The Ruth First lecture held at the University of the Witwatersrand might have happened more than three weeks ago but the effects have been long-lasting and I’ve been having so many valuable conversations with friends on the subject of race ever since.
As a 23-year-old who was raised in Meadowlands, Soweto then moved to the West Rand, I’ve experienced racism first hand. I’ve had racial slurs hurled at me by white classmates and was taken to the principal’s office when I retaliated. I’ve been made to hate the way my family spoke and was affirmed by white friends that I’m ‘just like them’, only to be laughed at when I expressed attraction to a white peer.
Over the years there are many things I have had to learn and unlearn. And the talks given by Panashe Chigumadzi and Sisonke Msimang on 17 August entitled Race: Lived Experiences and Contemporary Conversations, spoke straight to the heart of my experience.
This is what my friends and I have been talking about since the lecture:
Being a coconut isn’t always a choice
Many label me as a coconut as if to congratulate me, using the phrase, “you’re not like the others”, as though my experiences differed from those who were hated more openly. Existing in largely white spaces means many of us assimilated by way of survival, not choice.
For evidence of this you need look no further than the recent events at the University of Stellenbosch in which students marched against structural racism in the institution, which has come to light as a result of the documentary Luister. As an aside, I thought it interesting that instead of listening and working on the issues at hand, some students chose to host a #WhereIsTheLove event to showcase the “lekker vibes” present on campus. Essentially this silences the students who feel discriminated against.
I don’t have to want to welcome white people into my spaces
After years of the micro-aggressions that come with forging interracial dynamics (the purposeful mispronunciation of my name for example), I see that I would rather not bother. I don’t owe anyone friendship, especially someone (more often than not) more socio-economically powerful than I am – if they are not willing to meet me at my level. Meeting me at my level means acknowledging the privilege you have, recognising that apartheid may not have been your doing but you benefitted. Understanding this means the work of opening other people’s eyes can begin.
I wasn’t overreacting all those years
There comes a time when you’re so accustomed to being around white people who do things that you hate – whether it’s the casual, “I don’t like Tshego, maybe because she’s black” (this was said to me in primary school) or using your nickname ‘Bush Baby’– that you start to believe you’re being oversensitive when the racism hits home. Letting this hurt go is such relief. The sense of catharsis that came from listening to Panashe, Sisonke and many other black people share their experiences was overwhelming.
I am not an agent of whiteness
Being part of the “Born Free” generation I’m often told that the way I speak sounds more white than black. This leads people to believe I no longer see race. No. I am no longer the Black girl who feels good when certain groups accept me because I pronounce “salmon” correctly. I will not be complicit in what Panashe referred in her talk to as the, “add Blacks and stir” model. The one in which representation means one black person in a room full of white people. I am not an ally to use in your #WhereIsTheLove pictures to show that racism isn’t a thing. As author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says: “Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.”
Black women need more spaces
We need spaces where we can speak on blackness and gender with a sense of belonging. Spaces where we aren’t tone-policed by men and where our outrage is understood and empathised with. Spaces like the #ForBlackGirlsOnly event recently hosted by @madblackqueer in Cape Town where black girls and women gathered to discuss the issues that affect them as a result of their identities.
This is the reason Janine Jellars launched Frank Podcast and approached me to co-host it with her. We discuss feminism, pop culture and the intersection of our politics in both serious and hilarious ways. This space has allowed us to be able to discuss the world we experience in an authentic way.