/ 24 February 2012

Black as a gimmick is so old, sisi

“We live in a time where there is a culture of dogmatism that purposes that to be marginal is by definition to be purer or holier than others,” wrote Achille Mbembe in Chimurenga Chronic, in a think-piece about capitalism.

The line came to mind as I stood in a fake cobbled street at Melrose Arch, the swanky mall in the north of Johannesburg, watching Thandi Sibisi.

A strikingly beautiful woman, she stood on a pedestal dressed in a long-sleeved ball gown and a colossal traditional Zulu hat, the isicholo. She looked regal, like a fictitious African queen in a fable. She was flanked by two old white men — Justice Albie Sachs, who had flown in from Kenya, and Christopher Till, curator of the Apartheid Museum. (Sachs has been hired by the Kenyan ­government to help clean up the judiciary.)

I was in a large crowd of journalists, actors, fashion designers, musicians and people who had the look of government bureaucrats. We were there to witness supposedly the first black South African woman, at the age of 25, to open her own art gallery. This may sound like 1995 but it was last week.

I stood there, smiling and trying my best to hide what was really going through my mind: “What’s Sachs doing here? Let me continue smiling so that people don’t think that I am a black woman who is hating another black woman during her moment.”

The logic behind this is that I should be a supportive “black sister”, even if my real feelings are that the event is contrived and self-righteous.

This is the result of crippling conditioning in emancipated societies that historically marginalised people are noble, cannot do wrong and always must be exalted. Throw a revered struggle stalwart into the mix and there is little room for criticism. All historical imbalances are whitewashed by this symbol of progress: a black woman doing it for herself.

This inherited conditioning is founded on righteous indignation — that we blacks have an eternal right to be angry for the way we have been abused and we can use that resentment as a reason to use our race as a justification of and for most of our actions. Simply put, it translates to this: people should care about what we do because we are black.

Did we need to be told of the race of the new gallerist? Might we not have guessed she is black just by reading her name? That would have meant we would have evaluated her based on her work and not her ­membership of a particular race. She foregrounded her race and gender to get attention; she did so because we are still susceptible to such ­gimmicks.

This kind of positioning has the potential to backfire. If she fails, God forbid, failure is not just hers but that of all black womanhood in this land.

This foregrounding of race and gender is a backward movement towards the widespread misconception that all black women are noble, graceful and wise.