By Jade September
Blackness, within the South African context, has many different expressions. As with most stories of colonisation, the History of blackness in the Cape started with chattel slavery – a system by which black bodies were stolen from their homelands, brought here via the Dutch East India Company and sold like cattle, that is, if they managed to survive the middle passage journey across treacherous seas.
Black bodies from Java, India, Malaysia and the like arrived on these beautiful shores and immediately lost their identities and their dignity. Our ancestors had their names, cultures and overall identities stolen and the wealth of South Africa was then built on their backs.
Personally, I identify as black. Coloured is my culture in the same way that a black person can have a Xhosa, Zulu, Bemba, Chichewa or Khoi cultural identity. My coloured culture speaks to a creole melting pot of Slave, Khoi, and European ancestry.
These are but a few expressions of blackness. Then there are those of us who are descended from the Nama, Griqua and other indigenous tribes. We carry our clan names with pride to this day. There are those of us who identify as Venda, those of us who are identify as Sesotho and, those of us who wear our Venda and Ndebele identities with absolute pride.
Each of these expressions of blackness have their own stories regarding how their identities were warped and/or stolen. This makes the history of blackness, in the South African context, tumultuous and, unfortunately, divided.
Apartheid fashioned a plethora of constructs among black ethnicities which caused a convoluted idea of identity and resultant identity politics. The notion that skin tone and hair types are currency and racial line drawers, the notion that the whiter the righter, the notion that proximity to whiteness is a yardstick by which to measure social status are all still prevalent in society today.
The result of all these proverbial lines in the sand, meant that blackness was essentially broken. Disintegrated. Segregated into what is today regarded as “Black”, “Indian”, “Coloured”, “Malay”, “Khoi/indigenous” and the like, all of which form part of the unified body of blackness. With the separatism, came tribalism, colourism, a decline in black consciousness, a less organised people. This was solidified by the Group Areas Act which saw black people separated and moved away from each other into abject poverty and Apartheid spatial planning which was designed to contain the “black threat”. Unfortunately, although Apartheid has long since ended, the constructs, which at the time where physical, manifested mentally and are still prevalent today.
I recently attended a dinner soiree where up until one particular moment, I had foolishly assumed that all of us there present were black. That we identified as such, and saw each other as such. That was until a very close friend of mine pointed out that I am, in actual fact, not black, on account of my being obviously coloured. While I found his comment to be inflammatory, it did give me pause. This is how we were raised. This mentality is the result of years of separatism and, while I don’t hold it against him, it did stick in my craw. At the same time, I realised that, because of this separatism, his lived experience would have been radically different to mine, and that I had no right to authoritatively speak on his lived experiences. His experiences have never been my reality.
I also had to reconcile the fact that he has probably experienced anti-blackness from someone who looks like me. Someone with a lighter skin tone or different hair texture. These same Apartheid constructs are the ones which endow lighter-skinned individuals with the privilege not afforded to their darker-skinned counterparts, cause anti-blackness to consume entire communities, and cause different lived experiences to be rampant in different areas.
The reality is that when Apartheid enforcers told coloured people that we are not quite white, but better than black, we believed them. We stopped identifying as black and we spent our lives striving to be as close to white as possible. We saw hair texture, skin tone, eye colour, dialect and the like as currency used to propel ourselves forward and, simultaneously, adopt the same racial slurs used by white people and turn it on our black brothers and sisters. As much as it pains me to say it, the truth is that a lot of the time, those who identify as coloured are viler towards black people than our collective oppressors are.
In South Africa, as much as black bodies are trying to move back to unity, black consciousness and overall equality, boundaries still exist. Boundaries which talk to the identities caused by separatism and the different stories held by these identities.
The “Black Lives Matter” movement has resulted in a lot of “whataboutism” from coloured people. “What about coloured lives?” – This raises a very important question – Why do we see ourselves as separate to this movement? The unfortunate truth is that we still have not reconciled, within ourselves, that blackness is not equal to insult. We still use the K-word casually, or we just don’t call it out when we are exposed to that kind of behaviour within our own circles of friends and family.
Ask yourself, coloured person, which nickname do you give someone with a darker skin tone? What do you call someone with a curlier or coarser hair texture? Why do you feel so grievously offended when someone tells you that you are black?
Only once we are able to deconstruct these colonialist and separatist notions within ourselves, will we able to actually see the bigger picture. Until such time, those who do see it will continue to have the important conversations and call out the anti-blackness where we see and experience it.