Give Us Free: Why Talking About Race is Still Necessary (Part 3)

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White in the right, black in the back: whiteness default setting

Whiteness is mainstreamed as the ultimate goal for all and we have internalised it so much so that we have forgotten to be different, diverse kinds of human beings while still maintaining equality and those of us that are trying to move towards reclaiming and reidentifying with aspects of ourselves that were forced out of us are seen as being anti – white. This is not only because there is still a vested interest in “deniggerfying”/“dekaffirising” the Afrikan but also because this venture tends to unearth facts that challenge a lot of what all of us have been led to believe about human evolution and the history of civilization that has informed and ensured the current status quo and racial hierarchy.

Notwithstanding, most of us are not interested in replacing white supremacy or becoming the new oppressors in spite popular belief. We are instead trying to reclaim our love for ourselves, our true identity (not the one that has been forced onto us) and ultimately discover empowerment in our skins and cultures and demand true recognition as equals. Currently, progressiveness and sophistication find their definitions in whiteness and even aspects that were appropriated from other cultures under imperialism are often repackaged and marketed as white. This is reinforced by the very colonial education systems and syllabi as well as outdated and to some extent now mostly disproved historical accounts of civilisation. In Afrika education is still Eurocentred and the countries that have tried to deviate from this have been threatened with discreditation e.g. Zimbabwe.

Afrikan languages are even being killed off and replaced with European ones (and nowadays Asian ones; Mandarin specifically) and this is perceived by most as a natural and perfectly acceptable order of things. There was outrage in South Africa earlier in the year when the University of Kwa Zulu Natal announced that it would make basic level isiZulu a compulsory subject for all first year students. Most people felt that it was unfair. Some even argued that it was unconstitutional to impose the language on students, particularly those who were not Zulu and most especially those who were not Afrikan never mind that the imposition of English and Afrikaans on the Zulu inhabitants of that area who make up the majority population (and are the original occupants of that space) was extremely unfair on them as a lot of them struggle to communicate and express themselves effectively in these foreign languages.

In South Africa, and Afrika at large, white people are not expected to know indigenous vernacular languages but Afrikans are expected to know English, French, Portuguese or Afrikaans etc and any move made by our governments to rectify marginalised elements of our identity are deemed oppressive and unfair to white members of the population completely disregarding how the current prioritisation of European languages is unfair on us brown people. It is far from fair or ideal that a lot of us, myself included, are more conversant and literate in European languages than in our own vernacular languages but apparently that is completely acceptable and our opinions and feelings are comparatively irrelevant.

The preservation and recognition of indigenous languages has been a contentious issue for a while now with acclaimed Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o of the A Grain of Wheat fame being a very vocal advocate for the preservation and recognition of indigenous Afrikan languages. He made the decision to switch from writing in English to writing in Gikuyu many years ago and in a recent interview with the BBC he called to question the prizes awarded for Afrikan literature when one of the requirements for eligibility is that the works submitted be written in English with occasional concessions being made for work that is translated into English from an Afrikan language.

Afrikan American playwright and poet Ntozake Shange, best known for her famous 1975 stage play For Coloured Girls who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf  who’s survived two strokes and is living through a nerve disorder that has hindered her ability to write and type has shared with friends that the voice recognition software she has had to use does not accommodate her style of writing which mostly consists of Afrikan American vernacular. She is noted as saying that it constantly auto corrects her words. The languages of brown people are just as important as any other and should be recognised as such and therefore accommodated. “I can’t count the times I viscerally wanted to attack, deform and maim the language I was taught to hate myself in,” one of the characters in her most recent play Lost in Language and Sound: Or How I Found My Way to the Arts said.

This quest to annihilate Afrikan heritage and identity is also seen in the opposition to removing monuments commemorating and venerating colonisers and oppressors from public spaces i.e. street names and institutional/ public infrastructure in Afrika and replacing them with aboriginal Afrikan heroes and influential people. It would appear that white Afrikan heritage must survive (even if it is at the emotional cost of the indigenous people) and there appears to be no room for celebrating, preserving and mainstreaming brown Afrikan heritage.

Modernity is defined by American and European culture and is the current tool of socialisation meanwhile Afrikan cultures are being bastardized and presented as primitive and contrary to progress and development. Being cultured is measured by how well you know the European classics in literature, drama, art and music etc while POC leaders in these fields have to work twice if not thrice as hard for just the barest minimum of recognition.

There is a highfalutin superiority complex with regards to white westerners when it comes to Afrika with little to no accountability whatsoever for the role their states play in perpetuating the woes faced on the continent. Instead they charge into the continent with the ubiquitous white saviour industrial complex which mainly manifests itself in the form of voluntourism aimed at saving Afrikans from other Afrikans; the real blonde haired child of white superiority mentality.

Whiteness is in our face all the time and it’s usually presented as something we should aspire to, especially in the media and even in political and global development discourse. The latter is understandable though given that the most developed countries in the world are mostly white run and the least developed are, well, in the (post colonial) global south. Interestingly, when these developed countries condescendingly push us towards whiteness in order to achieve stability it is firstly not at an equally beneficial cost and secondly it simply speeds past the fact that a lot of the success enjoyed in these countries came through the oppression and exploitation of the very same people that are struggling today to play catch up.

Offensive imagery, portrayal and misrepresentations

Even in this day and age we still have subtle, obvious and sometimes even down right despicable displays of imperialist ignorance around brown cultures and identity along with their communities and environments. Negative and harmful stereotypes of persons of colour are still reinforced and they are disturbingly still popular. In addition to this, little to no consideration is given to the impact these stereotypes have on persons of colour and their lives.

Incidences such as Mahone’s party, Italian designer Allesandro Dell’Acqua’s Disco Africa Halloween party where he, along with some other guests, dressed in blackface and the Royal Dutch flagship airline KLM’s marketing campaign to fly people to the ‘Dark continent’ are not only still quite common but they are still being defended by people. People have vehemently rubbished claims by persons of colour that these things are racist and they have claimed that they are not racist but are, at most, an exhibition of ignorance.

It’s 2013, why are people in the allegedly more advanced developed world still so grossly ignorant when it comes to Afrika? Why do images of the Allan Quatermain Afrika (and Afrikan) still persist, while at the same time Afrikans are constantly being told to get over it? Why is that OK and why shouldn’t we call bullshit?

Blackface and other forms of imperialist notions of “blackness” and “Afrikaness” along with expressions of hegemonic racism have also been internalized by brown people and we have seen this over the years in the media with Beyonce and L’Officiel’s controversial “tribute to Fela Kuti” photo shoot two years ago and a little more recently the casting of Zoe Saldana in the role of the legendary Nina Simone in the equally controversial biopic. Simone’s daughter, Simone Kelly in a comment on the choice of Saldana as the lead in the film is quoted as saying “As a child, my mother was told her nose was too big and she was too dark yet she graduated valedictorian of her high school class”. Nina Simone in addition to being famous for her powerful music and beautiful voice, she is also famous for being a black power activist and never missed an opportunity to challenge racism, especially racism against dark skinned brown people and yet today a film made supposedly in her honour is said to have involved spending hours on end applying makeup on Saldana to make her darker for the role.

Some people go as far as to ask why people “waste” their time challenging these things. They posit there are bigger fish to fry and try to divert attention from the inequities of the predominantly Caucasian west to the inequities of the predominantly brown south. They happily disregard the significance and the impact that these myopic representations of brown people have in the bigger scheme of things. The pervasiveness of ignorant and blatantly racist stereotypes such as these continues to undermine the experiences of persons of colour and the challenges they face because of the colour and tone of their skin and texture of their hair and nature of their cultural background and the moment we normalise social and seemingly inconsequential exhibitions of racism and white supremacy, we are less vigilant and less likely to challenge more systemic and political exhibitions of racism and racial bias.

One of the other more common forms of cultural misrepresentation and appropriation is seen in the Afrikan American culture of hip hop. Most people believe that hip hop is only about misogyny and violence and crime and that is because the only hip hop that is allowed to thrive by being more lucrative is that kind of hip hop. There is plenty of brown music, including hip hop that is positive and challenges social ills but more importantly advances brown empowerment and perhaps it is for the last reason that it is marginalised. Artists like Common, Lupe Fiasco, Boog Brown, Dudley Perkins, Erykah Badu, Nneka, Patrice, M.anifest, Dead Prez, Didier Awadi, Mos Def aka Yasiin Bey, Queen Latifah and Lauryn Hill, to name a few, are pioneers in addressing social ills not only in the brown community but in the greater American and global community. They are also very vocal about race matters but they are also not as mainstream as the likes of Jay – Z, Beyonce, Lil Wayne, Nikki Minaje, Rick Ross and Two Chains and the rest of them.

White supremacist narratives of what it means to be black still persist. When Miley Cyrus decided to go for a “black sound” when she did We Cant Stop whose video (and live performance at the VMAs) included twerking, complete with grills, it pissed a lot of brown people off and understandably so. The commodification and sexualisation of the brown female body and an aspect of brown culture by Cyrus left a bitter taste in a lot of mouths. Some may argue that brown hip hop videos do the same and we don’t quibble about it but here’s the thing, we do quibble about it, all the time; you just don’t care to read about it because it’s “black people’s problems” and you don’t care and that could mainly be due to the Racial Empathy Gap that exists especially in white people.

However, regardless of the fact that we do these things ourselves it doesn’t make it right or give you license to join in on the ‘fun” because if anything it is worse when you do it. It’s like me trying to clean the shit out of my house and you decide to come and dump more shit simply because there is already shit in there and you just feel like having a good old shit party before returning to the luxury and pleasantness of your nice, clean, shit free house. Basically we should have a say in how we are portrayed or represented by others and not be silenced and we have the right to challenge anything we feel is inaccurate or offensive

With regards to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis winning the Best Hip Hop Artist award at the VMAs, my bone of contention does not lie with them (I personally think they are dope) but instead it lies with those fans who truly believe that they are the pioneers of pro gay, and generally socially conscious, hip hop. The trouble is not that white artists in predominantly brown areas of influence are enjoying success but that they are enjoying success in those areas simply because they are white (at the expense of brown artists) and they make hip hop more palatable because they are “more profound” than brown hip hop artists because after all, let’s face it, black hip hop artists are violent, homophobic, misogynistic, shallow criminals (tongue lodged firmly in cheek). Gary Nunn in The Guardian alleged that Same Love may very well be the most profound song that hip-hop as a genre has produced. Not only is this line of thinking tantamount to shaming the people of colour in hip hop, it also implies that people of colour are incapable of saying profound things or that the profound things they do say (which are mostly on brown empowerment) are nowhere near as important as equal marriage.

The thing is, these socially conscious efforts, are, even today, almost only recognised and accepted when they are co –opted and packaged in white skin and that the people who started it are still being marginalised and oppressed and not getting their due. We challenge the content and culture of mainstream hip hop but almost never interrogate why that is the only brown hip hop shoved down our throats by mainstream media which is mostly run by white cooperate billion dollar companies.

Empowerment for a Post Racial World

At the end of the day more and more of us are getting tired of keeping quiet about things that make us feel uncomfortable or that offend us. We are not seeking to alienate our allies or anyone for that matter but we are simply done asking for permission to express our discontent about things that affect us negatively or things that pertain to us. The fact is, for as long as racial inequality continues to exist and manifest itself however subtly and for as long as people protect of defend it, our societies will never truly be post racial. We are grateful for the voices of our allies who speak on our behalf when some of us are unable to but we’d appreciate it if we’d be heard when we do speak for ourselves and when we tell you that we’re not cool with the continued racial inequality and racial bias running this town. No endorsements needed.

 Part 2 is here, if you missed it

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