“Black First”

So…yeah

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.

 

 

Reclaiming “Political correctness”

One of the most annoyingly overused terms in modern times is without a doubt “political correctness”. The term has come to be used as a pejorative meaning speech that avoids language that might cause offense, particularly to already marginalised groups. Popular examples include changing B.C, meaning “Before Christ” to B.C.E, meaning “Before Common Era” as well as changing anything with the prefix “man” to more gender neutral terms.

There are obvious problems with this usage of “political correctness”. For starters, it ignores the very real ways that language has been used to oppress marginalised groups and seems to suggest that critiquing and altering harmful language is somehow oppressive towards the people who want to continue using said language. It also disguises existing oppressive viewpoints as “the truth” and paints those who critique them as shrill, irrational, and too easily offended. It is no surprise that those who speak out the loudest against political correctness are often the most privileged who are unaffected by certain systems of oppression and will obviously not be offended by a form of violence that has never targeted them.

What interests me the most about political correctness is the way that the term has been bastardised over the years. One of the earliest usages of the term as we know it today came from black feminist Toni Cadre in her 1970 book The Black Woman where she stated “a man cannot be politically correct and a chauvinist too”.

What did Cadre mean by this statement? From my understanding she meant that one cannot claim to be against oppressive systems and say all the correct, socially acceptable things that allude to that while simultaneously buying into and perpetrating those systems. Another interpretation of Cadre’s usage states that when she spoke of “political correctness” she was really referring to codified language that sounds socially acceptable but is really just a smoke screen for an oppressive bias. In other words, “political correctness” is when someone says “thug” when what they really mean is “n*****”.

There are a number of politically correct terms that we use in our everyday life. One of the clearest examples is “thug” which is a racially coded term almost exclusively used to describe black people whether they are protesting or getting killed by a racist vigilante while walking home after they’ve purchased an iced tea and Skittles. Another example is the use of the term “ghetto” that is almost only ever used in association with black people or black culture.

But I believe that political correctness extends beyond this. It’s not just about using words that are convenient, coded replacements for more offensive words. It’s about carefully constructing language as well as picking and choosing facts that portray an oppressive ideal in a way that will ensure the general public does not understand what’s going on but a member of the targeted group often will. It’s a newspaper knowing that they can’t call Nicki Minaj an angry black woman for speaking out against racial bias in the music industry so they opt for an unflattering picture that conveys that stereotype instead. It’s a news outlet knowing that they can’t call a rape victim an irresponsible slut who was asking for it outright so they instead opt to mention what she was wearing, how much she drank, and possibly her sexual history so that the reader draws that conclusion themselves.

This definition of political correctness is one that is far more relevant and far more harmful than the idea that it is somehow inconvenient and ridiculous to have to not to use certain language at the risk of offending someone. This definition of political correctness is one that we see in action in our media and our language everyday while the other is a silencing tactic employed by those who are too privileged to understand the nuances of oppression and how these nuances play out in our language. While both definitions see political correctness as a social concept that must be problematized, the one excuses oppressive ideas and blames marginalised people for being offended by their own oppression while the other recognises the subtle ways that the oppression of marginalised people continues to play itself out in our everyday lives. In an ironic twist, the bastardised definition of political correctness is, in and of itself, politically correct.

Therefore, the term “political correctness” is one which should be reclaimed by social justice circles as it aptly describes a particular type of microaggression that marginalised people encounter. In a world where overt bigotry, particularly in relation to race, gender, and sexuality, is often rendered unacceptable in public, political correctness ensures that marginalised people remain so in subtle, and insidious ways. Reclaiming “political correctness” for ourselves gives us both a means of identifying this type of microaggression and allows us to beat bigots at their own game. We know what they really mean when they tell us we’re being “ratchet”. And we’re not going to tolerate it anymore.

Zapiro, Mabulu, and the normalisation of violence against Black Women

[This article was republished on the website The Journalist]

Today has been a bad day on Twitter.

There has been a higher than usual amount of misogynoir and acceptance of violence against black women on my time line. It started this afternoon when Pearl Pillay reported that her ex boyfriend Siya Nyezi had abused her.  Within minutes, Black Twitter flew into a frenzy tracking down Nyezi and informing his place of work, Investec, that he was an abuser. His ex girlfriends one by one came out to talk of how he had emotionally abused them as well.

At the same time, there were many who defended Nyezi, saying that it was wrong to expect a man to be fired because of what he did in his personal life. There were even those who suggested that Pearl may have cheated on him, because as we all know, in a misogynist’s world, cheating makes it okay to beat your partner half to death. Then there were those who blamed her for staying as long as she did and even joked that within a few days she would go straight back to him. In other words, the same tiring rhetoric we have to deal with every time the issue of domestic violence comes up.

But I don’t want to focus too much on Pillay and Nyezi. It is far too tiring.

Instead, I want to focus on the other misogynistic nightmare to appear on my time line earlier this evening. Controversial  artist Ayanda Mabulu released a painting that is far too upsetting for me to put here. Basically, the painting depicts Jacob Zuma naked, because in the world of satirical art, Zuma must apparently always either be naked or at least have his penis exposed. Black men must be degraded like this constantly while even the worst white men like Hitler and Stalin get to keep their clothes on. Curiously enough, this is exactly what happened in Mabulu’s painting; the figure made to represent white capital was fully clothed. But this is a conversation for another day.

As unnecessary as it was, Zuma’s nudity was the least offensive part of this painting. The worst is what is in the center where a dark skinned black woman is on all fours.  Zuma’s extremely large penis is forced down her throat while the white figure penetrates her from behind. Her breasts are also being milked against her will. The woman is frightened, in pain, and is depicted in such a cartoonishly racist manner it seems as though Mabulu tore her directly out of a page of an old colonial guide to Natives.

The painting reminds me of this Zapiro classic:

And this one:

And even this one:

All three of these cartoons use women who are clearly codified as black by their hair and lips as symbols for the justice system and in the last cartoon’s case, free speech. Similarly, the painting uses a black woman as a symbol for the ordinary South African taxpayer who is (literally, in this case) screwed over and sucked dry by both the government and corrupt white multimillionaire business owners in the private sector. In all of the above depictions black women’s bodies are graphically brutalised, but this brutalisation is made to come secondary to the grand symbolic message that Zapiro and Mabulu seek to convey in their works.

And that is the problem. In the world of South African satire, when it comes to criticising mainly black male politicians, black women, our bodies, and our pain are seen as collateral damage. Many of those who are criticising the painting are focusing solely on Zuma’s right to dignity, which is a valid concern, but even more concerning is the amount of people who are neither black women nor feminists who are not even mentioning the woman in the painting and what her depiction says of Mabulu’s attitudes towards black women as a whole. Then, of course, liberal Twitter is heaping praises on Mabulu’s work, calling it, “revolutionary”, and “daring” because in South African satirical art, the more brutal the violence against the black woman, the more poignant the social commentary. Black women’s bodies are mere vehicles to be dehumanised and used at will so that male artists can call that dehumanization “social commentary” and profit off of it.

It’s actually hardly surprising. Given that South Africa has shockingly high rates of rape and gender based violence, widespread misogynistic ideals and norms, and prevalent racism, cartoons like Zapiro’s and paintings like Mabulu’s are one manifestation of our violently racist and patriarchal society. In Pillay’s case, the fact that the number of people who would put a man’s employment status over the life of the woman he abused is not at all insignificant is another manifestation of that. The heated argument I got into with someone who attacked a rape victim for not reporting her rapist and instead of attempting to sympathise with her, strongly suggested that she would be responsible if he raped again, is yet another manifestation of that.

And the fact that so much of the commentary surrounding the painting is focused on whether the painting is disrespectful to Zuma, or whether the artist is exposing the truth in a brave, daring way is yet another.

Because in a society where patriarchy and racism exist not just side by side but always connecting and intertwining with one another, the lives of black women don’t matter.

Maybe I should stay off Twitter for a while.

The Raven Complex: Understanding New Black Mentality

Since the end of last year, the term “New Black” has become used more and more frequently. The term was coined after Pharrell Williams stated “the New Black doesn’t blame other races for our issues. [He/she] dreams and realizes that it’s not a pigmentation; it’s a mentality.” Since then, a number of black celebrities followed suit with similar remarks. Raven Symone most notably stated that she no longer wanted to be identified as African American in an Oprah interview and even Common making questionable statements on how black people loving white people is the cure to racism.

I particularly pick on Raven in this article because although Pharrell coined the term, she has become the New Black poster child by defending racist statement after racist statement, defending Bill Cosby after the rape allegations came out, and even bizarrely declaring that she’s from every continent in Africa except one.

Certainly, there has been a lot of backlash in the form of tweets and thinkpieces written by other black people in response to this mentality. While I myself have been very critical of New Blacks, the truth is that thinking about them also makes me feel slightly embarrassed, because I myself was once one and can therefore understand the mentality

But first, what is the New Black mentality?

The New Black Mentality is essentially what happens when black people buy into colourblindness and believe that institutional racism is a thing of the past. They think that continuing to believe that racism exists is holding the black community back and that upward mobility is a quick fix solution to the residual effects of white supremacist systems such as Apartheid or the Jim Crow Era.

This is a mentality that completely ignores the lived realities of many black people. It ignores the existence of power dynamics, white privilege, and even class privilege to a degree as, in my experiences, those who embody the New Black mentality are often middle class or higher. Most disturbingly, the New Black mentality blames black people for feeling offended by, or for even having experiences of racism. It portrays black people who speak about racism as reactionaries who are blaming personal failures on an outside force. In reality, racism is still prevalent in South African society, and the New Black mentality is one that simply ignores current racial disparities for a kumbaya approach that blames black people for still being economically and socially disadvantaged by claiming that racial disadvantage no longer exists.

The New Black mentality is one that is infuriating to deal with. And while I could never condone it, I cannot pretend that I don’t understand why it is an easy trap to fall into. I grew up in a position of immense class privilege. I attended one of the most expensive private schools in the country and this was the period where my New Black attitude truly set in. I acknowledged the fact that the majority of black people in the country were economically disadvantaged and that the common narrative was that this was due to the inequalities set in place by the Apartheid regime.

However, in my mind, Apartheid was over. To keep blaming black people’s societal disadvantage on a regime that technically ended in 1994 didn’t make sense to me. The fact that my father had achieved phenomenal success despite growing up as a black man under the Apartheid regime himself solidified for the 14 year old me that Apartheid was no longer a valid excuse, and that black people who were holding on to it did so because they needed to blame their own shortcomings on something other than themselves.

In my mind, racism was violent. It was white people shouting racial slurs at me. It was enforced segregation. It was laws preventing me from having the same rights as white people. I never personally experienced any of those things. I had white friends, my white teachers never treated me differently as far as I could tell, and I did not yet understand that the microaggressions I experienced on a daily basis, the forced assimilation into English culture, and the respectability politics pervasive at my school were acts of racism in and of themselves. Whenever I did hear of or see acts of racism I believed that they were isolated incidences and that those who held those beliefs would soon die out. I believed that racism was over, or at least dying with the older generation, and that if you simply worked hard and behaved in a “civilised” manner then you would transcend whatever residual effects of our past remained.

Then, in matric, I began reading up on racial theory, educated myself more on my country’s current social, economic, and political situation, woke the hell up, and began envisioning ways to teleport myself into the past so I could give the 14 year old me a good slap.

When I thought about my past self and the beliefs I held, I began to realise why I thought the way I did. Acknowledging the existence of racism is a painful experience. It is painful to acknowledge that you and others like you will be treated differently because of the colour of your skin. It is painful to acknowledge that once you enter the working world, it is likely you’ll have to work harder than your white peers just to be taken seriously, or that you are more likely to be seen as a criminal by both the police and shop owners, or even to acknowledge that, except in severe cases, racist actions against you are likely to go unpunished. It is far easier to believe that these are battles that were already fought and won by your parents and not battles that you will likely have to face in your own life.

It is far too easy to look at your white friends and your class privilege and think that racism is over, and merely the act of recognizing that there is still more work to be done to eradicate racism is exhausting. But it is necessary. Perhaps that is why we get so frustrated at people like Raven who insist on remaining ignorant. The one thing that I’ve learned when it comes to New Blacks is that you cannot force them to wake up, it’s something they need to do on their own.

So maybe one day, Raven and every other New Black will wake up. Maybe they won’t. But while it is important to continue critiquing the New Black mentality, we cannot allow criticising that to take up too much important space and energy.