Confusing race and culture

I’m going through some stuff. Let’s call it re-identification—or a term that describes the muddy waters one has to negotiate to achieve some degree of self-actualisation. It is that phase when you question your surroundings, relationships, habits and yourself not in a negative way but in a curious one.

The basis of my new-found interest naturally revolves around my most challenging subject—race. Remember, it’s not in a positive or negative context. I am interested here to share the honourable and shameful occupants of my mind.
I am a black woman. I am a woman. I am a black. I never know quite which term to use when I am sitting alone trying to define myself. Since my blackness and womanhood has to be announced, I wonder if white women feel the same when they have to describe themselves. Or white men. Or black men.

“I am a white woman.’’ I don’t imagine a white female saying that as proudly as I say it to myself and the world. Because whiteness is dissociated from words such as “marginalised”, “struggle” and “liberation”, though I have witnessed it skirting around the word “pride’‘.

Whiteness appears to be the standard, the default way to be human. I hate it, but I have realised I am a victim of this dominant ideology. It is a struggle I am grappling with from the inside. I recently found that I feel more comfortable being an outsider among whites than an insider among blacks. On Monday I was in Mondeor, a mostly black suburb on the outskirts of Soweto. I had never been there before. I identify the word “suburb” with cleanliness, order and whiteness. I wasn’t even aware of this until I was in Mondeor, a clean, orderly, black neighbourhood.

I didn’t feel uncomfortable being there. I felt like an outsider, like a white person might feel when they are surrounded by black people. It’s not normal. On the contrary, I felt comfortable at the post office the following day, when I was the only black person in a queue of seven white septuagenarians. In a situation that abnormal, I did not feel uncomfortable because, perhaps subconsciously, I subscribe to the indomitable notion that whiteness is standard and normal. It makes me cry with resentment.

Somewhere else in the world, where race is not inextricably linked to culture, it might simply be a matter of cultural preference. But here it must be linked to race. I wonder whether this is a just or an unjust way of overcoming a regressive view of the world and life. My scrambled thoughts converge like eggs in a hot pan, but at least I am probing real issues.

Would life be better lived as a person than as a woman, a black person or as any other classification? Would it perhaps be easier to find the wisdom, love and peace we all seek if I looked at the world through an unclassified window? Or is my world more interesting because of my classified stance?

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardian's arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project. Read more from Milisuthando Bongela

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