The Elephant in the Room: Can We Really Colour-block the Race Issue?

“The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”– Steven Bantu Biko

Chains

Over the past few weeks, I have witnessed people around me being on the receiving end of racial slurs which could otherwise be interpreted as ignorant, narrow-minded or narcissistic.

Of course, this isn’t news. Discourse on racial discrimination is an on-going part of South Africa’s history and one is constantly confronted with the reality that the rainbow nation is rather a superficial farce,with tensions simmering underneath.

As opposed to the light-hearted manner in which comedians address stereotypes attached to different racial groups, it is especially challenging to take on the same approach if one emanates from circumstances that render them disadvantaged because of the colour of their skin. You cannot simply laugh it off.

I believe this is what informed US First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech delivered before graduates at Tuskegee University-a speech rendered “anti-American” and racist because it encouraged black graduates to rise above their circumstances.

Again, this won’t materialise if the world keeps skirting around burning issues and viewing any act of motivation towards economic, social and political emancipation for historical victims of racial discrimination as an attack on other groups.

It is, and should be a good fight-a fight for what is just and equitable.

Anyway, if I may back-track a little: On one occassion when someone I know was told that…well, she can’t blush because she is black, she took offense. Without going too far in my own opinion about the individual who uttered the words, I was more inclined to take a step back and remember that people don’t GIVE offense. On the contrary, people TAKE offense in response to a range of perceived offensive stimuli.

More importantly, the realization that dawned on me was that as Africans; as so-called black people we remain sensitive about the colour of our skin. This to the point where it seems an insult to be referred as such by anyone from a different racial background. It suggests that not even the black man is comfortable in his own skin because then the natural response would be “of course I am!

Our self-hatred rings even clearer when we attack migrants from the continent (and unwittingly our own compatriots) based on the perception that they are too “dark” to be South Africans. Therefore, most of our lives are spent in a defensive and trust deficient mode.

The reality is that the world’s expectation of the black man is to “deal with it”- and that is, of course paramount if our desire is to start building a positive legacy for future generations. However, it shouldn’t be a rushed process that will allow historical oppressors to feel better about themselves. It is a process that will require (without shame or justification) constant and consistent messaging around positive change.

At the same time we must be wary of allowing a defeatist attitude to fester.

In the words of Steve Biko, “Merely by describing yourself as black you have started on a road towards emancipation, you have committed yourself to fight against all forces that seek to use your blackness as a stamp that marks you out as a subservient being”.

G*

 

 

 

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Shades of Black…

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There exists a hierarchy in society. At the top sits the White man who is perceived as a model of all that is superior and good. For many years, the so-called Coloured communities saw themselves as being inferior to Whites but superior to Africans.

Owing to the conditions of the Apartheid system, many Black people who could pull it off assumed coloured identities to gain access to social liberties that they would otherwise not be able to. The latter distinguishes himself superior to others in his group based on physical, ethnic and (interestingly) on skin complexion. The ones with the darkest complexion sit at the very bottom of this hierarchy.

At least, that is what is highlighted in “Dark Girls”. I recently sat down to watch this eye-opening American documentary about the deep-seated biases against dark skinned Black, as well as Asian women. It opened my eyes to the reality of many women whose pigmentation renders them less favourable candidates in labour markets, relationships; reproduction and to the somewhat deeply entrenched perception that they an attitude problem.

I have been regularly been mistaken for a Coloured person until I spoke my mother tongue, (un)fortunately the absence of a Cape Malay accent betrayed me. One of those occasions was when, as a child, I was shopping with my mother. A Coloured lady approached us and uttered something to me in Afrikaans. I just stared back blankly. I take no pride or pleasure in being what they call a yellow bone. As Steven Biko once wrote, Being black is not a matter of pigmentation, being black is a reflection of a mental attitude”.

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We are so deep in it, and our self-image so severely distorted that bridal parties sing silly songs like, “Tswa’ng tswa’ng tswa’ng le boneng, ngwana o tshwana le leColoured” (Come out and see, the girl looks like (a) coloured).

When Nomasonto aka “Mshoza”Mnisi started bleaching her skin and announced plans to do further work on her nose so she could look White, some of us were really shocked. It was hard to fathom how in this day and age –when we enjoy so many liberties- someone could possibly hate herself so much! Of course it was simpler to dismiss it as a typical tendency of someone who had just discovered money and had no better use for it. If only it were that cut and dried.

Self-image has been distorted in the context of the Black community for centuries and the baton passed on from generation to generation. The popularity of skin-lightening products soared among Black South African women in the 1970s and 1980s* and many of those who coveted lighter shades now have “Dichubaba” (dark blemishes brought on by the dangerous combination of mercury and hydroquinone) to prove it. It remains true that what is on the outside reflects what’s inside and the price paid for a low self-image a hefty one.

According to enca.com, Nigeria tops the list for skin-lightening products, with “nearly 8 out of 10 Nigerian women bleach[ing] their skin.” It is also reported that regardless of how rich a Nigerian woman may be, if she is dark skinned, she is as good as a pauper. In South Africa, you can buy cheap skin-lightening products off a street vendor for less than R15.

On the flip side of the coin, the criminalization, virtual alienation and statutory harassment experienced by dark complexioned men is another bone of contention. It has escalated to a point where the perception is that anyone who is dark skinned can’t be South African. It’s worse if one is using public transport.Just a few weeks ago, the son of former Reserve Bank governor, Tito Mboweni was pulled out of a taxi because of his dark pigmentation and requested to produce a passport.

In a similar incident, my sister and I were travelling to varsity a few years ago from home when our taxi was stopped by police just outside Harties. Seated behind us were two men (Zimbabwean nationals)who sat quietly during the trip. I still remember the sinking feeling as the two were loaded into the police van, as timid as sheep going to the slaughterhouse.

There is a definite mental shift that needs to occur. It will have to happen at every level of this social hierarchy through the rejection of entrenched ideas that one human being possesses superiority over the other for whatever reason. Consequently, superficial and shallow masks put on by those with an inferiority complex will be dismantled.