What’s your ethnicity?
By Etyopian Simbiro
I faced a tough question when I applied for a student visa at the US Embassy in Finfine (Addis Abeba) sometime ago: “What is your ethnicity?”
“Why would my ethnicity matter to study in America?”—was the first question that knocked my head from inside. Although I believe that nothing is wrong in celebrating one’s ethnic heritage or in being asked about it, it irritates and discomforts me when it is used to shallowly define who I am just for political reasons. I really struggled to answer that one question although I was aware of my ethnicity. So I ignored it and answered the rest of the questions instead and went to the bank—Bank of Abyssinia—to submit my application (in order to speed up the application process, the embassy demands that applicants send their applications through this bank).
The person that received my application looked at the paper and politely reminded me to answer all the questions. I told her I skipped that one question on purpose since I felt uncomfortable. Although she understood my discomfort, she told me that I must answer it; otherwise my application would be considered incomplete. I asked her, “What if I don’t have one ethnic background? What if I have multiple ethnic identities?” That did not seem to bother her. She responded, “Well, choose one. Either your mother’s or your father’s side.” I argued, “What if my parents are also mixed?” This time she laughed. And she said, “Why do you care? Just put one of theirs and get over with it! What matters is that your application is complete and sent to the embassy.” Although I was not convinced, I realized it was pointless to sit there and argue. So I filled it out. This was not my first time, however, facing the challenges of ethnic federalism.
I think of ethnic federalism as such a dangerous political gambling that has exposed many people to trouble. For example, what is to happen to those who don’t completely belong to either this or that ethnic group? Is it fair to force these people to choose one side of their heritage?
The proponents of ethnic federalism claim that this ideology gives “nations and nationalities in Ethiopia the right for self determination up to secession.” They argue that this system elevates the historically marginalized ethnic groups to an equal status with their historical oppressors. Although that sounded genuine in the beginning, it has failed Ethiopians, especially those with mixed identities—denying them the same right to self-determine their destiny as their counterparts. In addition, the system has proved itself since its inception that it is not a liberator but another weapon of mass control; many of the marginalized groups are still as oppressed as they were in the past. The poor, the real losers of Ethiopia’s never ending political instability, still toil.
I believe that it is fair and legitimate to allow the various ethnic groups in Ethiopia to celebrate and to become conscious of their unique identity, to speak and to write in their languages freely, and to be recognized as the building blocks of Ethiopia; however, the new system does not seem to care for those who are in between two identities; it does not guaranty them the same rights as the rest; it does not recognize them as the building blocks of Ethiopia; it forces them to categorize themselves into one group or another; such unfair treatment goes against the whole concept of self-determination. One can self-determine and the other can’t? What kind of justice is this?
I raised this question to a friend of mine who strongly opposes the current regime but believes that ethnic federalism provides the best solution to end Ethiopia’s continual political crisis. He agreed with me, however, that Ethiopians with mixed identities have been left out of the national dialogue on self-determination. But he argued that we have a country, which still oppresses the majorities, systematically marginalizing them economically and politically; and, those with mixed identities have a history of silence, rarely challenging the system to stop the oppression but most always supporting the culturally and politically dominant side of their ethnic heritage directly or indirectly; hence, one of the reasons why the system of oppression succeeds and survives for so long until it finally collapses one day. Fair argument. However, I believe, keeping in mind historical and present injustices, everyone in Ethiopia has a fair share of national or regional politics. Any group must not be neglected from the political debate; only the agreement between the various stakeholders secures Ethiopia’s economic and political stability.
No one must neither be excluded from the political process nor completely swallowed up by one identity. Each possesses his or her own distinct identity as an Ethiopian (or as someone within the borders of Ethiopia), which all must acknowledge and respect. Whether a minority or a majority, a “pure breed” or a “mixed ethnic,” my friend and I eventually agreed that no one deserves a systematic discrimination or exploitation—every person must be treated equally for the country to stand on its feet again. If one percent out of hundred is not free, the remaining ninety nine percent of the population is also not free. As Martin Luther King once said, “injustice everywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
I believe that any political ideology that excludes certain portion of a society from its agenda cannot function well as imagined; it is doomed to face challenges or to fail miserably. It is impossible to think of Ethiopia with the absence of ethnic-conscious groups or the various people with mixed identities. Ethiopia is an amalgam of stark contrasts that have been the source of conflicts for so long. But it is possible to also use for our benefit such contrasts. Only when we design a system that is fair to all, then we will start to witness that our differences can unite us. A genuine national reconciliation is always better than a complete destruction; no one wins, the moment the house is on fire!
My parents come from a similar ethnic background. So when I eventually filled out the visa application, it did not take me a second to put the desired answer. However, I imagined how difficult it is to have a mixed background in such a polarized political environment; I myself have gone through a lot because of my ethnic identity. Although I am not ashamed to tell people about my ethnic heritage, I always feel disgusted when it is used to narrowly define me.
If I have to answer a question related to who I am, the space on the visa application document is definitely not enough because I am many things: I am Ethiopian; I have inherited my parents’ ethnic identity; I am a human being; I am black; I am African; I am a citizen of the world; I am agnostic; I admire both the Prophet Muhammad and Jesus Christ; Buddha is my hero; I was a Cheetah in my past life, etc. In short, I identify myself with many things; my ethnic identity is not the only thing that defines who I am.
Still I wonder: I understand that my ethnicity is important for the current government in Ethiopia but I still fail to understand why it is important for the US embassy.