Athambile Masola
Athambile Masola

A Biko moment

I’ve been having a Biko moment for a while now. A “Biko [1] moment” is that moment when someone says something racist but I’m left wondering if I’m reading too much into the situation. That moment when I have to debate in mind if I feel welcome in a space because there’s an atmosphere of exclusion, but there are no words or signs declaring the exclusion. This Biko moment has been a prolonged one; probably since I moved to Cape Town.

So, a few days ago I made a mental list: “Things I wish some white people could be aware of.” I was troubled by it mostly because it came from a place of frustration and mostly because I’m trying to be that black who actually doesn’t care about whiteness. I’m supposed to be post-race. I am brim-full with my Eurocentric, white supremacist education so most days I think of race as a performance the same way that gender is a performance. I grew up scrambling everyone’s brains because I decided to major in English and I’m an English teacher. I understand the Englishness in my everyday life. The problem is though, I can’t bear that the same questions I had in 1994, when my family moved to the suburbs and I went to a former white school, are the same questions exactly 20 years later.

Surely I should have dealt with this Biko moment when I was in grade one in 1994, right?

But here it is, things I wish some white people could be aware of:

1. Don’t make “black jokes”. Ever!

2. Don’t tell me you speak isiXhosa but when I speak to you in isiXhosa you can’t get past the greetings (and you tell me you’ve been trying for years. Really?)

3. If I introduce myself as Athambile, don’t ask me if I have another name that’s easy to pronounce because you’re not good with remembering names (I don’t even have a click in my name). Also, please spell my name correctly.

4. When I walk into the room, I am not the spokesperson of my village, tribe, clan or race. I like being an individual most of the time.

5. Don’t speak “black” and then laugh out loud ie don’t put on Julius Malema’s accent to make a joke. And don’t laugh when I choose to code switch.

6. Stop being enamoured with my hair. I’m not a monkey in a zoo.

7. Don’t ask me to be your “black friend”. It’s not my fault you don’t have enough black people in your life. Just don’t talk to me rather.

8. Don’t think I’m writing this list on behalf of black people; I’m not.

9. Don’t do a retake of Trevor Noah’s jokes; you might just get it wrong and I’m left wondering if you’re racist.

10. When you have a misunderstanding with another black person, don’t ask me to speak to them on your behalf and then tell me “you’re not like other black people”. Because in that moment, you lose me.

11. Please don’t tell me apartheid didn’t affect me because we went to the same school. I inherited my grandmother’s pass book (literally) and you probably got a car or a house or a trust fund when your gran passed away.

12. Please tell other white people when they are being racist. It is not my responsibility to talk about racism.

13. I don’t fully understand “white guilt” (the same way some white people “don’t get” ancestral worship). I’m especially uncomfortable when you talk about “white guilt” and hijack a conversation when black people are trying to address the real issue of white supremacy.

14. Stop gushing “your parents must be so proud” when you discover where I studied and how far I studied in university. I got an education; end of story.

15. When you diss affirmative action and I’m in the room, it’s really awkward.

16. When talking about poor people, don’t use the word “them/they” then look at me awkwardly to check if I’m okay with that. It’s not okay.

17. And no, there’s no such thing as reverse racism when we talk about employment equity.

18. I get really uncomfortable when you talk about being raised by your “black nanny”. Who was raising her children?

19. Don’t be surprised when I tell you I don’t have a holiday house.

20. Being African is not a fetish. It’s not something you can wear or eat or listen to.

21. Just because we went to school together doesn’t mean we “grew up together”. Did our mothers have tea while we played with Barbie in my backyard? Have you ever been for a play date in Mdantsane [2]? The answer is no, so we didn’t grow up together. And that’s okay.

22. Don’t correct me if I mix up “he/she” when I speak because from the context you probably know what I mean. Also, don’t be so judgmental about how multilinguals speak English. We juggle many language rules in our heads. And that’s normal.

The problem with a list like this is that racist vitriol is sure to follow and I will be accused of being racist. I’m not racist. Nor am I an angry, black woman. And if I were an angry, black woman, I think I would be justified. There’s a lot to be angry about in South Africa.


[1] A reference to Steve Biko whose writing is responsible for my understanding of race relations; especially in the new South Africa.

[2] Mdantsane is a township in the Eastern Cape. Where I grew up before we moved to the suburbs.

Tags: , , ,

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    • lazola

      Truth

    • David

      That’s a long list but well written. Not sure anyone can take offense with anything you wrote.

    • bernpm

      You say: “I understand the Englishness in my everyday life.”

      I have some serious doubts about this with 22 restrictions on “how to be approached” and “what can be said” in your company by other people.

      The society rule book in the British (English?) society is called “manners”. Some people are better in applying those rules than others, I admit. The likelihood that we meet and I might transgress your “directions for use” seems very limited.

      Anyway, thanks for the info. I will keep a copy of your email in my social wallet, just in case.

    • ProudlySaffer

      OK, let’s make a deal then; I won’t correct you if you mix up he/she (as per statute #22) and you stop being so precious about my grasp of isiXhosa (as per statute #2).

    • jannike

      This is a brilliant piece; thank you for writing it. These are very important issues and something (most of) my white “peers” need handle with sensitivity. As a South African living in France I’m having a hard time getting my French friends & colleagues over here to understand the same things mentioned on the list. They love making ‘black jokes’ for example. Perhaps they did not grow up with something like apartheid, so the taboo is not as imprinted in their minds…but it is no excuse. I am white, but I hate this European whiteness.

    • Ritsie

      Hi Athambile

      Thank you for compiling the list and articulating some of the frustrations that some black people (including me) experience daily. Aluta sisi.

    • Momma Cyndi

      Some of your points may be a bit harsh, as it is probably more curiosity than anything else. However, the fact that they bother you cannot be ignored and are duly noted. Nothing offensive or ‘racist’ on your list so I have no idea how you would think it offensive ….. but let’s “weight and sea”.

      By the way, I’m sure your parents are very proud of you. I know that I am proud as punch at how far my kids have gone in university. Only the second generation to ever have attended university and already we are producing Doctoral Degrees. That is worthy of pride.

    • Gabriel

      re no. 3: I get dead embarrassed when I cannot pronounce someone’s name correctly the first time. Is it awkward when one asks for a name to be repeated the first time?

    • Peter

      “And no, there’s no such thing as reverse racism when we talk about employment equity.”

      Really? Employment equity is about race!

    • eugene

      17. Only idiots argue against employment equity. But when we bring in Europeans to Madupi because we cant hire white South Africans? When senior posts are being left empty simply to punish white people?
      18. “”I get really uncomfortable when you talk about being raised by your “black nanny””. Who was raising her children?”” Her extended family. Ghu. I dont have extended family. 19. I dont have a holiday house. I dont have a BMW. I dont have DSTV. I dont have a pool. I dont go to the operah or even to the movies. I dont eat sushi or smoke cigars.
      20.I was born in this country and have a green ID book. Respect that with your whole heart 21. Having black friends is not going to make me appear less racist. I will always be perceived racist because of the colour of my skin. 22. Don’t correct me if I mix up tenses, in Afrikaans we dont have any. Dont laugh at older Afrikaans folk(or me) when they try English. They didnt go to private school, and I can see the bemused smiles staring down on them. Its not on.

      Im not racist. No, honestly, but im sick of being called that. So why shouldnt I just become one? No I won. I refuse to succumb to negative emotions.

    • Daniel

      It’s a bit akward how you willingly set up an association that implies that Biko-ness involves “reading too much” into a situation.

    • Steve Bhiko

      Thing is: we are majority. I am getting tired of hearing us whingeing about what the minority “is doing to us”. Having a Biko moment is accepting that you as African owe nothing to no one and you need not blend in.

    • gaolentha

      good one, i will print this for my kids. it is so instructive. nnete

    • http://na JR

      Well said Athambile…

    • Gavin T

      As a white person married to someone black, I understand how you feel. Really very well written. White people don’t realise how often they say these things – not realising how it hurt, or sound racist.
      It is even worse when there is not a black person in the conversation. Then one often hear: “I am not a racist, BUT…” White people really need to start speaking out against people who do this.

    • Brenda Pratt

      Sigh. Can’t wait until we are all over this and we don’t have to write/read lists like this anymore. Rules of Engagement!

    • http://africanjungle.iblog.co.za/ Julian Frost

      I have to respond to some things you said.
      “Stop gushing “your parents must be so proud” when you discover where I studied and how far I studied in university. I got an education; end of story.”
      “Your parents must be so proud” is said to white people as well. And why wouldn’t any parent be proud that their offspring got a degree?

      “When you diss affirmative action and I’m in the room, it’s really awkward.”
      It’s not affirmative action we’re dissing, it’s the way it’s being implemented we’re dissing.

      “And no, there’s no such thing as reverse racism when we talk about employment equity.”
      See my comment about “affirmative action” above.

    • michael

      Such a huge cultural gulf between the people of SA.

    • Paul Kearney

      Good to get the bile out of your system but my guess is that Biko would have been amused then angry at taking his name over your obsession with what way less than 10% of SA’s population do relative to you. Biko refused to be angry about being defined, irritated, belittled, teased, etc etc by race, other races; let alone other people. He marched on his own path.

      I think Donald Woods, Alan Paton, Joe Slovo, Ronnie Kasrils etc etc would probably have failed most of your awareness criteria.

      So I believe Steve Biko would not have cared about any of them but would have forged his own way, taking people for what they are, regardless of the skin colour criteria introduced by apartheid.

      Could you try the same?

    • hanif

      Does this not apply in our relationship with individuals daily? Whether black, white or brown? Xhosa, Zulu, Pedi, Tshangane, Sotho, Indian (Hindi, Tamil, Telegu, Gujerati), or Afrikaner, English or Greek?

      Our Rainbow Nation has a long way to go when the majority sees our relationship one way only!

    • Vusi

      Athambile, thank you for writing what’s been in my(and most of my friends’) mind for such a long time! As for EE or AA-I just shut them up by asking if they have read the recent report on how Black people earn 4x less than their white counterparts-with the same Education and Qualification. I guess over the years we’ve learned to deal with these, for the lack of a better word, “tendencies”. Let’s hope our children and their children will not get to experience what we have, in our own country.

    • Sirius

      You left one point – when looking for a maid or gardener, do not ask or look at me.

    • Ohmy

      1. I don’t make black jokes, or Chinese jokes, or Indian jokes, or white jokes. Do you?
      2. Maybe you can assist me with some pointers when I do greet you in isiXhosa and can’t get pass the customary “how are you’s?”
      3. I get my name misspelled as much as you do. Shocking, right?
      4. I get that you are an individual, but your point about individuality is somewhat diminished when you chose to address the entire “white race” as though they too don’t come from different backgrounds, views and even nationalities.
      5. No one needs to mock Julius Malema. He does it himself.
      6. I am not so much enamoured as pretty envious.
      7. Talking to black people is how you make black friends. I haven’t “asked” anyone to be my friend – black or otherwise – since Grade 1. It didn’t work out.
      8. I am not replying to your post on behalf of all whites either.
      9. Trevor Noah can tell a joke and not be racist. I can’t repeat it without being one. I get it. That being said, I’m not nearly funny enough to pull off Trevor Noah jokes – racist or otherwise – so I steer clear.
      10. Has anyone ever really told you “you are not like other black people”? Really?
      11. Don’t assume I got a car and a trust fund because I’m white. I’ve worked for what I’ve got, just as hard as you did.
      12. Why assume only that white people are racist?
      13. I think that white people have as much of a right to talk about white guilt or white poverty or how white people were affected by apartheid as you do. It’s not…

    • MJackson

      I had a Sobukwe moment – there’s no race but the human race.

    • http://www.wachizungu.com Wachizungu Sawa Sawa

      Loved the blog on “A Biko moment.” Go read it here: http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/athambilemasola/2014/04/24/a-biko-moment/

      Certainly food for thought for many of us. It begs the question – can I, as an Afrikaans speaking, pale skinnned, South African male with European ancestors (I consider myself African at all levels) also have a “Biko moment?” A “Biko moment” is defined in the blog article as that moment when someone says something racist but you are left wondering if you reading too much into the situation. That moment when you have to debate in mind if you feel welcome in a space because there’s an atmosphere of exclusion, but there are no words or signs declaring the exclusion.

      Surely I should have dealt with this Biko moment when I was in grade one in 1994, right?

      So in reply to and with complete apology to Athambile Masola (I’m quite sure I pronounced it accurately) some additional things I wish some people (regardless of hue or colour of complexion) could be aware of:

      1. Don’t make “black or white or pink jokes”. Ever! Okay, “pink jokes” are okay, provided they do not reflect on anybody’s sexual preferences. Think pink elephants or something.

      2. Don’t ever say you can speak any language and then when addressed in that language you can’t get past the greetings. It is much cooler to say you don’t know the language – either because you couldn’t care to learn it, or it represents the language of oppressors, or the apartheid school system…

    • Thembie

      hahahahaha… @bernpm, your sarcasm really kills me!!! If you’d bothered to read Athembile’s piece more closely, you’ll see that it derives from the ‘British society rule book’ (whatever that is! I prefer to call it universally-accepted social rules [i.e. manners]). She is essentially imploring Caucasians to be well-mannered and mindful of these universally-accepted social rules when interacting with us indigenous Africans.

      For example, if you meet someone at a social function, you are not going to start gaping and gawking at their hair – or even worse – what some Caucasians do is to start groping around on us ‘poor’ Africans’ heads to ‘feel this really “amazing” hair’! Really, who gave you an inherent licence to touch me?! A well-mannered person wouldn’t make fun of another’s background or accent either.

      Granted, there are ill-mannered people in any race. What I think Athembile was aiming for with her article is to enlighten ‘white’ folks on what is socially unacceptable when interacting with us ‘black’ folks. While I am also mindful of the fact that she wrote this piece in her own individual capacity, and not as a spokesperson for us, as she so clearly articulated, I can however fully relate to, and agree with her sentiments.

    • Thembie

      hahahahaha… @bernpm, your sarcasm really kills me!!! If you’d bothered to read Athambile’s piece more closely, you’ll see that it derives from the ‘British society rule book’ (whatever that is! I prefer to call it universally-accepted social rules [i.e. manners]). She is essentially imploring Caucasians to be well-mannered and mindful of these universally-accepted social rules when interacting with us indigenous Africans.

      For example, if you meet someone at a social function, you are not going to start gaping and gawking at their hair – or even worse – what some Caucasians do is to start groping around on us ‘poor’ Africans’ heads to ‘feel this really “amazing” hair’! Really, who gave you an inherent licence to touch me?! A well-mannered person wouldn’t make fun of another’s background or accent either.

      Granted, there are ill-mannered people in any race. What I think Athambile was aiming for with her article is to enlighten ‘white’ folks on what is socially unacceptable when interacting with us ‘black’ folks. While I am also mindful of the fact that she wrote this piece in her own individual capacity, and not as a spokesperson for us, as she so clearly articulated, I can however fully relate to, and agree with her sentiments.

    • Rob

      I think that the number of people, from any race, without some racial opinion or wishlist is very minimal. You are normal for having yours, and I for having mine. We probably both realise that these differences will be here, and in most other nations of the world until the end of time as we know it. Differences may be gender, race, religeon, social class, age, political affiliation .. they are there. I wish that we could all live and love each other as equals, rather than seeing another as “something” different. Let’s no try to calculate who means what. I complained recently of someones bad behavior, and was accused of being a racist by them. No .. I complained because they were being an idiot, not because I knew their ancestry, religeon, age, political affiliation, or was at all interested in what race group they belonged to. Let’s all chill .. and you sound like a really nice person btw :)

    • Munya

      Hi Athambile (hope I got that right otherwise I will not get my Biko moment).
      Thank you so much for your article….seems the system did not change much since 1994 when you were in grade 1 and I had just left varsity and yet I continue to relate with and encounter these same issues.

      How would it interest you and other like-minded people (based in CT) for us to meet occasionally and talk as well as read about these issues – chat/reading/conversation club of sorts, as a way of facing the issues and doing something about them? I am game and may those who are keen on this idea let me know so we can explore it.

    • Chez

      Not quite getting the “Biko” moment in this article? I think you have some serious issues about race and that is sad. You have all these rules about how white people must behave around you. Good grief. You can ask me about my hair – I won’t think it racist. We ARE different, get over it! What you need is a very giant chill pill.

    • Chez

      And don’t tell me that I probably got a car from my gran because now you are being racist. Not “reverse” racist, just a racist.

    • Petrus

      As a white Afrikaans male in his thirties with a beard and a white bakkie. Maybe you can think that I am a racist. I must be because I wear Khakis sometimes. Life is what you make of it. You can allow the habits of others to influence your life or not. The choice is yours. I have experience discrimination in the name of affirmative action but life goes on and so should us all. This country does not need another generation hung up about the prejudice of the past, we need a generation concerned about the effective of the present and the direction of the future. Never forgetting the past and always reminding ourselves not to make the same mistakes but striving for a better future. United not because of race but because we are all South Africans.

      Can we all just work together?

    • Omer

      This article is written by a person with a distorted and sick mind and contains nothing positive, nothing on our longing for a peacefull society.

    • Lourie

      Athambile, I have friends from different races and backgrounds (with plenty black in there), but I’ll never be friends with you. Why? It’s obvious you can’t take a joke (you say so directly), and humour is the best thing to heal all this damage. You should know that if you dig Trevor. You are very angry indeed, despite saying you aren’t. And if you think BBBEE is not reverse racism you’re obviously an idiot. BEE has it’s place, we’ve got plenty of wrongs to right in SA, but no-one can deny that it’s racism. And we joke about it all the time, so much so that my friends Lebo and Spykos always pay for an extra round because they earn really big bucks because of BEE (we call it black guilt). But we’re not bitter. We are happy. Happy to be South African, Africans, Brothers. A whole mix of awesomeness. Seems to me you’re just the sour soul in the corner wondering how we can get along so well.

    • bernpm

      @Thembie: Thanks for picking up my lighter response to this “mannerism” article for black ladies.

      As a matter of fact, I must tell you a life story in this context.

      My parents were in the resistance during WW2. My 3 brother and I were born during the last years before the war started. our hometown (Rotterdam) was bombed on 14 May 1940. During the end of 1943 my parents were asked to look after 2 foreigners (over and above the 3-5 boys already hidden from the Germans in our house) stranded in Rotterdam (harbor).
      The two arrived one evening and one happened to be from Dakar and thus very black. We had never seen a black person in our (short) life and……..we felt his hair, looked at the inside of his hands and when he went to wash his hands we checked if the black would not come off. We could never share our excitement with our friends of other people we knew for obvious reasons. Discovery would have had severe consequence for my parents life.

      The guys stayed with us until May 1945 liberation day. after that, we could proudly show our guest to the neighborhood.

      My sincere apologies to Athambile Masola for violating her rules :-))

    • lina spies

      “She is essentially imploring Caucasians to be well-mannered and mindful of these universally-accepted social rules when interacting with us indigenous Africans.”

      Hey Thembie, i’m guessing that you meant to write “us indigenous Negroids” instead of “us indigenous Africans”. Because if you’re going to refer to white South Africans with the (European coined) term Caucasians, you should be consistent and use the (European coined) term Negroids when referring to black South Africans.

    • Mike Sutton

      You sound like a difficult person to get along with!

    • Brian

      I am not interested in the writer or her perverted thinking.
      What interests me is the way Biko is always quoted as in “what would Biko do/think” , as though he would be now, as he was then.

      Since the great majority of struggle heros have turned out to be grasping, self serving, greedy, arrogant, plundering worthless individuals, on what basis would anybody assume he would have remained a saint.

    • tokolosh

      No, I would not be able to be friends with you. Too much rules and not enough understanding of life and tolerance.
      Maybe you mean that everybody carry around their own gripe list and present it the moment we meet? Then we all know exactly where and how to engange each other from the word go.

    • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/lindsayclowes Lindsay Clowes

      Loved this! Thank you for braving the racist vitriol.

    • Vashna Jagarnath

      Dear Athambile,

      This is just brilliant!

      And absolutely right on!

      Unfortunately this is not limited to Cape Town.

      It is ever present in the small town of Grahamstown as well.

    • Sheesh!

      Perhaps you are a little too self conscious? Maybe you take yourself too seriously? Most people just want to get along. There are many assumptions that blacks make about whites, indians and coloureds as well. My grandparents were dirt poor and left me squat. Ditto for my parents. I put myself through university. The first one in my family. I’ve never had a nanny. I’ve never had a domestic worker – only to be told (by black people who don’t even know me) its because I must be too strict? – whatever that means! Im learning Zulu, am fluent in English and Afrikaans and am sincerely appreciative when my black friends correct my Zulu. Why wouldn’t I be? I really battle with the Xhosa and Venda names but I try, but then one would think that my surname would be understand and spelt by all, but believe it or not. many black people are unable to pronounce the most famous afrikaans surname of all and Afrikaans speaking people just assume i’m Afrikaans. We live in a crazy confusing country – so lets cut one another some slack for goodness sake.

    • Umlungu L

      Athamile, I feel your anger in these points and it’s justified. I perpetually get reminded how hung up on race we are here in SA. I can relate to a lot of the points made, but reversed since I tend to be the whitey in vastly black social situations (I’m the only white teacher at a township school).

      I won’t whine about being discriminated due to my whiteness, but merely give you a similar perspective. From mocking “white English”, to assuming I’m a spokesperson for all whites, to a strange fascination with my hair, to the request for being someone’s “white friend” to correcting my Xhosa at the smallest mistake to sending me to speak to the white person to sort things out, there is so much I could chose to be offended about, but understanding our History makes me brush them aside.

      You’re right though, it’s these small things that create “an atmosphere of exclusion, but there are no words or signs declaring the exclusion”. I’m an inside outsider and it’ll always be that way. I guess within our divided rainbow nation we make choices to be in spaces where a sense of exclusion is inevitable. We find ways to deal with the exclusion. Articles like this are important as mirrors and sounding boards to illuminate such exclusion and give insight into ways to start eliminating exclusionary/discriminating practices.

    • SCCC

      Hi Athambile,

      Thanks for articulating some of the frustrating parts of being black amongst whites. I am white and had to giggle at the Trevor Noah one. I often mutter “dead dead dead death by overbooking” to myself. Must be more careful. I enjoyed your list and find most of it pertinent and useful.

      Just one quibble. Looking at old passbooks makes shadows in my mind and I can’t imagine what it must be like to have inherited your gran’s. But my gran didn’t leave me a car or a house or a trustfund. My gran was a nurse and a widow. I inherited a box of old photos from her and I treasure them. Try not to perpetuate stereotypes about ‘rich whites’ when you are trying to battle the box people put you in. Others also like to be individuals.

    • Lady T

      1. Do not presume that I work at Edgards because I am standing there and black.
      2. Do not pretend you did not hear me the first time and have me repeat myself even in the same pitch. That just drives me crazy.

    • http://www.saarf.co.za Fair

      I salute! well said.