WATCH | “Companies use representation to pretend transformation than actual meaningful changes” says wits university lecturer

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  • Wits University's African Literature senior lecturer Danai Mupotsa believes that Clicks and Unilever's apology for their racist advertisement which described a black woman's hair as dry and damaged, is window-dressing than an actual commitment to structural changes which still have have remnants of racial capitalist history. 
  • Mupotsa said she believes that the protests and conversation being had around issues of representation and racism that are still prevalent in organisation are necessary in affirming people and begin to think of alternative realities. 
  • The scholar said companies such as Unilever use representation as a ploy to quieten criticism while they continue with the current status quo. 

After almost a week of outcry and nationwide protests over the TRESemmé advert on Clicks' website, Wits University senior lecturer Danai Mupotsa is sceptical about the apologies issued by these companies. The African Literature scholar said she fears they lack the true understanding and will to change, as their values and culture are built upon the structures of racial capitalism.

Mupotsa told News24 that representation plays a significant role in society, serving the purpose for people to feel affirmed and accepted. Danai recalls her own childhood experience of when she grew up in Zimbabwe where the only representation she saw of black hair, was relaxer boxes that had a black child with straight silky hair. 

“If people have never seen themselves in an image on television or in a book or advertising, you start to feel like you don’t exist and what’s normative in the world. That was the image that I aspired to, which was straight hair that was curled in a particular way. Then when I relaxed my hair and it didn’t look like that, I was confused,” she said. 

The Wits lecturer told News24 that oftentimes companies such as Unilever and Clicks hire people of colour as a form of window-dressing instead of transforming and changing the centuries-old issues of systemic racism and inequality. Mupotsa said she believes it is high time these big corporations put their money where their mouth is when it came to the systematic changes they incorporate. 

“If we start to see black women in different positions of power or occupying strategic positions rather than just positions, I think there are two effects to it: a reorientation of the world in that organisation, because they come with experience of a body that doesn’t come from a position of power and might bring some insight. Then there’s a transformative possibility. But oftentimes that form of representation means that you are in that place and the image is there but it’s non-performative and non-transformational in that you have to reproduce the same system because the language is spoken, norms and values given in that context remain the same,” she said.  

“So you (black person) look like the image I (fellow black person) want to see but your actions, the structures and institutions remain relatively the same. Representation has a double edge sword, how do we think about how we see ourselves, see our hair, see ourselves as beautiful in a way that doesn’t reproduce the very same systems that mean I (chosen black) will make it, but no one else will,” she said. 

“In terms of black bodies, there seems to be a pendulum between disgust and deep desire and fascination. We need to keep in mind the lack of imagination and political will and lack of recognition because the world is comfortable for a person living in a situation that is in a position of power and doesn’t have to question the systems radically. It only matters when it’s costing them money. So, selling us black people back the products is a way for it not to cost them money,” The 2020 Atlantic Fellow for Racial Equality said. 

Mupotsa lamented that the protests such as the Economic Freedom Fighters staged nationwide on Monday 08 September, will continue to happen because of the long history of racial capitalism. The African Literature scholar added that because of the property laws enshrined in the fundamentals of racism, companies 

“Companies like Unilever are deeply embedded in the making of global racial capitalism. That system is deeply racialised and gendered. In addition to that, that deep history that is deeply racist has largely remained the same. So Clicks giving us one shelf as ethnic people or whatever category that comes up at the time as a gesture of inclusion against an entire shelf, is and then the normative assumption that the consumer or person in South Africa is that entire shelf and this section is for you (black people) then that gives you the sense of whose point of view matters and who owns things,” the current Atlantic Fellow for Racial Equality said.  Mupotsa believes that the outrage and conversations being had around the issues of racism, black hair, representation and the history of racial science that have long governed the organisations such as Unilever are important, for people to feel affirmed but also a way for people to realise that there is a possibility for a different kind of reality than the current one. 

“If you felt crazy your whole life and then to realise you’re not crazy, other people feel this way. That kind of affirmation is energising and heartbreaking because you also realise the extent of the problem. These conversations make it possible for moments of recognition that there are other ways that we can do business,” she said. 

Mupotsa told News24 that those that try to use the counter-argument of cultural appropriation when black women wear weaves, do not understand the meaning of the term and what was used by disenfranchised people as a means of articulating their injustice, is instead being used against them. 

“People don’t recognise where words come from. Power is also important to recognise where these words come from. These ideas emerge from oppressed people articulating their experience of racism, sexism and other injustices. Now people in structural power using words like cultural appropriation to describe something like a hair weave is methodically flawed because it’s taken out of context, the question of power which is embedded in it is taken out, and ignored a whole history,” she said. 

“If all you have seen in your whole life, how do you imagine that someone who grows up in a world like that, wouldn’t ascribe the notions of beauty with long strong straight hair. I mean that advert recreated that entire narrative,” Mupotsa added. 

The Wits University lecturer said that white people who have been outraged at the protest display another kind of cynical, as it shows a lack of understanding and affirms black people’s lack of value and disregarding their feelings. 

“We are too quickly asked to think that things have changed. Someone says we have decolonised and then we get happy and then are shocked two years, five years, ten years later when things are still the same. We need to be deeply cynical because the things we want are beautiful and bigger than we are imagining. Black children should grow up knowing that they are beautiful and don’t discover after burning your hair for 25 years. To reverse the history, it requires deep spiritual, political, ethical, emotional, revolutionary, reforming and radical kind of commitment,” she said.

However, Mupotsa also called out black people who believed that the protests were unnecessary and sabotage against black small owned companies that had their products in Clicks. She said that as black people, we need to 

“I know being recognised by big corporates gives some kind of access and legitimacy to a business. But this is where we all need to take some responsibility in how we mobilise and organise ourselves and imagine a different kind of futures. If being Clicks is end post, then we are somewhat part of the issue. We deserve better. If we are constantly marking up ourselves against normative standards that were never meant for us then we can only ever be in a relation of lack to those standards because that’s how they were structured,” she said. 

“The inclusion model is for example that in Clicks you will always be in the ethnic section because the normative standard is that everybody is white and then you can have the corner section. Now that is an unjust standard and it doesn’t look like what the country or the world,” she said. 

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