Blackness in a white world
Over the past few centuries, commonly referred to as an era of modernity, there has been a single story about European colonisation of Latin America, Asia and Africa driven mainly by greed, which later developed and nourished capitalism and industrialisation.
This era has also seen the development of sociocultural extinction and the birth of “sameness”. It is during this era that division, exploitation and humiliation along racial and gender patterns intensified.
The violent spread of Europe over the world has ushered in their orientation in every social structure of life, be it religion, family structure, media, community values, the judiciary and knowledge production.
I single out knowledge production not only because I am a university student, but also because I am aware of how a people shape behaviour, comprehend history, understand societies and appreciate culture. It is all about informal and formal exchange of knowledge and ideas.
Eurocentric hegemony has significantly shaped knowledge along racial and gender patterns. South Africa has not been spared in this. Apartheid colonialism has nurtured social structures heavily entrenched in the soul of South Africa in the form of white supremacy, white liberalism, white racism and black invisibility.
Racialised knowledge recognises only ideas, interests, concerns and practices as articulated by white social institutions.
Writing in 2007 on the phenomenology of whiteness, Sara Ahmed argues that “whiteness could be described as an ongoing and unfinished history, which orientates bodies in specific directions, affecting how they ‘take up’ space and what they ‘can do’. If to be human is to be white, then to be not white is to inhabit the negative: it is to be not.”
The weight of white violence and white supremacy has gained hegemony and legitimacy by its infiltration of the South African education system and public literature. The teaching and learning of Eurocentric ideas has sustained the violent social structure of white liberalism, best demonstrated by thinking that the capacity of black people to define their problems is disabled. Hence, Helen Zille could have the audacity to claim that colonialism had benefited black people. This represents white arrogance.
The hegemonic weight of racial knowledge and white liberalism has normalised the use of insignificant words by black leaders and some black academics, young and old, to analyse black people. Words such as “integration”, “rainbow nation”, “diversity”, “unity”, “multiracialism”, “Mandela” and “colour-blindness” have gained currency, and so have concepts associated with European white liberal fundamentalism.
These are ideals that define the curriculum content and institutional culture of most universities at the expense of undermining the value and presence of black and women students, hardly including in the curriculum the perspectives and history of black people and the community from which they come. From economics and architecture to psychology and pharmacy it is the same good old European and American whine.
The poverty line in all textbooks is measured in US dollars, with the oceans surrounding the African continent named in English. They do not mention that the 27% unemployment rate is synonymous with black poverty.
They refer to the entrepreneurship in black areas as an informal economy. Pages and pages of textbooks are littered with claims that black people are poor because they are lazy. All these are glimpses of the humiliation experienced by black students.
Challenging these practices has consequences for black students. As a black student, challenging the lecturer could be detrimental.
I was recently at a conference with one of my colleagues (she’s a black person) at the University of Pretoria and the discussion was about inequality. Of the 45 people in the lecture room, including the chairperson, we were the only two who were not white.
White students seemed to be an intellectual elite: highly educated, bright and, for the most part, very liberal people. As the discussion unfolded, it became clear that, if the two of us did not raise the race question, and questions about inequality, no one would.
When my colleague raised the issue, the white students felt accused of being racists. The white participants fail to include the reality of others in their plans. My colleague said she was made to feel she was the one “causing trouble”.
Later, one of the white students argued that “there’s no need to use race to solve inequality”. In other words, the debate was “subconsciously silenced” and they thought she agreed with their logic. That’s how the invisible structural social power of white privilege works — stifling debate.
The administrative apparatus of the university also carries systematic dogma of racial knowledge. Its duty is to maintain the institutional culture of the university. Anyone who tampers with this established, predictable, rigid, certain, regular and consistent policy is alienated and illegitimised.
Those at the top distanced themselves and pointed at middle management in the marketing department. The second semester was halted by a student and workers protest and Nelson Mandela University. The university released a statement stating: “Staff and students are advised not to come to north and south campuses today due to a protest.” The statement clearly attempted to criminalise the “others” who are “not” staff and students who were protesting. It suggests those conducting the protest are not students and staff.
In sociology we emphasise that a social movement, no matter how big or small or successful or not, has a message to communicate and its message must be taken heed of. Protesters are not stupid. A protest is a form of scholarship. Protesters are thinking and are in pain. They articulate their oppression and desire for freedom. They articulate their concerns about their conditions. If you take politics, history and context into consideration, it was suffering and a social movement that produced liberation literature giants such as Steve Biko, Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Chris Hani and Robert Sobukwe. Today the theory the oppressors had tried to crush is being cited to produce PhD scholars and is a source of inspiration and political education. That can never be illegitimate.
Traditionally, protests in South Africa originating in the townships were racialised class disputes between the black working class and apartheid capitalism. Those protests had no formal rules. It was purely masses of our people organising themselves and expressing the true extent of their emotions. Now these protests have moved to the upper-class suburbs where the universities are. Suddenly there are rules to determine how the black working class must protest. Any black protest that ignores the standard set by the rich suburb is deemed “illegitimate”.
South Africa is still a racist society. Locally, it is mainly white people and a sprinkling of black people who drive to work. The rest continue to live far from their workplace and often use up to three taxis to get to work. That is the daily experience of the racist society I am referring to. The biggest danger would be for black people to lose their urgency and activism.
Racism has humiliated our people. But it cannot be allowed to succeed in making black people consistently receptive of their own suffering and pain. It cannot be acceptable for black people to actively participate in the oppression and humiliation of other black people.
As writer and commentator Veli Mbele puts it: “It is only when black people have a proper understanding of the place of blackness in the collective unconscious of the world that they will begin to see that soporific constructs such as nonracialism, colour-blindness, reverse racism, hate speech, social cohesion, multiculturism, rainbow nation were not designed to end black suffering but to obscure it and, at best, these constructs serve as instruments of black anger management. Essentially, these are tools that the system uses to police black thought and resistance.”
Once black people begin to see this, they might also begin to see racism for what it really is: an act of war against them. I say this because I do not want to appear polite and respecting of the decorum as a student and a young person because that will result in co-opting the student voice and practices. At all times we must be vigilant and be able to collectively understand what civil rights activist Audre Lorde meant when she said: “... the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
Pedro Mzileni is a master’s sociology student at the Nelson Mandela University and president of its students’ representative council