Ayo Adene

Essay | Hidden Walls & How To Climb Them

Photo: flickr/creative common

If economic results are viewed from the secure bubble of the privileged, everything seems fine. This is why data should be disaggregated.

As someone who has worked in public health research, and also in global development, I understand the value of data.

However, data is like an onion. Until you slice through its layers, your eyes are shielded from the real impact.

That's why we disaggregate data. We want to know not just the big picture, but what makes up the big picture. That's also why we test hypotheses, and adjust for confounders and bias, before we make conclusions.

These rigorous methods are crucial because data and it's conclusions can be deceptive. The more complex the context, the more necessary it is to proceed with caution, apply scrutiny and keep a healthy dose of scepticism.

For instance, one American author recently wrote that US politicians need to learn about the Scandinavian model of Democratic Socialism. She argues that Denmark, Finland & Norway have outperformed the US because their political and economic ideologies are driven by equality. I agree. Yet in looking for simple answers, she inadvertently overlooks the one thing that makes equality evasive for the US: race.

The thing that makes Scandinavian Socialism easy, I think, is that the elite, who make decisions on behalf of society, allow the other classes to share the same privileges and aspirations. This basic idea is not applicable to the US, where race divides Americans in terms of health, education, housing, employment, security, voting rights and every other democratic privilege. Some of this divergence is incidental, while some is historically by design. The result is that when social, political and economic plans are made in the US, the same rules do not apply to all Americans. Even though the US Constitution is democratic in aspiration, these segregations remain true in practice.

Segregation by class and race is certainly not unique to America. Even the Scandinavians & the rest of Europe, for all their human development, are like the onion I described earlier. For example, in the Netherlands where I've lived for many years, official statistics show the economy is growing, jobs are abundant and unemployment is down. However, this general picture does not hold true for minorities. If the economic results are viewed from the secure bubble of the privileged (read: mainstream white Dutch majority), everything seems fine. It is also my experience that nobody asks these deeper questions unless they have reason to, such as if it affects them or someone they know. That is why we should disaggregate data: to find out if anyone is being left behind, and why.

Back home to Nigeria, where, thankfully, we don't have any problems with race.

Unfortunately, we do have structural inequalities. Mostly class, in terms of rich and poor, but also ethnicity. These play a key role in political choices, development planning and outcomes. Just like in Scandinavian countries and the US, different rules apply for different classes of Nigerians. These rules are often unspoken, and always easy to overlook, but they lead to a patchwork of outcomes where a few Nigerians are relatively well off, and most Nigerians are either struggling or extremely poor.

The solution starts from adopting a common ideology that all Nigerians are equal and we all deserve the same things. Presently, this thinking does not exist. In terms of access to health, housing, education, infrastructure and social services, what you get depends on what you can pay out of pocket- and the gaps between people are not small at all.

This sort of development is not sustainable. In fact it is not development at all. It is regression, and it ends in chaos, insecurity and the constant need to do more injustice to protect the unjust from the justice of the marginalized.

How can we know which Nigerians are being left behind? By asking the right questions. By being as critical as possible of existing data, such as recent publications showing growth in employment and GDP. That economic abracadabra is good for image, but costly for reality.

Knowing how seriously white people stare, you can never tell when observation becomes reaction

Back to Europe. Recently I visited a bookshop in the Dutch city of Rotterdam. Rotterdam is the most racially mixed city in the Netherlands. Even it's mayor is Dutch-Moroccan. Yet in this large bookshop where I sat in a cafe upstairs, there was not a black person in sight. It was bustling and filled to capacity with white folk, old and young. Many of them looked on me with what seemed at least to be ardent curiosity, but knowing how seriously white people stare, you can never tell when observation becomes reaction.

I spent four hours in that bookstore, having lunch and a tête a tête with three Dutch friends, and eventually walked three floors up and down, yet nothing changed about the racial demographics of those shopping for books in Holland's second largest and most mixed city.

I was certain that I was the only person who noticed that fact, or who was in anyway concerned by it. Again, when you are in your safe bubble, you don't question things that are outside your experience. That is the reality for most white people, who are at least 80% of the Dutch demographic, and may not question the whiteness of their spaces. In fact, the Dutch in particular resent the notion of racism. By their political constitution and level of social liberty, Nederlanders are convinced that their society treats people equally. Nowhere is this Dutch innocence louder than during debates about the monstrously anachronistic blackface festival, Zwarte Piet, which comes up once every year. The colorful soot-painted dolls called "Black Pete" are the private indulgence of the Dutch, for which they insist social justice activists look the other way. It is an absurdity that is evident to everyone except the Dutch themselves, in much the same way that Americans are fiercely protective of their Guns, or Nigerians can't see past Religion, no matter what contrary evidence exists.

Why are symbols, ideologies and underlying racial paradigms important, even if largely invisible? Because evidence consistently shows that these invisible ideas are the building blocks of social, economic and political orders, which translate into systemic disparities such as housing, education, health, employment and political representation, each of which determines the measurable outcomes of standards of living and quality of life.

These divergences are subsumed by data, because data is often not disaggregated to reveal the prejudices of the privileged majority. Again, that safe bubble: if the general picture does not threaten your personal interests, you are unlikely to question it. Whether in Norway, the Netherlands, the US or Nigeria, most people, in pursuit of national interests and patriotism prefer their development statistics to look flattering even if it risks being inaccurate, deceptive, exclusionary or blatantly false.

Someone in your country is being left behind, and your national statistics are not showing them. You need to know who they are, and why.

When I discussed my observations about the racial demographics at the Rotterdam bookstore with my partner, we both offered many reasons such as whether black and white people had divergent interests or were raised differently. I also argued that these reasons were true but not primary, and as a social researcher, it was my duty to get to the bottom of the truth and find incontestable answers.

Like past walls between East & West Germany, like future walls between Mexico and the US, there are social, economic and political barriers which have been built between the races for decades. Unlike physical walls, these walls are harder to remove because almost no one can see them, even though their effects are real.

The lack of representation I saw in the bookstore is replicated every time I go into a ballet or opera house, or some fancy eethuis where white faces greet me in mixed curiosity and consternation. It's never actually hostile, but even in a liberal society like the Netherlands, the races are still contained within invisible walls, like in this astonishing election advertisement I saw in Rotterdam yesterday. In a city where there are three times more black citizens than the Dutch average, the Labor Party has put up campaign posters featuring 15 people, male, female, old and young, but not a single black face. I use ‘black face’ intentionally, because after all, the Netherlands is the country of the annual blackface festival. So I get that black people are important for jokes, but not for votes? Thing is, you can choose not to see race, but that doesn’t undo the economic invisibility of black people in a country where school dropout rates among ethnic minorities are 4 times higher, and unemployment rates have been known to be as high as 30% among ethnic minorities. When I meet the Labor Party candidates, I’d like to ask them if the lack of representation apparent in their campaign poster was by design; or more likely because, as good Dutch people, they don’t ‘see colour’.

Late yesterday afternoon, I observed a young black boy run excitedly into a sports store. I saw a group of black friends huddled around a table at MacDonald's, chomping down greasy burgers and fries. I shopped at the electronics store where black teenagers heckled each other for a chance to try out new virtual reality games. Are these racial paradigms apparent because we all have different aspirations, or have been raised differently… or does society have an invidious and insidious way of separating classes and races by building invisible walls? I sense the true answers will not be the obvious ones.

Equal competition is key to development, more so in a globalising market with pro-capitalist motives. These facts hold true for everyone everywhere, from the frigid metropoles of Scandinavian Europe to the melting pots of America and the ethno-diverse patchwork of developing countries such as Nigeria. So, are these hidden walls unintended, or by design? If it is design, is this coincidental, deliberate, or a mix of both? Those are the questions that when contemplated will open up equal spaces of development for different races and classes in social life, politics and the economy.

Ayo Adene (1976) is a Nigerian-born public health specialist who has worked in more than 15 countries in 4 continents in 15 years. Whether managing programs at PharmAccess in the Netherlands, evaluating policies with UNICEF in Surinam or financing development with the Global Fund in Rwanda, Ayo writes to live, and lives to write.

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