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The coconut’s dilemma — a foot in the black and white worlds, but acceptance in neither

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Lwando Xaso is an attorney and a writer exploring the interaction between race, gender, history and popular culture. She is the author of the book, ‘Made in South Africa, A Black Woman’s Stories of Rage, Resistance and Progress’.

The term ‘coconut’ is a pejorative and perceptive label that others establish based on assumptions and stereotypes. More often than not it is a negative label applied to those seen as deviant from standard cultural norms. The word ‘coconut’ itself is an intra-racial slur that calls into question the blackness of ‘coconuts’, suggesting a divisively narrow conception of what it means to be black.

After becoming conscious of the subordinating ties of whiteness, “coconuts” struggle to integrate with the broader black community in pursuit of a common cause. What is missing is a discussion on how the conscious coconut can contribute to the common cause without apologising for where they live, where they went to school, where they work or how they talk.

The impression is often created that the onus is solely on the coconut to change to fit into a narrow concept of blackness for the comfort of others. Coconuts are chafed on both sides, by white and black rejection. One writer points out that the coconut dilemma implies an “uncritical acceptance of self-degrading ideals within the black community that calls into question individualism, black intelligence in its many and diverse forms and beauty which paralyses black progress”.

Black people who dress, speak or act in a way that is not considered authentically black are too often excluded and labelled sell-outs. There is a belief that there is just one way of being black — the Jacob Zuma way over the Thabo Mbeki way. The impression created is that a conscious coconut should aspire to undo his or her Mbeki-like mannerisms in favour of those more like Zuma to be more relatable.

There are those who prescribe that to be “authentically black” you must remain in one place linguistically, mentally, socio-economically and geographically. And when you do not adhere to that, you pay the price. A price paid by Tambu in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s classic novel which resonated deeply with me in High School, Nervous Conditions. After Tambu, the novel’s protagonist, leaves her village to pursue an education at the mission school run by her uncle who has just returned from England, she starts experiencing the alienation that comes with refusing to remain in one place just for the comfort of others.

Tambu is concerned that Anna, her uncle’s housekeeper, calls her by the title reserved for an elder, “Sisi”, which is odd because Anna is older and she had never called her that before she moved. Worst of all, Anna now hardly talks to her. She rationalises that Anna’s shift has to do with her change of address and station in life and in Anna’s mind this has changed Tambu into a person she can no longer talk to. In this way, Tambu’s “move” comes at the detriment of her relationships.

Tambu’s evolving identity is natural for a young girl coming of age whose life is uprooted in the manner that it is. However she has to negotiate a new world, a Western world clashing with her traditional upbringing alienating her from her people. One textbook says this is fragmentation of identity as Tambu is being transformed from the native identity to the colonial hybrid identity. The “intermingling of cultures” creates conflict in Tambu’s life which is worsened by the rejection she experiences from people like Anna.

The torment that Tambu feels in the novel is best illustrated in real life by the life of Leanita McClain. The words that introduced me to Leanita’s life and work were “My life abounds in incongruities”. Leanita, who was born on 3 October 1951 in Chicago, grew up poor, black and intellectually gifted.

She achieved the “American dream” through studying and hard work, eventually gaining entry to an elite university which enabled her to improve her socio-economic status. Her efforts culminated in a powerful position at a prestigious newspaper where she was the only black person amid a sea of middle-aged white men.

Irma McClaurin, writing on Leanita’s life, suspects that out of conscience, Leanita appointed herself the black community’s public voice at the paper. She wrote fiercely on social inequality. Leanita’s life and work exemplify the complexity of race, gender and class. In her poignant essay, McClaurin writes that the lives of black women such as Leanita produce fractured identities because the disparities between the world these women come from and the worlds in which they live in produce an internal tug-of-war.

Despite her claim to live in both the black and white worlds, Leanita was in fact viewed ambivalently by both. Leanita expressed her own frustration aptly: “I am a member of the black middle class who has had it with being patted on the head by white hands and slapped in the face by black hands for my success. As for the envy of my own people, am I to give up my career, my standard of living to pacify them, and set my conscience at ease?”

Leanita describes the struggle holistically, not just black and white but also black and black. As McClaurin observes, Leanita’s incongruities made her acutely aware of her situational difference from her own people.

As a member of the black middle class, Leanita stood somewhere in between the black and white divide, with considerable tension deriving from the fact that both sides accepted and rejected her simultaneously. She wrote that she has a foot in each world but could not fool herself about either and could see the transparent deceptions of some whites and the bitter hopelessness of some blacks.

Leanita provides an honest picture of her experience of both the black and white rejection. Leanita never found acceptance in either world. She eventually succumbed to her depression and ended her life in May 1984. To speak of coconuts or the black middle class without addressing and understanding this other divide presents an incomplete picture and takes us no closer to understanding blackness in all its expansiveness. DM

Originally written in response to Panashe Chigumadzi’s Ruth First Memorial Lecture in 2015.

Follow Lwando Xaso on Twitter at @Including_Inc

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