On being “White-Adjacent”
From the outset, I must clarify my definition of “white-adjacent.” It is a term I use to describe the situation I find myself in as a result of my upbringing, social class and how it relates to my skin colour. Being white-adjacent for me is being a middle-class black person or any other non-white colour brought up in such a way that culturally, linguistically and socially makes one palatable to white people in this “white-positive” world. I refer to a “white-positive world” because racism is systemic and institutionalised globally. Every other colour has to describe themselves against the “norm” that is “whiteness,” in the same way other-colour Americans have to hyphenate themselves or, as a good friend pointed out, that in the Rhodes University cafeteria menu, there is “African” as a dish… as compared to what? Incidentally, Rhodes served a “Normal” option, which was really just bland continental European food. The irony is not lost on me.
I, in no way, speak for the lived experience of anyone other than myself. I love nicknaming everything, so the above terminologies are my way of describing things, there is nothing set in stone. I think part of my white-adjacence has taught me that humans are very touchy about this subject. Having described myself as such however, I am still fiercely proud of being black, and African, and depending on the definition – Zimbabwean.
My experiences: Being black in a white-positive world
I grew up at a Catholic mission school surrounded by a rainbow of colour. My first memories of battling with white-adjacence came in primary school. As children we used to tie our jerseys over our heads to pretend that we had long flowing hair like our white and Indian peers. That was the first time I felt frustrated that I couldn’t flick my hair like my best friend could, and there was nothing I could do about it besides pretend. I felt cheated. Also I thought the white girls rubbed it in by forever brushing their hair aside in a sweeping fashion that said, ‘you wish you had this don’t you?’ In fact part of me feels like white women do this today. Every time I get into a conflict with a long-haired white woman, the first indication of trouble is the hair flick. Am I the only one who notices this?! In my opinion the weave business is making millions out of our jersey fantasy and I look forward to the day when it’s OK not to be able to do the hair flick. Next time you see an advert with a long-haired blonde… wait for it…. the hair flick.
So the idea that there was something wrong with my natural self started very young. If you spoke broken English you were laughed at, the teacher corrected your crooked accent; your lunch was supposed to be sandwiches, in a lunch box. We all drew stick figures of women with long flowing straight hair. If you could pull that all off smoothly, you were cool. In sports, there were black sports and white sports, my body was built for hockey and not basketball, this was the beginning of the end. My black friends thought I was a sell-out, and my white team mates were friendly enough…to a point. I was part of the team but never part of the clique. I learnt how to act white enough not to make the team I was forced to spend so much time with feel uncomfortable about me. As if I could make them forget I was black. When you grow up like that – passing as white for long enough – the pretence becomes the being.
I was still in high school when the farm invasions at the turn of the century began in Zimbabwe. We were all very entrenched in our racial divisions. Looking at the classroom plan you could clearly see Africa, broad spectrum Asia, Europe and those who, like me, delicately walked in No Man’s Land. This was the first time we were forced to confront our differences as age-mates. Suddenly team Europe, who had always had a fragile understanding of the difference between their maid and their classmate, were faced with the blunt brutality of war veterans. There were many school yard arguments and tensions. However, none ever degenerated into a full-scale fight. The divisions simply became more visible. What my white team mates failed to see was that the farm invasions, although driven by racist scape-goating, had a tremendous and horrific effect on the black farm workers as well. I have black friends who also had their farms taken, and so the tension became about who is worth more, white bodies or black bodies? I became caught in awkward changing room discussions and from the safety of my neutral zone I failed to point out that being black did not protect me from violent crime just because we live in a country that is majority black. That rather than protect me, I am more susceptible to it. One can surmise that common criminals possibly hesitate before attacking a white girl than a black girl – for no other reason other than respecting white bodies over the black. I think the colonised mind-set is that deep and, I admit, this is a difficult thing to say as the divisions pre-independence remained across class-lines post-independence, and so some can argue that this is a numbers game, where more black bodies are counted by virtue of where they live, and class differences. I am exploring here the perpetrator’s idea (access aside), that if you are black and get caught raping a white girl, you will be in far more trouble than if you get caught raping a black girl in Zimbabwe.
Given that most white Zimbabweans are fairly well-to-do when contrasted with the majority of black Zimbabweans, the crimes they face are often economic, stem from organised criminality and/or politically based. This is in sharp contrast to the direct contact crimes that someone walking home after dark in Nkulumane could face. Of course there are nuances and one cannot ignore the fact that as the majority, black people will inevitably face more and varied crime. Indeed, all the “terrible things” that happen to white people in this country also happen to black people…
Micro-aggressions and “subtle” racism
There is a certain type of subtle racism that exists in Zimbabwe that is quite difficult to expound on. The racism that permeates everyday life, without taking the form of extreme segregation; it is perpetuated by both black people on themselves, and white people consciously and unconsciously. This is the patronising racism that I saw in the elderly white man in front of me at a till in a local supermarket, who when given his change in coins said to the cashier, “Oh its OK, you probably need those coins more than I do.” The friend who once asked me, “How come I can talk to you, but I can’t talk to them?” – meaning the maid and gardener an earshot away. As white-adjacent this is a common occurrence, the weird “compliments” on your achieving close-to-whiteness (“you speak SUCH good English!”) that leave you feeling like the biggest fraud on earth, or in my case with the gardener and maid situation where you are seen as being “difficult”, or nursing a Malema-size chip on your shoulder for pointing out the racism in those statements and situations. The same subtle racism where white male colleagues talk in broken English to me as a joke, and when I don’t find it funny, I’m being “over-sensitive”. The racism that punished children who came late to school during that petrol-free green energy era that Zimbabwe went through, when those who depended on public transport were at a serious disadvantage compared to those who drove to school. That sinister combination of racism and classism that really only puts one colour at a disadvantage, while using the wealthier token blacks as proof of balance.
The racism that employs mostly coloured people (used in Zimbabwe to describe people of mixed-race) in the public service industry (catering, flight attendants, receptionists), because it is felt that someone in-between is more appealing to the public eye than someone dark and ashy. This is the same racism one experiences as a black person in one of the many all-white restaurants, where I’ve been told the restaurant is closed for business while I could clearly see patrons inside. Or the waitress only addresses your white colleagues and gives you that glassy see-through stare when you pipe up. The same racism that has public forums on Facebook dedicated to criticising the “state of the nation and the uncivilised behaviour of its inhabitants” disguised as business-exchange forums – pointing at you overly-dramatic Bulawayo Notice Board. (May I just take this moment to say that being white in Africa/Zimbabwe does not give one diplomatic immunity from being responsible as a citizen for the problems in one’s country. We are all responsible) While on the subject of Facebook – the idea that multiple groups can exist under the name of Rhodesians United, Rhodesians Living Abroad etc. where even born-frees are surprisingly and suspiciously members. Where real estate options are divided according to your surname, for example when looking for a place to stay I phoned into a local real estate agent and from my first name and accent, I was being sold very good houses, decent prices, in great neighbourhoods; but when I went to said real estate in my real life sexy black body – those options were suddenly no longer available.
In the words of Scott Woods:
“The problem is that white people see racism as conscious hate, when racism is bigger than that. Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people’s expense, whether whites know/like it or not. Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes Black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you.
“Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another, and so on. So while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe.
“It’s not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It’s a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world. It is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it. I know it’s hard work, but it’s the price you pay for owning everything.”