There was a time, not too long ago, where I used to take part in the very same divides that I now speak and write against. As much as I inveigh against manufactured differences, six years ago I used to deride all “white” people and blame them for all the sins of the world. I used to also vilify Republicans and castigate anyone who did not accept my political orthodoxy.
It took a dance with misfortune, a journey where I lost everything and my life transformed from living in a premium condominium in Falls Church, Virginia to residing on the sidewalks of Greenville, South Carolina, for me to put away tribalism and stop looking at this world through the lens of “us versus them”. Living next to a sea of humanity struggling with homelessness and enveloped by poverty gave the wisdom to realize that there is a commonality of our pains that transcend our differences. A fact that crystalized the minute I saw a seven year old “white” girl in the same mission I was living in, tears washing away decades of indoctrination.
During the heydays of my community organizing phase, an Ethiopian comedian who decided to become an advocate for justice pulled me to the side once and said “Teddy, once your eyes open, you can’t close them back again”. It is precisely because my eyes have opened to the ways humanity is sliced and diced into an endless list of identities and categories—all in order to manufacture dissension—that I am so adamant about the need for us to unite and stop fighting over labels that have been imposed upon us.
To my great dismay, far from coming together and forming a coalition of the marginalized, the zeitgeist is one where society is walking in the opposite direction. People who have little bashing others who have a bit more, fighting over who is privileged instead of uniting to ensure equity for all and letting the caste systems of race, gender, religion, identities and ideologies condition us to view justice through the silos of social constructs; we insist upon ourselves as we simmer in the boils.
When I was in college, I wrote a paper about the way tribalism was weaponized in Africa by colonizers in order to subdue nation after nation. It was not the guns of Europeans that conquered the Zulus, Igbos, Hutus and a litany of civilizations in the continent that was once called Ethiopia; rather it was the way the French, British, Dutch and exploiters from the north manipulated communities who lived next each other for centuries to take up arms against each other instead of defending their common interests.
The country that escaped the fate that met every country in Africa was my native land Ethiopia. We resisted the menace of despots because we united when perils arrived at our doorsteps. The Battle of Adwa, a historical moment where an African nation defeated a European power, would not have been possible if my ancestors did not rally to the flag in order to defend a common foe that would have oppressed all. Our solidarity was greater than the guns and cannons of fascists with ill intentions.
Fast-forward a century and two scores later and what is evident in Ethiopia is not the unity of our forefathers but the toxic identity politics and ethnic grievances that is fracturing the country. A country that has enough natural resources and human capital to prosper on her own is instead reduced into a beggar nation because we refuse to get over our differences. As millions are indentured to a life of hopelessness and poverty, too many insist on seeking tribal justice and exacting vengeance. Ethiopia is teetering on the precipice of a failed state and a potential implosion because we refuse to see the commonalities of our pains.
These same tribal prisons that incarcerate tens of millions of Ethiopians and Africans writ large in a perpetual cycle of deficit and anguish is the reason why the American dream has transformed into a dystopian nightmare. It is tribalism that prevents poor “whites” from uniting with poor “blacks”, it is sectionalism that makes us act like crabs in a barrel, it is identity politics that makes fellow strugglers bash others who struggle. People who feel aggrieved on all sides are conditioned by a constant stream of demagoguery that incite passions, demonizes “others” and ghettoizes America into warring camps based on social constructs. Our politics, national discourse and pursuits of social justice are all filtered through the prism of division, this is why the bottom 90 percent’s pie keeps getting subtracted while the few who have much multiply their riches.
Tribalism is at the root of inequalities and so much suffering throughout the world. In a world where capitalism is king, those who are united always prosper while those who are splintered whither. The wealthy act in one accord; they don’t fight over politics, the only color they see is green and their only ideology is profits. The rest of us, the marginalized super-majority, refuse to follow suit; instead of coming together to defend our interests, we claw at each other and fight over crumbs. The foundation of all inequalities is economics and the ability, or the lack thereof, for people to build their own lives with their hands, is the source of all frictions.Fighting over political affiliations, skin complexion, gender identification, religious affiliation only prevents us from seeing our common affliction. #DividedUS Click To Tweet
I feel like I’m screaming into the night only to be heard by darkness when I write of these things; too many are caught up in the snares of tribal hustles to realize that they are getting bamboozled by opinion leaders who are getting paid by the very system they pretend to be fighting. I have to remind myself that I too was in that place not too long ago, I just hope that folks walk away from these “us versus them” wars voluntarily instead of arriving at wisdom through concrete pillows and donated blankets like I once did.
One of my favorite speeches of all time is one that Robert Kennedy gave about the mindless menace of violence. In that speech, he talks about the “wielders of brute force” who are hell-bent on inducing bloodshed and fostering violence that begets more violence only to abort justice.
“It is not the concern of any one race. The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. They are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings loved and needed. No one – no matter where he lives or what he does – can be certain who will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed. And yet it goes on and on.” ~ Robert F. Kennedy
To this day, every time I hear that speech, I am shaken to the core and occasionally moved to tears. RFK was speaking to the very heart of injustice and how humanity suffers because we “honor swagger” over those who speak to our better angels. He also beautifully conveys that the human struggle is not limited by the identities that have been drilled into our heads.
“We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all.”
These are the melodies of redemption that Robert Kennedy was whispering into the ears of those who could listen. Sadly, and not accidentally, RFK life was snuffed out not too long after he gave that speech. There is a common ground to be found if only we would see each other as brothers and sisters in the same struggle instead of thinking we are each other’s foes.
In the words of RFK, there is a bond of common faith, a common goal that is shared by all, that can lead us to justice if we only listen to freedom’s song instead of being blinded by the flames of tribalism and indifference that is consuming the world. May we put away all isms and rally behind our common humanity::
“We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.” ~ Robert F. Kennedy
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