Mwai Kibaki must be a worried man. Rumblings from Washington indicate that some Americans hope the president of Kenya will soon face a challenge to his seven-year rule - from incumbent US president Barack Obama. Last week, protesters from across the US took to the streets to attack Obama's policy on health care. Alongside placards attacking big government and excessive spending, there were those with more menacing undertones. "Obama for president of Kenya!" read one. "The zoo has an African lion and the White House has a lyin' African!" said another. One showed Obama stealing from the purse of an old lady.
In all of these, as in those suggesting the president is attacking the US from within, the unspoken message is clear. Couple this with the "birther" movement, that cadre of Americans who believe Obama was born outside America, that he is therefore not American, and the tone of American protests that are ostensibly about health care becomes decidedly ugly. It was so different only nine months ago. In the glow of celebration that followed the inauguration of America's first ethnic minority president, there were wild declarations that the United States had moved into a post-racial society. Yet, months later, with the first great political challenge of Obama's presidency, we see motifs and slogans with race at their core.
During a speech on healthcare reform, the Democrat president was heckled by a Republican congressman, who interrupted Obama's speech by shouting "You lie!" Asked about the incident, the former US president Jimmy Carter said he felt "an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he's African-American." There is, said Carter, "the belief among many white people, not just in the south but around the country, that African Americans are not qualified to lead this great country."
America's history with race is long, complicated and shameful. The American playwright Bonnie Greer wrote this week that America is "race-addicted": "Sooner or later, race will always step forward and take a bow." (It is telling that on Obama's birth certificate from Hawaii, the race of both his parents is recorded.) In a country with such a brutal history of slavery and race relations, it was always optimistic to imagine one presidency would end racism in America, just as Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel's elections did not end sexism in Britain or Germany. Social change is always an accumulation of many steps, not all of them at once and not all of them forward.
Such carving up of people into categories is commonplace across the world and no region is exempt. Even the Arab world, watered by Islamic ideas about equality and recently showered with pan-Arab nationalism, is hardly exempt from the drawing of imaginary social lines. Status and class still cast long shadows across the region. Note the categories into which people are dropped: European or Indian, Arab or African, urban, rural or exiled. It even goes on - astonishingly and amusingly within individual Arab countries: Where were you born? Do you have foreign citizenship? Where is your father from? In the airless splendour of an Egyptian ministry I once watched a Canadian trying to explain that he was born in Canada, his father was born in Canada and he had never been to any other country except Canada. Yes, yes, the bureaucrat nodded, but where are you from really? "Lebanon," said the Canadian eventually, exhausted.
This endless categorisation is not always bad: it helps us navigate a world of differences. But it also very easily slips into pigeonholing, into assuming social characteristics about a person based on stereotypes. Indians in the Gulf and sub-Saharan Africans in North Africa tell stories about how common it is for others to assume they are labourers or migrants when in fact they are professionals and managers. Despite their qualifications, they find with some people that their faces simply don't fit.
It is important to recognise that this pigeonholing is not based on race, though in effect it can feel like racism. The Arab world does not have a problem with race - if it did, there would be a lot more trouble in teeming urban centres such as Cairo, Amman and Dubai. No, this tendency to pigeonhole isn't about race or ethnicity - it is about defining who is, and who is not, in the "tribe". Collective identity is a variable quantity: it rises and falls across a society. How close, how connected, people feel to each other depends on the circumstances in which they find themselves, whether celebrating together during a national holiday or screaming at opposite sides at a sporting match. When Americans remembered 9/11 last week, many noted the feeling of connectedness they felt in the days after the attacks. They felt they belonged to each other. That feeling dissipated under George W Bush's presidency.
What the Bush presidency really did was to emphasise the divisions in America, a place where the differences between the wealthy coastal cities and the majority conservative interior are so stark they can sometimes seem like different countries. That feeling of connectedness that Americans briefly felt under extraordinary circumstances vanished as the conservatives led the national agenda, pushing their tribes closer together and alienating liberals.
Now, with Obama in the White House, that national conversation has shifted and conservatives suddenly find themselves outside the dominant discourse. So when they accuse Obama of being "not like us" they are not saying he is not American like them - they are saying he is not like the America they understand. Because that is ultimately what categorising people and pigeonholing them is about. A way to understand the world but also a way to keep the world at bay. By carving imaginary distinctions across society, by putting people into boxes, we highlight who we think they are - and who we think we are. It is a way of reinforcing tribal divisions. When conservative Americans, looking for something to unite around, say Obama is not like them, they are making the point that they are like each other. In turbulent times, that cohesion matters.
That is also where this process of categorisation comes from in the Arab world; it is an attempt to force social divisions. Those Arabs and westerners across the Gulf (and elsewhere) who treat their foreign employees badly are trying to entrench that social division, to push themselves on to a pedestal by standing on others. It is an artificial distinction and in it they are saying something about themselves. Ditto with second-generation Indians in Dubai who resent the recent arrival of their compatriots, or Syrians in Saudi who mutter about the rich culture back home, or Europeans who rail at family disintegration in the West - all are trying to draw lines in the sand to keep others out.
This tribal mentality may be hard-wired into human minds, but we control our responses to it. Thinking everyone fits into a particular box implicitly puts you in a box - and, without aspiring to a higher ideal, it is easy to get trapped there. Faisal al Yafai was named Journalist of the Year at the 2009 Muslim Writers Awards. He is a Churchill Fellow for 2009/2010.