Ethiopianism as an Ideology and Knowledge for Domination

Ethiopianism as an Ideology and Knowledge for Domination

Prof. Asafa Jalata

OromummaaEthiopian (Amhara-Tigrayan/Habasha) elites boast that their country, Ethiopia, was not colonized like that of other Africans. They are unable to recognize the fact that the Ethiopian Empire has been an indirect colony of Euro-America since its inception. Despite the fact that Habasha elites claim that Ethiopia has been the defender of African freedom in public, they never hesitate to express their disdain for formerly enslaved or directly colonized Africans in private among themselves. Habasha elites have claimed that they have a superior religion and civilization, and even sometimes have expressed that they were not Black and saw formerly enslaved or colonized Africans as baryas (slaves).

Furthermore, they have degraded the humanity and culture of the indigenous Africans they have colonized and dominated. Alberto Sbacchi (1997) noted that the Habashas have traditionally looked upon the dark-skinned people as inferiors and given them the name of “Shankalla” [sic]. . . . The Black Americans were known as Negro [sic], which in Ethiopia was associated with slavery. Hence to the Ethiopians the Afro-Americans were Shankalla. (p. 22) William R. Scott (1993, p. xv), an African American who participated in a student work camp in Ethiopia in 1963, expressed his painful encounter with Habasha racism as follows: “I was called barya (slave) by young, bigoted Ethiopian aristocrats, who associated African-Americans with slavery and identified them with the country’s traditional servant class.” Habashas see themselves as a Semitic people who are racially and culturally superior to other Africans and the African diaspora. P. T. W. Baxter (1994) explained that they used to stress their Middle Eastern rather than African cultural roots, as is so obvious in the reiteration of the Solomonic legend, taught in schools as history and justification of imperial rule. Just as the expansion of the European empire in Africa coincided with that of Abyssinian, so the latter took on some of the same sanctimonious assumptions of bringing civilization to the savages. Menelik and his courtiers became honorary, if second-class, bearers of the “white man’s burden in Africa.” (p. 172)

Imitating their white masters, Menelik and his followers saw themselves white gods who were sent to “civilize” Oromos and other indigenous Africans via slavery and colonialism. According to William Easterly (2006), “The White Man’s Burden emerged from the West’s self-pleasing fantasy that ‘we’ were the chosen ones to save the Rest. The White Man offered himself the starring role in an ancient regime version of Harry Potter” (p. 23). The Ethiopian colonizers started to dehumanize Oromos by changing their name into Galla. As the names of various African peoples who were enslaved and brought to America were changed to Negro, and as the names of various peoples in America were changed to Indians with their colonization and destruction, Oromos were given the name Galla. These names were invented in the process of removing these peoples from their respective cultural and historical roots and making them the target of destruction, enslavement, colonialism, and continued subjugation. The appellation Galla was given to Oromos as a name of contempt and derogation. It has characterized them as a slave, pagan, uncivilized or barbaric, inferior, and ignorant. This name was invented to destroy Oromoness and to devalue Oromo culture, history, and tradition. In Abyssinia proper, Galla and barya have been used interchangeably (Donham & James, 1986). Galla is the name of racist ridicule in academia and popular discourse.

Habashas have effectively used the discourse of cultural racism in destroying or suppressing other peoples. Cultural racism can be defined as the conscious or subconscious conviction of the politically dominant population group that imposes its cultural patterns and practices through its social institutions in an attempt to destroy or suppress the cultural patterns and practices of the colonized and dominated population (Bowser & Hunt, 1996). Cultural racism and its contradictions may result in the extermination or/and continued subjugation of the dominated population group. Racism does not necessarily manifest itself by the discourse of biological difference. Usually, it combines the discourses of biological and cultural differences to justify the unequal treatment of different population groups. The extermination of Jews by Germans, the continued subjugation of Palestinians by the Jews, the ethnic cleansing of Bosnians by Serbians, the destruction of Tutsis by Hutus, and suppression of Hutus by Tutsis are examples of extreme forms of cultural racism. he discourses of race and racism emerged with the development of the racialized capitalist world system via racial slavery and European colonialism (Jalata, 2001).

Part II

Prof. Asafa Jalata

Ethiopianism as an Ideology and Knowledge for Domination (continued)

The processes of expropriation, slavery, and colonialism resulted in the hierarchical organization of world populations through the creation of an elaborate discourse of racism to maintain the system. Let me provide a pragmatic definition of racism. As the meaning of race is complex, so is that of racism. Racism is a discourse and a practice in which a racial/ethnonational project (i.e., slavery, genocide, colonialism, continued subjugation) is politically, culturally, and “scientifically” constructed by dominating elites in the capitalist world system to justify and naturalize racial/ethnonational inequality in which those at the top of social hierarchy oppress and exploit those below them by claiming biological and/or cultural superiority. According to Howard Winant (1994), “A racial project is simultaneously an interpretation, representation or explanation of racial dynamics and an effort to organize and distribute resources along particular racial lines” (p. 24, italics in original). Simply put, racism is an expression of institutionalized patterns of colonizing structural power and social control. Race and racism are socially, politically, and culturally constructed to maintain the identities and privileges of the dominant population groups and their power through policy formulation and implementation. They are sociopolitical constructs because all human groups are biologically and genetically more alike than different. According to Kenan Malik (1996), Geneticists have shown that 85 percent of all genetic variation is between individuals within the same local population. A further 8 percent is between local populations or groups within what is considered to be a major race. Just 7 percent of genetic variation is between major races. (p. 4)

Despite the fact that all human groups originally evolved in Africa and migrated to different parts of the world, Europeans and Ethiopians have been victimizing indigenous Africans by inventing nonexistent “races” and the discourse of racism. Just as Eurocentric scholars have intellectually separated the original Black civilization of Kemet (Egypt) and Kush or Nubia and then linked them to the Middle East to prove the racist notion of the superiority of non-Blacks to Blacks (Asante, 1988, 1990; Bernal, 1987; Ma’at-ka-Re Monges, 1997), Ethiopian elites and some Ethiopianists have tried to prove the racial and civilization superiority of Amharas and Tigrayans by Semitizing and linking them to the Middle East and Europe. Baxter (1994) noted that “evolutionists and racist assumptions, mostly unvoiced, have contributed to the belief that Being a Christian, Semitic culture with Middle Eastern leanings had to be superior to a black Africa” (p. 172). Recognizing the political and diplomatic significance of the name Ethiopia (the old name for the Black world), the Abyssinian state elites replaced the name Abyssinia with that of Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian ideological history claims the modern Ethiopian state as the direct heir to Ethiopia mentioned in biblical and classical sources. Ethiopian and Western scholars presented Ethiopia as an entity that had existed continuously as an integrated and independent state for three thousand years. (Sorenson, 1998, pp. 233-234) Successive Ethiopian state elites use the African and Semitic discourses both regionally and globally. Globally, they use the Semitic discourse and the discourse of Christianity to mobilize assistance from Europe, North America, and the Middle East. Skillfully, they use their Blackness to mobilize other Africans, the African diaspora (J. Harris, 1986; Scott, 1993), and Black U.S. policy elites against Oromos and other colonized peoples. Several times, Ethiopian state elites have attempted and used the influence of the African diaspora for their political and economic interests, particularly in the United States, by capitalizing on the emotion they have for the name Ethiopia. By confusing original Ethiopia (the Black world) with contemporary Ethiopia (former Abyssinia), Habasha elites have misled some historically naive people in Africa, Europe, North America, and the world. Most people do not understand the difference between ancient Ethiopia and contemporary Ethiopia. Because of this historical misinformation, Africans who were colonized or enslaved by Europeans, except those who were enslaved and colonized by contemporary Ethiopians, wrongly considered contemporary Ethiopia (former Abyssinia) as an island of Black freedom because it was able to maintain formal political power, albeit with the help of Euro-American powers.

However, Ethiopia was only directly colonized by fascist Italy between 1935 and 1941. Most Blacks “knew very little about the social and political conditions of Ethiopia. What they wrote or said about Ethiopia was at best a manifestation of their emotional state” (Scott, 1993, p. 26). Other Africans are unaware that Ethiopia’s political power came from allying with the colonizing European powers. Instead, it has been a “prison house” in which Oromos and other colonized and enslaved population groups were and still are brutalized. By using the discredited racist categorization of human groups, such as Semitic, Hamitic, Negroid, and Cushitic, Habashas have a stratified hierarchy in which they place Oromos between themselves and the people that they wrongly call 12 Journal of Black Studies Shankillas—people they consider Negroid (Donham & James, 1986, pp. 123- 124). Despite the fact that Habashas are Black, they consider themselves Semitic to associate themselves with the Middle East and dissociate from Africa, whose peoples they consider both racially and culturally inferior. For instance, when the Nigerian Daily Times interviewed Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, in the 1930s, about Ethiopian racial identity, he said “that Ethiopians were not, and did not regard themselves as negroes [sic], as they were a Hamito-Semitic people” (Sbacchi, 1997, p. 25). John Sorenson (1998) expressed this racist attitude as “a multiplicity of Ethiopians, blacks who are whites, the quintessential Africans who reject African identity” (p. 229).


  1. There may be some truth in what you have written, but your analysis is basically essentialist. It is wrong to assume that everything about the Habbesha, Ethiopia, and Ethiopianism is necessary exploitative, permanent, unalterable and necessarily evil.

    Such analysis is polemical and political. It is prejudiced , and is no way better that the ideology it envisage to demonize.

    A friend of mine speaks highly of you, and I assumed you would be widely read, and I never expected such polemic from you. I am a bit disappointed.

  2. It was our mistake to recognize them as an Ethiopian they were a descendants from middle East they are abyysians didn’t have any bleed from Africa but when represent themselves as an Ethiopian we did not change them instead Prof like you are giving them approval but Ethiopia is belong to Kushic and Nalotic people period.

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