By Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende
There has been a robust discussion on the issue of white privilege in the world and in South Africa in the last few days on Facebook and I am relieved to see that finally people can have these discussions and express their views without the whole exercise degenerating into an e-blood bath. Therefore it was no surprise to wake up on Wednesday morning and find that one of my friends had tagged me to a response she had written to a blogger named Brendon, who had written a “mea culpa”, confessing to his prejudices against black people. You can read the blog here. My friend Gillian Schutte is a white South African who has no problem discussing the devastating role that colonialism and its hideous cousin apartheid wreaked on the continent of Africa and she will never back down from challenging notions of white supremacy. Her rebuttal to Brandon can be read here.
However, after reading both Brendon’s blog and Gillian’s public response to it, where she basically tells Brendon that his views are not the views of all white people, and that his admittance of prejudice, with absolutely no sign that he was in any way trying to overcome those prejudices was in fact of no use to anyone but himself and others like him, I felt a compulsion to defend myself. Defend myself, you wonder. Yes, defend myself, my blackness, because this is what many black people will tell you: whenever a black person does something wrong, commits a crime, drops a piece of paper on the street, rapes, or murders, all black people are labelled negatively. All black people carry the burden of the guilt of one person or a small group, because of blanket statements many of us grew up hearing from the mouths of white people in southern Africa.
Many of these whites were raised with racism as the very backdrop of their lives, in which they had a black nanny or “house-girl” and a black “garden-boy”. By the way these were usually grown men and women with families of their own, but they were infantilised even by the white children, who came of age totally believing that the sole purpose of black people was to be of service to them. These children grew up hearing their parents talk about the dangerous blacks who robbed murdered, raped littered, stank, were drunks and cared only about fucking, dancing and drinking beer all the while beating their women and living in squalor.
Brendon represents the kind of adults those children became and many stayed that way even as adults. Brendon basically believes that he can never be friends with blacks because blacks are not worthy of his friendship by virtue of their “nature”. Brendon, and many whites have concluded that blacks are harbingers of all things evil and bad, and that blacks are a subspecies of lesser human form and because of this we, blacks will never reach a standard of intellectual or material accomplishment that would make us worthy of effort by white people.
Just to make things clear to Brendon and his ilk: the mimicry you see black people perform, the fawning and the bootlicking which you so accept as due worship, happens because we are survivors. Many blacks realised that it was a matter of survival to comply and bend with the sick wind that your ancestors belched over us. That is why we could be transported across seas and still thrive where we were enslaved and made to work like the beasts of burden white people saw us to be. Look around the world Brendon and you will see that blacks survived where other indigenous peoples died out in there millions. The US and Native Americans is a great example, as is Australia and the Aborigines.
At our core we have unpacked and deconstructed your bullshit and I am glad to say that my children will fare better in the new world order than yours will. My children are being raised to see human beings first not colour. My children are being raised to be conscious that there are other peoples on this globe and that a sense of entitlement is a dangerous quality to harbour, one that results in stereotyping others and bigotry. In the new world order your kind will be viewed as an aberration, a gross error on the landscape of history. You have shown the world your baseness, your arrogance and stupidity, quite frankly.
I grew up in a country where white people lamented the demise of minority white rule and they all predicted the fall of the great Zimbabwe, bread basket of southern Africa, all thanks to the white farmers of course. Well, Zimbabwe did fall, but rather than honestly analyse the root causes of the fall of Zimbabwe, many white people say: “Look what the blacks, ALL blacks have done to this country.”
In the introduction his personal history of Biafra, Professor Chinua Achebe, Nigerian writer and scholar writes: “Africa’s post-colonial disposition is the result of a people who have lost the habit of ruling themselves. We have also had difficulty running the new systems foisted upon us by ‘our colonial masters’. Because the west has had a long but uneven engagement with the continent, it is imperative that it understand what happened to Africa. It must also play a part in the solution. A meaningful solution will require the goodwill and concerted efforts on the part of all those who share the weight of Africa’s historical burden. (There was a Country. A Personal History of Biafra.)
In essence what white people on the continent and in southern Africa in particular do is to absolutely refuse to look at what black people have become and view it as a direct legacy of the work of their ancestors, who dehumanised, robbed, raped, disenfranchised and fragmented millions of organised black communities in order to enrich themselves. Therefore when people like Brendon throw out blanket statements about their racist selves and how they have stopped trying to be friends with blacks, it doesn’t occur to them that blacks have a deep seated distrust for white people based on this ugly and relatively young history and that many blacks don’t really care to make friends with them. They are so blinded by their position of power, they truly believe that to befriend black people is to do them a huge honour or favour. It is this mind-set that needs to be deconstructed in the minds of young people if there is ever any change to be made towards real and genuine respect for one another.
I have lived in several all-white communities since leaving Africa and believe me, white people’s shit stinks just as much as black people’s and at 19 years of age the scales fell off my eyes when I saw a German man snort and spit out a bolus of green mucus onto the pavement. I had never thought a white person capable of such a nasty act even in private and here I was, the only black person in middle Bavaria in a tiny village where people stared at me out of windows as I walked down the village streets.
In 2010, after running the Chicago marathon, I decided to stop and use one of the hotel restrooms in downtown Chicago and to my horror I found overflowing toilets with ugly turds floating on mounds of toilet paper, dubious looking liquids on the restroom floors and guess what, there were a handful of blacks who ran in that race which had over 35 000 runners that year. This was not black people’s mess!
I use these two examples to illustrate how tragic it is to live an unreflected life in this global day and age. It is high time that black people speak out about racism and how it rears its ugly head, poorly disguised as honesty. While Brendon’s confession is hardly a sophisticated one that requires genius to unpack, there are more subtle, insidious ways in which white people try to undermine black people and usurp any collective confidence we might try to gather as we go about our lives. A typical example of this is Donald Trump’s demand that democratically elected US President Obama produce his long-form birth certificate, to prove he was an American citizen. That act, performed publicly was supposed to have the effect of humiliating a black man, in the highest office of this land because then surely that would result in the rest of the blacks cowering in shame also.
The white South African comedians and commentators who mock blacks under the guise of humour, by mimicking our accents when we speak English is a contemporary method of “putting us and keeping us in our place”, which is as the “house-girl”, the “garden-boy” and the cook. It is a subtle way of sending the message even to those who have done well: you are still black and will always be black and all the negativity that this term connotes.
Black people have a lot of work to do on ourselves in terms of throwing off the shackles of mental slavery that have us believing that we are inferior to white people. People like Brendon count on us cowering and living down to their low expectations of us. We are better than that and should teach our children the truth about who these racists are and who we really are: The original Africans who existed and had thriving civilisations before Brendon’s ancestors came a-creeping.
That we are poor is because they are rich and have kept everything of the highest quality and standards for themselves. That is a fact and they sit in positions of privilege from which they write their unintelligent bull crap and call it confession! They believe they have superior knowledge through science and technology, all the while failing to accept that the reason the things are this way is because they kept all other peoples in various states of arrested development. Shame!
Brendon, I would encourage you to go back to Ireland and visit the ghettoes of Dublin and come and tell me that blacks are inherently dirty, loud, lazy and inept. There should be a sense of shame in prejudice as blatant and as archaic as yours and there should be shame at the fact that black Africa is in shambles because of the heinous acts of your ancestors. Other white people are trying to create a different legacy for their children than the one that will burden yours: a legacy of hate, oppression and imperial complex. They declared they came in friendship, your ancestors. Now we know different and you want to believe that blacks want your friendship?! Get real!
Barbara Ruwende is a writer and public health professional.