‘Black puppets’ is an insult to us

2014-12-08 13:45

In a Vulture magazine interview published this week, comedian Chris Rock said: “To say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person who is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress; that’s white progress. There have been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years.”

Black people doing things for the “first” time is not a reflection of black people’s capabilities so much as a reflection of the spaces that didn’t and won’t let them in. A conversation about why we are still saying and seeing “first black” and “tokenism” in South Africa followed the local edition of the international magazine Glamour selecting media personality Bonang Matheba as its first black local celebrity cover star in its 10-year history.

We are still hearing about someone being the “first black” because there are very real barriers to entry and access for black people in all spheres previously and still aggressively reserved for white people. As a result, we will continue to hear about and (for many of us) be the “first black” whether we like it or not.

And while we must realise that we are deliberately still not represented and present in all spaces, calling black people puppets and tokens within predominantly white spaces is violating.

Put simply, to reduce Bonang’s Glamour cover to her being a puppet or a rent-a-black face diminishes her work and what she has achieved. You take away who she is and what she has done. To call people puppets is to cast them as non-thinking and controlled, when people are making a variety of choices for themselves with whatever options they have.

Part of white supremacy’s function, which was at the foundation of apartheid, is that it defines whiteness as whole and correct, and anyone else as other and broken.

So not only are blacks “k****rs”, “those people”, “criminals” and “other” in the white gaze (which, although apartheid has ended, continues to exist in ideas and concepts held by people across races because it is so powerful and pervasive), but we are further reduced to tokens, puppets and rented blacks who do not own their lives or actions, which is insulting.

Black people are not children who cannot think, who vote and get hair weaves, and appear on covers blindly. We exercise our ability to choose, while at the same time negotiating the choices available to us. We think and we choose, we act and are acted on in a process that is more nuanced than the puppet idea.

It remains vitally important that we continue to ask why there are spaces in which black people are still being “first”, but to do so without denying or belittling the real choices and efforts that people are making.

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