Writer: Yannisha Yalla
Photograph: Fizz Designs (Twitter)
So many questions need to be asked about identities and cultures in post-colonial countries. Post-colonial countries are flooded with people who have been uprooted and then forced to adapt to a mainstream culture. This mainstream culture is usually white. The dispossessed are then taught to be grateful that their minds have been colonized.
Countries like South Africa are multi-cultural societies and yet townships and informal settlements are overly represented exclusively with people of colour. This is not unique to South Africa as the face of poverty globally is black. The black majority worldwide still live beneath the poverty line, while the white minority, only sporadically experiences the equivalent of such conditions. This makes it obvious that the social order and inequality installed by our colonial past lingers on.
We may never get to one all-encompassing South African identity due to the persisting unequal power dynamic within South Africa. This ‘one size fits all’ identity continues to elude South Africa even with attempts like the rainbow nation concept. Rainbow nationalism instead creates deep rooted erasure and misappropriation of black pain. There are so many races that existed before and emerged after colonialism but we all recognize the multiple forms of oppression, patriarchy and cultural confusion that surround that particular identity of being a person of colour.
Cultural appropriation has been an emerging theme in conversations around decolonization. This can range from a white person misunderstanding beliefs, lifestyles and rituals to handpicking parts of any cultures to enriching their personal, social and economic positions. Why am I calling it appropriation and not appreciation? That’s because with a white South African comes white privilege. White supremacy gives them social, political and economic privileges which are normally inherited and not often visible to those who own them. These allow them to make money from something that people from the original culture struggle to make money over from lifestyles to beliefs. White privilege provides the luxury to walk away from any adopted culture whenever it is no longer working towards a white person’s favour or interest.
People of colour unfortunately don’t have this privilege or choice and continue to be stereotyped negatively when they practice their own cultures and beliefs. There are unequal power relations between black and white in South African which allows a white person to wear something freely whilst resulting in negative stereotyping for people of colour who own the culture. For example, a white woman who shows up to work in beads and African print clothing is seen as exotic, hippie and cool whilst a woman of colour who shows up at work with similar choices they are automatically deemed too imposing, doing too much, not formal enough or imposing too much of their identities on the workplace.
Why does this happen? White supremacy and the elevation of whiteness and white culture has forced people of colour to assimilate. Many people of colour have realized that the adoption of white culture has economic and social benefits and so they assimilate willingly. This follows from previous generations who were also forced to shut down parts of their identity in order to survive the mainstream white culture and capitalism. In essence, people of colour have been forced to work for and aspire towards being white. This leaves a confused people who move between their own traditional or cultural beliefs and western culture.
The conflict that comes from moving between the black self and the white self, causes pain and confusion in black people’s lives. Black pain, internalized racism as well as the consequences of assimilation are articulated well in philosopher William Du Bois’s concept of double consciousness. This is the internal conflict experienced by subordinated groups in an oppressive society such as South Africa.
Du Bois explained with his idea of double consciousness that the prejudices of white people elicit self-questioning, self-disparagement, and lowering of ideals among people of colour. The internalization of anti-black sentiment from the outside world thus begins to shape the black experience. It is only when we begin to question the assimilated parts that we become better able to live authentically black lives that are influenced rather than taken over by white culture.
People of colour need to be given the space to heal and develop a voice. Only then can we begin to articulate what it means to live a free life as a person of colour. Cultural appropriation can be very triggering for black people and a source of pain. To see that which is mocked and ridiculed in you being praised and exalted in another is painful, especially when that is your culture and heritage.
On top of struggling to climb the economic ladder, people of colour are also being forced to accept erasure and misappropriations of our own culture and beliefs as well as bodies and hair types by a white minority who somehow found our lifestyles and believes to fit them and are now benefitting from it while we have had to ignore it and assimilate for all these years.
However, with the emergence of black feminist education, we are rapidly becoming more conscious, despite the fact that significant areas of our autonomy are undermined by our early educations as many schools inadvertently replicate the conditions of white supremacy in and of themselves. Still, we are now receptive to the fact that every system or institution set up in post-colonial countries is designed for white people to succeed and for black people to be systematically repressed. Sure, there is BEE and sure, the constitution allows for gay marriage there are even black people who enter and teach at previously-white universities now… but it seems to me that our black leaders have internalized racism for so long that they too are working towards the upliftment of white people and are therefore perpetuating white supremacy, albeit unintentionally.
As people of colour, we have been taught from a very young stage of socialization that white is beauty, having a perfect English accent is going to help us, mixing with white people is the future and that colonialism actually brought about progress. We have never been taught to uplift each other for the betterment of society, but rather to work and aspire to be white. The internalization of anti-black sentiment from the outside world thus begins to shape the black experience.
However, despite our refusal to assimilate, we are still at the bottom of the social and economic ladder looking up at white supremacy the way we have been forced to look up at the Cecil John Rhodes statue walking up UCT stairs, while the statue stares at the poverty and depravation of the Cape flats. We have outdone white people at everything they claimed to have invented and have supremacy over… and yet, we are othered, objectified, exotified and bastardized every day in advertisements, job interviews and our own homes because of patriarchy. From SaartjieBaartman to the black womxn in RMF, violence, erasure and misrepresentation of black bodies has not stopped and we are perpetuating it by encouraging men of colour to be at the top of the social ladder.
Now things need to change. It could be time for us to look at each other and ask each other who we are. What does it mean to tick Indian in an application form, does it mean I was born in India or does it mean I am brown or does it mean my seat is at the back of the classroom because the white girl is more likely to get a 75% because her English is better, simply by being white? What does it mean to be black? What does it mean to be Coloured? Are these all colonial terms that we are supposed to hate and reject?? Or is it time to give the constitutional pen to the right people? That is the black women of this continent?
Let’s glance at the lives of women of colour more closely. Black mothers are still having to ask for help to pay for their children’s formal post-colonial education when these mothers are encyclopaedias of a knowledge that is not considered as legitimate in society. Yet they are sacrificing their beliefs, traditions and knowledge for what they believe will be our upward mobility. These are the things that they have held on to so strongly in order for us to not experience what they did during colonialism. Black parents will always look over their shoulders out of fear of losing everything, colonialism did that. White parents cannot relate to this and never will because despite the fact that white women meet us on some levels of oppression, like patriarchy, they have failed us tremendously by promoting their upward mobility and leaving us behind in the process and their white privilege prevails them as much as their cultural appropriation of our values and lifestyles.
The issue of race in South Africa has dominated every facet of the society to an extent that it shall inextricably link to every aspect of life for generations to come. Black self-perception has historically been, and arguably continues to be, informed by the manner in which blackness is portrayed within white literature, media and society. The realities of Apartheid in South Africa render most white authors and activists incapable of adequately capturing the black experience and so they need to stop appropriating black pain. Instead, they need to write for white people to dismantle their whiteness, and to stop feeling so entitled to being part of the process of liberation and healing that black people need for themselves.
Apartheid has created a somewhat irreparable division between white people and black people and understandably so since white people have not stopped appropriating post-apartheid. They have simply moved to more covert ways, one of them being cultural appropriation.
Apartheid ended on paper, colonialism ended on paper but we are still living its legacy. It is not to undermine the great work that activists did in the past to break those chains, it is simply to emphasize that we should not have laid all the responsibility on a few figures. We should now all work together towards breaking this inequality that is persisting among black people. This continent is unique in this world just by the nature of its richness and cultural trophies and that is why white supremacists and capitalists refuse to back off…and as result those to whom it actually belongs are losing their best resources and livelihoods.
We are not here to correct white people, they need to self-correct and correct those in their communities. The labour cannot be solely on people of colour. We can simply ask them to sit down and listen to us if they really want to practice our cultures, lifestyles and break their whiteness. Stop being so entitled, stop speaking over us and most importantly, stop pretending to know our cultures better than us just because you dated coloured women, ate enough Indian food and have a lot of black friends. None of these are relevant if it is still pushing us to the bottom of the social and economic ladder. Black people in dreadlocks are still predominantly stereotyped against. They are never considered for top positions because of the prejudice and stereotype that white supremacy has brought upon it. It is important to point out that it is not the inclusion of black bodies that is in contention, but, rather the way in which this is done. The disparate power relations between black and white in South Africa is still very present, the representations of blackness in stereotype has perpetuated cultural appropriation. White people can show up at work with Om or gemstone necklaces and no one bats an eye. If Indian or black women shows up at work with similar choices they are automatically deemed too imposing, doing too much, not formal enough or imposing too much of their identities on the workplace.
These are aspects that unify us in the understanding of oppression. The mass makes the difference, but we have lost faith in ourselves because we no longer know who we are; simply because who we choose to be does not feature on a billboard, is not legal to be or is too taboo to be. We are not binary beings, we are not a homogenous people, and we are not inferior to white people. It is now time to admit we need to do a lot of collective work instead of breaking each other down to have supremacy over knowledge.
Quite the contrary, the fact that we keep breaking every ceiling continually being placed above our heads shows that we can dismantle the mainstream culture. It is now time to explore the multitude of identities our ancestors cherished, the knowledge that has been kept away or selected carefully for us to stay in line. The gorgeous and overly present afro is no longer going to be pressed down by a swimming cap at the school entrance. Now the afro will shine freely and black women will rise to take back what is rightfully theirs. We are going to define our own cultures from now on. But make no mistake, the unity between Black, Asian and Coloured is extremely powerful, we have some things to settle amongst us, but when it comes down to understanding oppression and internalized racism, we meet every day. We understand each other when it comes to colourism especially because irrespective of how ‘white’ our culture can become we are still discriminated against for our melanin because it is that part of our identities that we cannot change.
It is time for white people to realize they know nothing about our cultures and practices and that they are and have been appropriating lifestyles, land and beliefs that they will never fundamentally understand unless the power dynamics are broken. Of course there is room for cultural exchange, only once the white people take the back seat. Of course there can be cultural appreciation, once we stop remaining quiet at white ignorance. Colonialism, imperialism as well as slavery has left the global people of colour population broken and culturally confused and now is the time to hit refresh on everything we have come to understand as individuals and collective consciousness in order to uplift people of colour.