Egyptians Are Not My Brothers

I'm not buying the romanticism of sharing the pain of "fellow Africans." But that doesn't prevent me from sympathizing with their struggle.

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Only now am I becoming able to make peace with something that has nagged at me lately: I don't think of the protesters in Egypt as my brothers and sisters.

There, I said it.

I am heartened daily by their victories. If someone asked me to help in some way, I would do all I could. But I do not see the people in those streets as "my people."

Some would say that I am supposed to. But here's why I, at least, am no longer feeling a pang of guilt when I see photos of Tahrir Square and do not see the faces as comrades of mine.

Reason 1: We are to perceive the Egyptians as fellow "Africans," but designating people as culturally united simply because they share a landmass is dicey. Imagine the newspaper headline "Asians Found Adrift on Raft." We would be properly horrified at Chinese, Vietnamese and Sri Lankans being lumped together as one entity. Calling an Egyptian, a Senegalese and a Malagasy all one thing suffers from a similar problem. Spontaneously, most of us process Egypt as culturally a part of the Middle East -- because it is.

Oh, but "black" Egypt was the source of the ancient Greeks' intellectual legacy? Well, for one thing, it wasn't (try here or here). And besides, the arrival of Islam in the seventh century made Egypt a culturally and demographically distinct place from the land of the pharaohs.

And the problem only gets worse when you really think about what it means to treat an Egyptian, a Senegalese, a Malagasy and a black man from Detroit all as one thing. Black Americans are descended from Africans, but my, it's been a while, hasn't it?

Some passages stick with you. In The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, Randall Robinson described the media's downplaying of a pipeline explosion in Nigeria and despaired, "We don't know what happened to us and no one will tell us." "Us," says this black American writer from Virginia. It struck me: I am to sense the plight of Nigerians as immediately as I do the plight of black schoolchildren in Oakland, Calif.

My circle of empathy certainly has room for Nigerians and other people I don't know and have not lived among or even near. But I cannot pretend that they occupy the same inner circle of my empathy as do the people I have spent my life knowing -- any more than a woman in Lagos is expected to be as starkly committed to what happens in Atlanta as she is to what happens in her own country.

In the same way, I cannot honestly process the Egyptians as "us." I doubt that most black Americans can, and I'm not sure there is anything wrong with that …