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 …
… or is there? Others remind us that Egypt was once a hub of anti-colonialism in the name of struggling peoples worldwide. There was an intoxicating sense of potential in the idea of all the world's peoples who are struggling under the colonialist yoke banding together to bring on a new day.
Another passage that sticks with me: Maya Angelou, in the fourth installment of her autobiography series, The Heart of a Woman, being whisked into Cairo in a cab with her son at the height of the pan-Third World ideology. Maya and Guy are so elated to be there that they look out the windows and just laugh and laugh. I love that scene — and instances of black Americans of that era regularly lending support to people of color resisting oppression. Another good scene: Adam Clayton Powell Jr. at the Third World Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955, schooling pro-colonialist reporters on how the oppression in places like India was as unforgivable as what was then happening in the American South (he describes it best in this book).
What happened to that sentiment? Well, we know, don't we?
Reason 2: Black America overcame. Wait, wait — I know, not completely, by any means. But when Egyptians tell the press that an educated middle-class person has no significant chances in life there, who among us can say that this is the black American plight today — as opposed to what it was for all but a sliver in 1955?
Who can honestly say that poor black people are poor because of efforts as nakedly oppressive as those of the Mubarak regime? Inevitably, then, black Americans' sense of solidarity with those suffering from concrete, brutal subjugation — rather than the more abstract bugbear of "institutional racism" — will not be as immediate and spontaneous as it was more than half a century ago.
Will we have no interest at all in what is going on in Egypt? Of course not. But we return to that circle of empathy. Its expansion is a mark of human advancement — from family, to city, to nation — but extending it beyond national or cultural boundaries is a stretch.
Philosophers have torn their hair out for centuries trying to figure out how we will achieve a pan-human commitment, and upon what basis. We pull it off for a spell, but it's awfully hard to sustain. Just ask international aid agencies after tragedies such as the earthquake in Haiti.
As such, the question with Egypt becomes, can we extend our circle of empathy to the past? Maybe we can teach ourselves to acknowledge that black Americans once suffered the same way that Egyptians do now, and that we were once comrades with them in a very concrete way. But can we feel this, intimately and open-endedly, as human beings leading busy lives in conjunction with our nearest and dearest? Especially when, for that matter, even in the present, Egyptians — Arabic-speaking Muslims of the Middle Eastern orbit — are so culturally distant from black Americans as well as from our sub-Saharan ancestors?
I feel them, the Egyptians throwing off the yoke. But I feel them just as I felt the protesters in Iran two summers ago, or the ones in Thailand last year. Or as I would feel the Solidarnosc protesters in Poland if that were happening now.
But are the Egyptians my brothers? That I do not feel. They are, to me, people. I don't think it's wrong for me or any other black person to feel that way.
John McWhorter is a frequent contributor to The Root.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.