Cultural chameleons reap benefit

We were discussing the existence of young, black and sought-after individuals of a particular ilk (to be honest, we were talking about ourselves) when a male colleague brought up a good point. We always complain about there being too few blacks at high-brow industry events, forums or work-related galas, yet some of us suffer from the unspeakable ailment of secretly liking being the only black at the dinner table.

I had never considered this consciously, but as soon as he said it an idea that had been quietly swimming in my subconscious surfaced effortlessly.
It may be warped, but there is truth to this notion.

We like the two-fold strength of being fully assimilated into the dominant white culture while having a command and understanding of our given black culture at the same time.

Being this post-apartheid cultural conquistador is a morally bereft approach to self-amelioration as a black person. It reeks of repression and is the sweet-and-sour cousin of self-loathing. But it works.

Why? Because we still live in a society in which the majority of white South Africans are too alienated even to consider assimilating into the popular culture of the South Africa they belong to.

In isiXhosa, we call the Transkeian ethnic groups that refused to convert to “civilisation” during the time of the missionaries amaqaba and iindlavini.

Directly translated, both terms mean “non-converts”, but the use of such words is always applied in a derogatory manner, suggesting that said person is closed-minded, unrefined and unschooled as a result of their ignorance of foreign ideas.

The terms are so inextricably linked to blackness that it is strange to consider the idea of a white qaba. It was a significant chapter in the journey of this particular subject when I had to explain to a white South African friend of mine who Thandiswa Mazwai was, or when I had to rebuke another friend who, after four years of knowing me, sent me a text message asking for the correct spelling of my name. Likewise, it jars on the ear every time I hear a white person say “Umshlanga” when they mean Umhlanga and it jars on the eye when I see hotels with made-up names such as “Lalapanzi” when it should be Lala Phantsi.

The list is long and it makes for a fun game when resentful blacks get together. They are resentful because the majority of white people do not perceive black culture. It is not because this majority does not have the capacity to learn the languages or enthusiastically engage to the point of assimilation with their cultural surroundings.

For a number of frankly unjustifiable reasons, they will not. And as long as this is the case, there will be blacks who will benefit economically and socially from oscillating between who they are and what they know—and what their white compatriots refuse to know. Whether they are justified in their brand of racism is irrelevant.

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