigerian question, I've also had to deal with accusations of harboring opinions that aren't African. That’s right, as an African I’m expected to possess certain thought patterns and interpret life like every African. Isn’t it hypocritical that the same people who complain about stereotyping turn on you the moment you commit a ‘thought-crime’, by not conforming to their ideas of what they consider African?

Many Africans believe a woman should know how to cook because it’s her traditional responsibility in the home. Personally, I don’t believe it’s a woman’s duty to cook for the household. However, if she’s a better cook than her husband or returns home from work before him, then by all means let her do the cooking; otherwise, the husband should do it. Having a vagina doesn’t mean one should do the cooking neither does it confer one with any cooking prowess. Besides, not all women can cook or enjoy the process – I for one am no cordon bleu chef, I hate cooking and only do so because I have to live. So do my views make me un-African or less of a woman? 

Catholic doctrine teaches that couples shouldn’t use artificial birth control methods. It also preaches that divorced couples who remarry cannot partake in Holy Communion and women cannot be ordained priests. However, in reality, there are several Catholic couples who use artificial birth control, of which the Church is aware since family size has drastically reduced, and staunchly identify with the Catholic Church. 

Also, there are Catholics who believe remarried couples should receive Holy Communion and that women should preside over Mass as priests. Should such people be excommunicated for not toeing the party line? Should they be branded non-Catholics for having differing views from those espoused by the Church?

It’s true that we are products of our environment, but that doesn’t mean we all assimilate information and experience life the same way. With the advent of the internet and cable TV, the nature of our immediate environment has been altered and expanded thereby making opinions more diverse and less parochial. Therefore, people shouldn’t expect individuals to fit the perfect mold of whatever label they have ascribed to them.

For what it’s worth, life would be much easier and better if we recognized one another as human beings without any embellishments. But since it’s impossible to do so, feel free to label; however, be prepared to be terribly disappointed.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Independence? What Independence?

Image: Shutterstock
As Nigeria celebrates her 54th year as an independent nation, ordinary Nigerians are left wondering if they’re truly independent. Nigeria, like most countries, is a multi-stratified nation composed of the haves and the have-nots, the educated and the illiterate, the ruling class and well…the rest. But in countries where the ruling class is competent, structures are put in place to ensure those at the bottom rung of the social ladder can move up, or at least benefit somewhat from the state’s wealth. Also, those in the latter categories are made to believe they aren’t being ignored, that they matter, and that all citizens have the same rights regardless of their position on the social ladder.

In Nigeria, however, that isn’t the case as inequality keeps rising under the watch of the inept ruling class. This reality has many Nigerians feeling they are second class citizens at best and a people merely occupying a land mass called Nigeria at worst. Take, for instance, the case of the Chibok school girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram in April, and still remain in captivity. If these girls were daughters of those in the ruling class, we can safely assume they would have been found within a week of their abduction – even a week is too generous a time frame. Unfortunately, since the girls’ parents aren’t part of the ruling elite, they’ve been subjected to months of silence and anxious uncertainty.

How can a country consider itself liberated when the governor of a state can brazenly demand state lawmakers to pass a bill that would allow him earn an outrageous pension to the tune of 200 million naira ($1.2 million) per year, for life, at the expense of Nigerians? In a country where more than half the population lives on less than a dollar a day, such an act should be viewed as obscene, crude and selfish.

How can a country call itself independent when civil servants overtly misappropriate public funds without any fear of imprisonment or prosecution? Case in point: The former aviation minister, Stella Oduah, ordered the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) to procure 2 armored BMW cars, ostensibly for her protection, at the inflated cost of 255 million naira ($1.6 million). While intense public backlash led to her being relieved of her duties, the setback didn’t stop her from bagging a chieftaincy title or prevent her from declaring her senatorial aspiration in next year’s election cycle.

Evidently, Nigeria is a country where politicians, for the most part, think it’s their right to gorge on public funds.

This year marked the 100th anniversary of the amalgamation of Northern and Southern Nigeria, and the Federal Government thought it wise to throw a party in Abuja and honor, amongst others, Sani Abacha, the military dictator who ruled and looted Nigeria blind from 1993 until his mysterious death in 1998. It’s been reported that during his regime, he embezzled approximately 5 billion dollars from the nation’s coffers. Why would anyone honor a dictator and a crook?

For what it’s worth, in marking the amalgamation, the Federal Government should have commissioned a series of documentaries showcasing Nigeria’s history and cultural heritage prior and subsequent to the amalgamation rather than hand out dubious awards.

In a country where corruption is the order of the day and venal politicians are being celebrated in the papers and on the streets, Nigerians have become inured to news of huge sums of public monies vanishing. Earlier this year, reports surfaced that 20 billion dollars realized from crude oil sales between 2012 and 2013 hadn’t been remitted to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), and up till now NNPC hasn't explained to Nigerians the whereabouts of said funds.

Following the disclosure of the missing funds, the then CBN governor, Lamido Sanusi, was suspended for whistle blowing, which wasn't a surprise to Nigerians since gross mismanagement of public funds and duplicity are par for the course for politicians and public officials.

As Africa’s biggest economy and largest producer of oil thumps its chest like an alpha male gorilla, roads remain in disrepair; power supply is mercurial, security iffy, while education and healthcare infrastructures are in shambles. It’s been over 50 years since the discovery of oil in Nigeria, yet she remains something of a paradox. How can a country sitting on enormous oil reserves be entrenched in poverty?

The reason the political status quo persists is because Nigerians have collectively and quietly accepted the corruption and thievery perpetrated by public officials. This tacit acquiescence arises from a deeply flawed notion that Nigerians nurse, which is that one day they’ll assume the mantle of power, and when that happens, they, too, will loot more than enough money to satisfy their greed.

This kind of thinking leads to nowhere. It’s this kind of thinking that keeps us in the abyss and blots out any chance for improvement and progress. This reasoning is a form of mental slavery, and until we expunge our minds of such base and selfish thoughts and act conscientiously, we can never claim to be truly independent.