Putting paid to cultural confusion
- Yanisha Lallah
- 07 Mar 2017 (South Africa)
So many questions need to be asked about identities and cultures in post-colonial countries. Post-colonial countries are flooded with people who have been uprooted and then forced to adapt to a mainstream culture. This mainstream culture is usually white. The dispossessed are then taught to be grateful that their minds have been colonised.
Countries like South Africa are multicultural societies and yet townships and informal settlements are overly represented, exclusively with people of colour. This is not unique to South Africa, as the face of poverty globally is black. The black majority worldwide still lives beneath the line of poverty, while the white minority only sporadically experience the equivalent of such conditions. This makes it obvious that the social order and inequality installed by our colonial past lingers on.
Cultural appropriation has been an emerging theme in conversations around decolonisation. This can range from a white person misunderstanding beliefs, lifestyles and rituals to handpicking parts of any cultures to enrich their personal, social and economic positions.
Why am I calling it appropriation and not appreciation? That’s because with a white South African comes white privilege. White supremacy gives social, political and economic privileges to white people. These allow them to make money over something that people of original culture struggle to make money from. White privilege provides the luxury to walk away from any adopted culture whenever it is no longer working in a person’s favour or interest.
People of colour unfortunately don’t have this privilege or choice and continue to be stereotyped negatively when they practice their own cultures and beliefs. There are unequal power relations between black and white in South Africans which allow a white person to wear something freely which when worn by a person of colour results in negative stereotyping for people of colour who own the culture. For example, a white woman who shows up to work in beads and African print clothing is seen as exotic, hippie and cool while a woman of colour who shows up at work with similar choices is automatically deemed too imposing, doing too much, not formal enough or imposing too much of their identities on the workplace.
Why does this happen? White supremacy and the elevation of whiteness and white culture has forced people of colour to assimilate. Many people of colour have realised that assimilation of white culture has economic and social benefits and so they assimilate. This follows previous generations who were also forced to shut down parts of their identity in order to survive the mainstream white culture and capitalism. In essence, people of colour have been forced to work for and aspire to be white. This leaves a confused people who move between their own traditional or cultural beliefs and western culture.
The conflict that comes from moving between the black self and the white self causes pain and confusion in black people’s lives. Black pain, internalised racism as well as the consequences of assimilation are articulated well in philosopher William Du Bois’s concept of double consciousness. This is the internal conflict experienced by subordinated groups in an oppressive society such as South Africa.
Du Bois explained with his idea of double consciousness that the prejudices of white people elicit self-questioning, self-disparagement, and lowering of ideals among people of colour. The internalisation of anti-black sentiment from the outside world thus begins to shape the black experience. It is only when we begin to question the assimilated parts that we become better able to live authentically black lives that are influenced rather than taken over by white culture.
People of colour need to be given the space to heal and develop a voice. Only then can we begin to articulate what it means to live a free life as a person of colour. Cultural appropriation can be very triggering for black people and a source of pain. To see that which is mocked and ridiculed in you being praised and exalted in another is painful, especially when that is your culture and heritage.
On top of struggling to climb the economic ladder, people of colour are also being forced to accept erasure and misappropriations of their own culture, beliefs, bodies and hair types by a white minority who somehow find black lifestyles and beliefs to fit them.
However, with the emergence of black feminist education, we are becoming more conscious, despite the fact that significant areas of our autonomy are undermined by our early education as many schools inadvertently replicate the conditions of white supremacy in and of themselves. Still, we are now receptive to the fact that every system or institution set up in post-colonial countries is designed for white people to succeed and for black people to be systematically repressed. Sure, there is BEE and sure, the Constitution allows for gay marriage. There are even black people who enter and teach at previously white universities now … but it seems that our black leaders have internalised racism for so long that they too are working towards the upliftment of white people and are therefore perpetuating white supremacy, albeit unintentionally.
We have been taught from a very young age that white is beauty. That having perfect English is going to help us, mixing with white people is the future and that colonialism actually brought about progress. We have never been taught to uplift each other for the betterment of society, but rather to work and aspire to be white. The internalisation of anti-black sentiment from the outside world thus begins to shape the black experience.
But, we are still at the bottom of the social and economic ladder looking up at white supremacy the way we were forced to look up at the Cecil John Rhodes statue walking up the UCT stairs, while the statue stares at the poverty and deprivation of the Cape flats. We have outdone white people at everything they claimed to have invented and have supremacy over… and yet, we are othered, objectified, exotified and bastardised every day in advertisements, job interviews and our own homes because of patriarchy. From Saartjie Baartman to the black womxn in RMF, violence, erasure and misrepresentation of black bodies has not stopped and we are perpetuating it by encouraging men of colour to be at the top of the social ladder.
Things need to change. It is time for us to look at each other and ask each other who we are. What does it mean to tick “Indian” on an application form, does it mean I was born in India or does it mean I am brown or does it mean my seat is at the back of the classroom because the white girl is more likely to get 75% because her English is better, simply by being white? What does it mean to be black? What does it mean to be coloured? Are these all colonial terms that we are supposed to hate and reject? Or is it time to give the constitutional pen to the right people? That is, the black women of this continent?
Black mothers are still having to ask for help to pay for their children’s formal post-colonial education when these mothers are encyclopedias of a knowledge that is not considered as legitimate in society. Yet they are sacrificing their beliefs, traditions and knowledge for what they believe will be our upward mobility. These are the things that they have held on to so strongly in order for us not to experience what they did during colonialism. Black parents will always look over their shoulders out of fear of losing everything – colonialism did that. White parents cannot relate to this and never will because despite the fact that white women meet us on some levels of oppression, like patriarchy, they have failed us tremendously by promoting their upward mobility and leaving us behind in the process and their white privilege prevails them as much as their cultural appropriation of our values and lifestyles.
The issue of race in South Africa has dominated every facet of the society to an extent that it shall inextricably link to every aspect of life for generations to come. Black self-perception has historically been, and arguably continues to be, informed by the manner in which blackness is portrayed within white literature, media and society. The realities of apartheid in South Africa render most white authors and activists incapable of adequately capturing the black experience and so they need to stop appropriating black pain. Instead, they need to write for white people to dismantle their whiteness, and to stop feeling so entitled to being part of the process of liberation and healing that black people need for themselves.
Apartheid ended on paper, colonialism ended on paper, but we are still living its legacy. It is not to undermine the great work that activists did in the past to break those chains, it is simply to emphasise that we should not have laid all the responsibility on a few figures. We should now all work together towards breaking this inequality that is persisting among black people.
We are not here to correct white people, they need to self-correct and correct those in their communities. The labour cannot be solely on people of colour. We can simply ask them to sit down and listen to us if they really want to practise our cultures, lifestyles and break their whiteness. Stop being so entitled, stop speaking over us and most important, stop pretending to know our cultures better than us just because you dated coloured women, ate enough Indian food and have a lot of black friends. None of these are relevant if it is still pushing us to the bottom of the social and economic ladder. Black people in dreadlocks are still predominantly stereotyped against. They are never considered for top positions because of the prejudice and stereotype that white supremacy has brought upon it. It is important to point out that it is not the inclusion of black bodies that is in contention, but rather the way in which this is done. The disparate power relations between black and white in South Africa is still very present; the representations of blackness in stereotype have perpetuated cultural appropriation.
The fact that we keep breaking every ceiling continually being placed above our heads shows that we can dismantle the mainstream culture. It is time to explore the multitude of identities our ancestors cherished, the knowledge that has been kept away or selected carefully for us to stay in line. The gorgeous and overly present Afro is no longer going to be pressed down by a swimming cap at the school entrance. Now the Afro will shine freely and black women will rise to take back what is rightfully theirs. We are going to define our own cultures from now on. The unity between black, Asian and coloured is extremely powerful, we have some things to settle among us, but when it comes down to understanding oppression and internalised racism, we meet every day. We understand each other when it comes to colourism, especially because irrespective of how “white” our culture can become we are still discriminated against for our melanin because it is that part of our identities that we cannot change.
It is time for white people to realise they know nothing about our cultures and practices and that they are and have been appropriating lifestyles, land and beliefs that they will never fundamentally understand unless the power dynamics are broken. Of course there is room for cultural exchange, but only once white people take the back seat. Of course there can be cultural appreciation, once we stop remaining quiet about white ignorance. DM
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