Being darker makes being a migrant much harder
South Africa is becoming infamous on the world stage for its violent, even deadly, xenophobia. Attacks periodically erupt. Often the targets are African foreign nationals as well as Bangladeshis and Pakistanis.
Similarly, in India, xenophobic sentiment is aimed at Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and African migrants, some of whom have even lost their lives.
Yet, in my research on migration to India and South Africa, I found that migrants’ experiences vary greatly: while many experienced xenophobia, many did not. In fact, there were migrants in both societies who were warmly received and enjoyed xenophilia – the love of foreigners.
The aim of my research was to try to find out why some foreigners are welcomed with open arms while others are denigrated, or even murdered.
I found that socio-economic status was extremely significant. Two additional characteristics also determined what daily life in a new country was like for a person: their skin colour and their country of origin. Local people assign values to these characteristics.
Wealthier, lighter-skinned migrants were often the most warmly greeted, especially those from “developed” countries with “First World cultural capital”.
In a skewed, unequal global economy, it is important to understand how the experiences of white or light-skinned migrants compare to darker-skinned migrants. This comparison enables an analysis of how prejudice and privilege affect daily life.
In South Africa, as in India, whiteness or lightness often denotes power and prestige. There are many stereotypes associated with skin colour. For example, the label “yellow-bone” is often used in South Africa as a compliment to women with light brown skin. The term is associated with US slavery.
In South Africa, dark skin is often used as a way to identify foreigners during xenophobic attacks. (Stereotype holds that South Africans are “light” but this is not true as they can have any skin tone.) In India, dark skin is often associated with poverty, partially due to the hierarchichal caste system.
When a migrant enters the new society, the local population tends to “read” the migrant’s skin tone and then assign it positive or negative associations. Thus to understand the migrant experience, we must understand these associations and stereotypes.
Skin colour dictates what opportunities and challenges occur in a migrant’s daily life.
For example, previous research found that darker-skinned migrants to the US received significantly lower wages than migrants with the same qualifications who had fairer complexions.
My research, which involved collecting data through interviews, focused on middle-class professionals who had left more industrialised countries such as Japan, South Korea and those in the West to live in industrialising countries like India and South Africa.
In India, white men told me how their white privilege enabled them to get ahead in their business and social lives. For their part, dark-skinned African migrants told me that they were sometimes called derogatory names like “monkey.”
In South Africa, racial hierarchies affected the experiences of migrants. An American woman living in Johannesburg explained to me that being Caucausian in a highly-racialised South Africa where white people wielded a great deal of economic power afforded her a lot of clout.
If anything, I think I’m surprised by how often as a white American, people are still afraid to confront or challenge me in some way. I think there are times in which probably the colour of my skin gives me power in their eyes…
But white privilege and prejudice against dark skin are not just about a migrant’s skin colour. The reception of a migrant is also related to local attitudes about the migrant’s country of origin.
Developed country advantage
People in “emerging markets” like South Africa and India view migrants from more “developed” nations as adding value because they see them as a benefit to their own country’s development.
This belief is based on the perceived relative difference in “modernity” and “developmental” levels between different countries.
For example, in South Africa and India, the local populations tended to view their economic development as more “advanced” than that of countries like Zimbabwe or Nigeria.
Hence when South Africans and Indians encounter African migrants they associate them with the negative stereotype of being from less “developed” countries.
The inverse perception becomes a benefit for migrants from “First World” countries. Researchers in international politics illustrate how “status attribution” benefits powerful countries because their perceived status gives them even more power. This is true for migrants from powerful countries too.
Many of the middle-class professionals I studied were actually economic migrants seeking out better opportunities by moving to “developing” countries. But they were not perceived in the same way as economic migrants from poorer countries because of the admiration local people had for their country of origin.
A white American man who moved from New York to Johannesburg told me that South Africans would ask him: “Why would you choose to be here as opposed to the USA … I think the States in general, Europe in general, people look up to it.”
A white Dutch woman who had moved to Cape Town told me, “Many people think of Europe as this wonderful place of opportunity and of education … I think that’s why many people are quite open to having me.”
Developed-country advantage is not only enjoyed by white migrants. I found that skin colour, like gender, was a dependent variable that was interpreted in relation to other factors. African American, black British, and Afro-German migrants I interviewed in South Africa also reported experiencing the developed country advantage.
When a migrant benefits from positive stereotypes of being wealthier, fairer or coming from a “developed” country, xenophilia can result. The converse is that being perceived as darker, poorer and coming from an “inferior” country can factor into xenophobia.
The political motive for the Eco move is to ensure that Nigeria is permanently kept out of the currency. As Professor Ibrahim Gambari has always said, France has always defined itself as the main power block in Africa and so has always seen Nigeria's self-definition as an African power as a threat to its interests.
Last Saturday, France, through the instrumentality of its most faithful poodle in West Africa, Alasane Ouattara, kidnapped the West African currency that was to be launched next year for the 15 countries in the region. In a press conference in Abidjan, Presidents Macron and Ouattara announced that the eight West African countries using the CFA Franc currency would adopt the Eco as their new currency next year.
The announcement was done the day the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was meeting for a final adoption of Eco, also decided for 2020. The French move breaks up the 30-year struggle by ECOWAS to establish a regional currency to promote trade and development.
What France has done is that it takes over the responsibility of establishing and even printing the new currency and presents the other countries in the region with a fait accompli. France is also keeping the new currency attached to the Euro and therefore aligning it with its colonial interest, as it has always done with the CFA. This means that the other seven West African countries can only join on conditions established by France. The implication is that Nigeria is essentially kept out of the currency because the country will not accept the conditionalities established by France.
The long delay in establishing the Eco has been caused by the inability of the 15 ECOWAS countries to meet the convergence criteria they set for themselves. These are that the inflation rate of less than 5 per cent is maintained. The budget deficit is not more than 3 per cent of GDP and that each country has enough foreign reserves to cover at least three months of imports. The problem now is that after failing to meet these conditions over the past two decades, the eight countries have now adopted the currency without meeting them. This means economics has been set aside for political reasons.
There are three political factors that motivated the French decision to take over the baby that ECOWAS has had great difficulty in delivering.
France has become very unpopular in the Sahel because of widespread belief that it was pretending to fight the jihadists in public while supporting them in secret. People are saying that with its vast array of drones, planes and satellite cover, how are convoys of hundreds of terrorists able to drive over hundreds of kilometres and attack soldiers without any warning from the French.
In this tenth year of the battle against Boko Haram, in which France is a major player with troops, planes and drones on the ground, understanding the French role in West Africa is very important and my hope is that we have a strong working group following the issues.
Over the past few years, however, France has become very unpopular in the Sahel because of widespread belief that it was pretending to fight the jihadists in public while supporting them in secret. People are saying that with its vast array of drones, planes and satellite cover, how are convoys of hundreds of terrorists able to drive over hundreds of kilometres and attack soldiers without any warning from the French. These attacks have been happening with increasing regularity and devastating effect. President Macron has been very angry that Sahelians are criticising his country, that he ordered the presidents of the five Sahelian countries to report to Pau in southern France to be told off for not convincing their citizens that France is a good friend. A meeting, which was to hold this December, has been postponed to January following the killing of 71 soldiers in Niger by jihadists. France is therefore using the Eco currency launch as a public relations gimmick to rebuild its battered image.
A professor of Political Science and development consultant/expert, Jibrin Ibrahim is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Democracy and Development, and Chair of the Editorial Board of PREMIUM TIMES.
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