Still trapped in white/black

2014-03-05 10:00

Some time ago, I called a friend and asked him for advice.

I was putting up works of art at the house with the help of handymen, when my partner and I realised we were facing a tricky issue over putting up a sign that we had owned for years but never hung.

The sign is a genuine, “Blankes/Whites Only” sign from those apartheid days that we are not allowed to talk about. We were thinking of putting up the sign above an old outdoor bench in the front courtyard.

My dilemma was whether our postmodern statement would offend the two guys helping me, or would they just think: “I guess that’s what happens when bo darkie have a little money.”

I decided to use my emergency phone call for a lifeline, which didn’t help. My friend simply retorted: “Race and class ironic advice doesn’t live here. If you want to put up ironic art, then you deal with the consequences. But call me for a beer on that bench once it’s up.”

You might ask why I would want to put up that sign in the first place, especially if I think there is a chance it would make black people uncomfortable, and particularly as my partner is a white woman.

Beyond the privilege of an upper middle class bubble, my answer revolves around ownership and belonging. I live in a world that does not belong to me and where I have no place.

I have been airbrushed out of the world, along with every black person on this planet. Of all the structural privileges that come with being white, I suspect none is greater than representation – how the world and those who live in it are depicted.

In the world we live in, the standard – the default – is white: Jesus is white; God is white; the devil, while sometimes ambiguous, is generally white; beauty is white; and, of course, all journeymen average Joes are white.

It must be an easy thing to take for granted, having the world made in your image. It is certainly a difficult thing when you are written out of the world.

The psychological effect of being reduced to a shadowy existence is powerful, even without a systemic model of racialised oppression such as apartheid, which decisively embedded second-class citizenship in us as deeply and intrinsically as the profit purpose in corporations.

Yet, in many ways, apartheid merely legislated the prevailing global paradigm: the place of non-Whites, in particular blacks of African origin, is offstage.

And when we enter the stage, our spaces are clearly demarcated.

So it is not entirely surprising that almost 10 years after the end of apartheid, black people continued to “obey” the Whites/Blacks signs above the public toilets of the Joburg City Hall in this photograph, which was taken in 2001.

So it’s not entirely surprising that the renaming of every odd street in the country had failed to bring down the apartheid regime.

Blacks do not take things for granted. We can’t – both because we were conditioned through pain (much like lab animals are taught how to associate certain behaviour with brutal consequences) and subconsciously through how the world is represented.

The fact that each time you leave your house your sense of natural belonging is scrubbed out is profoundly bewildering, leaving you always searching for an anchor.

In such an unsettled state, it is often easier to perpetuate learnt actions and reactions, even when your immediate milieu has supposedly changed by, for example, the dismantling of apartheid.

We are onstage by invitation only and for poor black people in South Africa, this guest-state has not really changed. In truth, it has not really changed for any black South African except those who have learnt how to “move like Jagger”.

Beyond our homes and townships, we don’t take our place in the world

for granted because in order to feel like this world is also ours, we need people like Nas to rap “whose world is this, the world is yours”. Or have Nina Simone and Donny Hathaway sing “to be young, gifted and black” or “I wish I knew how it feels to be free”.

I have some misgivings about Steve Biko’s approach to black solidarity. Some of the most reactionary people I know are black.

And while I appreciate the notion that the black man needs to see himself as complete within himself, one cannot escape the structuralism of history.

Being an African cannot be separated from colonialism. While I wholeheartedly endorse Biko’s view that we need to talk about ourselves more, I am also not ready to relinquish the project of resetting the agenda of the black/white dialectic. Because the real way in which we are going to deal with the implications of this picture is by confronting this dialectic.

To paraphrase Mary-Alice Daniel: “Let’s try to uncover and confront the centuries-old machinations that inform current race relations and bind us in a stalemate of misunderstanding. Then let’s smash this whole thing to pieces.”

In a world controlled by “whites”, that is the only true freedom for blacks.

>>>Mahabane is an adviser on business critical communications

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