I realise that I’ve taken a perhaps longer than intended and strictly necessary break from my blogging. When thinking of how I would get back into the swing of things, I kept pondering on exactly which angle I would take. These four months into 2016 have offered no shortage of political headliners, including the recent ComCourt ruling that is finally holding our president accountable for Nkandla. And of course, there’s the issue that hits closer to home for me.
But I don’t want to talk about Zuma. What I want to talk about is an issue that hits me on a far more personal note. And this is one that is linked to the recent protests at Wits. The one thing that these protests have done is reveal the underlying patriarchy and homophobia that has existed within Fallist movements since their inception last year. Long before the protests began, I had started thinking of our country’s student movements and at exactly what point they began to disintegrate on an ideological level and then on a physical level into the fractured shells categorized by infighting and break away movements that they have now become. And while there are many issues that one can point to, I personally believe that one of the biggest issues within #FeesMustFall dates back far before the movement began. Far before the members of #FeesMustFall were even born.
I am talking of the idea that one is black first. This is an idea that one sees cropping up time and time again in works written by those revered by hoteps such as Steve Biko and Frantz Fanon. The idea is simple: that the black struggle is the quintessential struggle that must be tackled first before one can hope to tackle other “lesser” struggles such as patriarchy, homophobia, ableism, etc. In fact, according to those who subscribe to this belief, the black struggle is characterized solely by racism and classism. All other systems of oppression are not only seen as less important, if one attempts to tackle them in any meaningful way one is automatically seen as “divisive”.
This is a critique that black feminists have faced, and that we are constantly facing even now. We are told that our feminism is dividing the black community or even (and this is my personal favourite attack) that feminism is a concept invented by white women to destroy the black community. For what purpose? Racism mostly. In some versions, white women have set out to make us black women as unloveable as possible so that they can have black men to themselves. Because according to hoteps, there is no more powerful tool in the world than a black penis, which capable even of curing us hateful feminists of our beliefs.
The entire idea that one can be “black first” ignores the ways that different forms of oppression intersect with one another. For a black woman, there is no such thing as “black first” or “female first” and the idea that there is has historically forced women to ignore the one side of their oppression for the benefit of the most privileged group. During the suffrage movement, influential black women like Sojourner Truth were marginalized by their white feminist counterparts while back home in South Africa, black women were told to prioritize racism, which would ensure the the freedom of “all” black people before tackling patriarchy.
The truth is, the only people who benefit from “black first” ideology are the most privileged members. Specifically, cisgender, able bodied, heterosexual, black men. Failing to take into account the multiple oppressions that queer, disabled, and female black people face allows cishet able bodied black men to maintain their level of privilege over other groups of black people. You see this time and time again when more privileged black people actively participate in the oppression of other blacks, like when black men are patriarchal towards black women or black heterosexual people are homophobic towards queer black people. In other words, black men who push for a “black first” ideology are not truly fighting for the emancipation of all black people. They are merely fighting, to use that quote from a black revolutionary whose name I cannot remember, for a “seat at the master’s table”.
Sure, it may be overly simplistic to believe that the black first ideology is the major factor in the collapse of our student movements. I believe that the collapse is rooted in a number of causes, including the leaderless nature of the movements which leads to a lack of a clear voice, a clear direction, and accountability. Such a recipe will inevitably lead to a lack of stability, infighting, voices that seek to co-opt the movement for their own political gain, and eventually fracturing. This is exactly what we are seeing today in movements like #FeesMustFall and the Black Student Movement at Rhodes University.
But what it does show, is a fundamental fault that lies at the heart of many social justice movements. Social justice movements almost inevitably fall into a pattern where the most privileged members at best ignore the struggles of those facing intersecting oppression and at worst continue to exert their privilege over others. We’ve seen this with middle class white cisgender women in the feminist movement and white cisgender gay men in the LGBT movement.
So this begs us to ask what the solution is. As black women, our solution to white feminism was womanism, and for queer black people their solution to the overwhelming whiteness in queer spaces has been to create new black queer spaces such as Soweto Pride. So when it comes to our student movements, the question that we are left with is whether we as female and/or queer black people should start our own student movements, bearing in mind that we have not only performed tireless labour and played instrumental roles in the existing ones but we deliberately set up existing student movements with the intention of making them as intersectional as possible. Or, do we go the route of the UCT: Trans Collective and radically challenge and reclaim our position in these spaces? And of course, what do we do about the violent patriarchy that we face in our movements now, especially when this patriarchy has made it very clear that it is completely unwilling to listen to queer or feminist voices?
It’s tricky. And it’s one of the main reasons so many black women no longer identify with the current student movements.
A popular saying in intersectional circles is, “you can’t be pro black if you’re not here for all of us”. And until Black First proponents learn that, I don’t think I’ll be able to see myself in the current student movements anymore.