Listen up — I’ve got a confession to make: I call black people my slaves. Quite frequently. Matter of fact, I do it on a daily basis.
(Cue: “wow who do you think you are you self-entitled ill-informed privileged war-waging racist have you ever thought of how this could possibly oppress and violate the rights of–“)
And what’s even stranger is that people here in Senegal love it when I call them my slaves.
(Cue: “how dare you?????? how can you just assume that—“)
Let me explain.
Amidst the recent dramatic increase of armed conflicts in African countries, Senegal stands out as an unusual case. A model of political stability in Western Africa, it is known for its spectacularly low levels of ethnic, identity-based tension. In the span of more than 50 years after its independence, not once had a coup attempt been successfully carried out.
So, how do they do it? What’s their secret?
Were they blessed with a simple stroke of The Modern International Organizations’ magic wand? Have they been enlightened by the intervention of Western Development and Conflict Management — adopting progressive governmental (edit: one-size-fits-all) models like “human rights”, “electoral democracy” and “free markets”?
Quite the opposite, actually. The cornerstone of Senegal’s governance is of its ethnicities and traditions: a particular practice locally known as “kal” or joking kinship.
This phenomenon exists between different family last names and ethnic clan groups. According to anthropologist Dennis Galvan, it “typically centers on regularized patterns of mutual ribbing, insulting and teasing, with primary themes of historic subordination/slavery and food insecurity.” (Galvan, 2006)
For example, in my case, as the host daughter of a woman from the Serer ethnic group, my given name is Codou Faye. (Fun fact: some Serers take after their mother’s last name since we are a matrilineal ethnic group.) And if I so happen to meet a person who owns a last name originating from the Toucouler ethnic group, our conversation would go a little something like this:
Toucouler: What’s your name?
Me: Codou Faye. And you?
Toucouler: Ndeye Diallo. You’re a Serer! You’re my slave then.
Me: You got it all wrong, Serers are actually the slave owners of the Toucoulers!
Toucoulers: What did you have for dinner last night? Must be cerre (couscous).
By considering joking kinship as a form of informal institutional syncretism, it helps us to make sense of the country’s origins, transformations and contemporary political deployments. These seemingly-stereotypical statements are made based on the shared knowledge of historical facts: The Toucoulers had once introduced a rigid structure of caste systems among the Serer people and enslaved them. The Serers were traditionally farmers who produced and sold large amounts of couscous.
Not only does humor allow differences and particularities to be celebrated, it also creates solidarity and one’s sense of self-identity within the community. It breaks the ice by ironically playing with the clichés itself.
Theoretically speaking, political correctness carries the royal aims of preaching justice, equity and empathy. It shines a protective light upon the suffering of minority groups whom are traditionally overlooked by the dominant forces in society. However, living in a political climate where even the traditional safeguards of political correctness can no longer seem to contain hatred, I can’t help but question the effectiveness of such ideology. Most often times, it only instills guilt that cannot be productively remitted to solving the problem.
I believe that universalism is not merely being able to recognize everyone’s struggles, but also the effort to effectively bring these struggles together to resolve it. As one of my favorite (Slovenian, post Marxist, psychoanalytic) philosophers Slavoj Zizek would say,
“Political correctness is just oppressed, controlled racism. It is just a form of self-discipline that doesn’t really allow you to overcome racism [or differences in general].” Whereas when people are brutally straightforward and tell each other jokes about themselves and each other (the dirtier the joke the better), “they function as that little bit of obscene contact that establishes proximity between us.” Much like the joking kinship, the effect would be a “wonderful sense of shared obscene solidarity.”
(Of course, I’ll have to end this on a confession, less controversial this time, more politically correct, but still, 100% honest: I absolutely love seeing how social interactions radically differ from one society to another and thus employing radically different ways of channeling conflict.)