Feeling White: Peau noire, masques blancs
Being white-adjacent in Zimbabwe, and elsewhere in the world really, comes with its perks. It would be dishonest if I were to pretend that I share the same seat as my loxion culture brothers and sisters. I use “loxion culture” simply as a descriptive term, although it carries with it the weight of classism in much the same way as words such as “salad’’ or “coconut” do. I grew up being teased by my loxion culture cousins for being a salad. Their main thrust was that I was ashamed to be black and so I was weak. This used to really bother me. As a child, I enjoyed playing umatshayana on the dusty side streets of Luveve and Pumula – I wanted to be part of that cool crew. In school however, I couldn’t introduce umatshayana in the face of hopscotch and jungle gyms. In each world, I had to hide the “other side” of me.
As an adult though, my white-adjacence is a major advantage when looking for jobs, when giving presentations, when expressing who I am in a world that thinks intelligence and potential are measured by one’s ability to follow western ideals and fit in a western suit. If you can walk the walk, and talk the talk in the President’s English (which, sans liberation rhetoric, is an upgrade even to the Queen’s English), then you are more likely to get the job, the scholarship, etc. This is the institutionalised racism that even black Zimbabweans perpetuate on themselves. This is the point of difference when trying to explain to white colleagues that this idea of “reverse-racism” in southern Africa does not exist. Institutionalised attempts at redressing inequality brought on by colonialism and apartheid such as Broad-Based Black Economic Empowered (B-BBEE or commonly just BEE) and the indigenisation laws in Zimbabwe might seem unfair to white people who lose out at that time. However the scale of that loss needs to be put up against losing out consistently throughout one’s life, which is the lived experience of being black and non-white adjacent. It is only the black bourgeoisie, the connected white-adjacents, who benefit from these structures which are meant to balance a still very uneven playing field. The majority that suffers in terms of numbers are the black people who lose their jobs when the factories or farms close down. So again the idea of white bodies being more important than black bodies comes to the fore whenever I hear the “reverse racism” allegations that are the new trend in race-related squabbles.
As a white-adjacent black young female, I am still more likely to be employed for a managerial position in these newly grabbed factories for example, than my non-adjacent sister, regardless of my suitability for the job. Having described the perks that come with white-adjacence however, I must also point out that often the tensions surrounding class politics between the Eastern and the Western suburbs (high density/low income vs low density/high income), are based on assumptions that one somehow deserves their lot in life; as though we choose to be born a certain way. In the same way, broadly generalising, white Zimbabweans walk around as if it is an achievement to be born white and that this somehow absolves them of their responsibility and role in the state of affairs in Zimbabwe. There are also some white-adjacents who walk around as though it is an achievement to be born middle to upper class and look down upon their non-adjacent cousins. As though being white-adjacent is something to aspire to, as though there is shame in having an indigenous accent when speaking English. This is generally the young group of middle-class to rich kids who spite their face in the mirror every morning because they were taught by a messed up system to hate themselves. They are yet to experience the real world where, no matter how much you twang or how correct your weave is, there will still be that party you are mysteriously not invited to, that parent who is uncomfortable with you using their bathroom, that best friend who is not-so-fine with you dating her white brother, as Nayyirah Waheed in her blog writes, “Never trust anyone who says they do not see colour. This means to them, you are invisible.” The arrogance and nonsense of that behaviour is sadly supported by a world that rewards people according to their ability to be close-to-white, if not white.
Even amongst white southern Africans, an Afrikaner-English accent is still not as good as a “proper” English accent. With arrogance comes the opposite end of the scale, shame. Feeling ashamed as a white-adjacent for not being black-enough. Feeling ashamed as a non-adjacent for not being white-enough. I am not sure whether white people feel ashamed of being randomly lumped into the class of the oppressor. Realising that none of us chose the families into which we were born is necessary. As a white person, one could have as easily been born black and vice versa. In my case, my mother achieved her middle-class status through hard work. She sacrificed a lot to put my brother and I through schools that secured our white-adjacence. Her blood, sweat and tears are the reason I enjoy the benefits I have today, therefore I cannot say I am ashamed of being a salad or a coconut. I used to be.
As a child, in context-specific settings, it would really get me worked up when called those names because I felt that I was being made to feel bad for circumstances I did not create. At that time I did not realise that I could recognise or acknowledge my bourgeoisie black privilege without feeling guilty for it. In the same way, I feel white Zimbabweans fail to realise that recognising white privilege in Africa doesn’t mean one must feel guilty for the actions of their ancestors. But rather that one can be a useful instrument in righting those wrongs instead of being defensive about them. It has taken a long while to make peace with myself as proudly black/proudly African and white-adjacent at the same time. I believe that I am as African as my non-adjacent brother.
I believe that Africa is made up of multiple shades and hues from ashy to shiny, from blister to bling; the good, the bad and the ugly, and that acceptance of these differences and the appreciation of the richness and wisdom that diversity brings is what will help us move forward and concentrate on the real issues that plague us as Zimbabweans, as Africans, as citizens of the world. I am neither trying to diminish the real struggles or the painful history faced by all Zimbabweans, nor advocating turning a blind-eye to the nonsense that is race, “tribe”, and class division in the country. As a person there are things in my life that when I look back at them, I wish had never happened, however it does not help me to mull and whine over those things, accepting them as history which I cannot change, learning from them, making sure that they do not happen again is what moves me forward. There is a need to address and talk about our pain, and heal… and then move on. It feels as though we are still stuck in the denial and blame-game phase of nationhood, across colours and across languages.
Being Zimbabwean: endnote
As a country we still have a long way to go. There is a need to own our problems, be they racial tensions, politics or economics. Our attention is so easily taken up with the dramatics of our ruling class. We become rapt audiences to the theatrics that are race/liberation politics (currently wife-politics) and fail to recognise the real things that are happening under our noses. We need to unlearn that Africa is only one thing, a black face with holes in her pockets. We need to love ourselves, our diversity and our history and stop repeating it. We need to unlearn that white is superior: the petrol attendant who serves the white-driven car before the black-driven car, even though the black-driven car was there first. The feeling that white beggars are somehow suffering more than black beggars.
The idea that if a white Zimbabwean contributes to charity it somehow proves that they are not racist, because really, “you black people should be taking care of yourselves after-all.” The reality that schools teach indigenous languages as second grade; where French and Afrikaans are more important than Ndebele or Shona. We are a shy country, polite and conservative at the same time. No one really wants to step on anyone’s toes, no one wants to make anyone feel uncomfortable (extremists aside). We are so polite that we have been unable to make any real changes in the past three decades. These issues are not “someone else’s problem.” It is time to be bold, it is time to own our colourful selves as Zimbabwean, as African.
|Coconut:||black person exhibiting white characteristics|
|Loxion culture:||having grown up in high-density suburbs and the socialisation of that environment|
|Luveve, Pumula, Nkulumane:||high-density suburbs of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe|
|Salad:||black person living in low density suburb and private school educated|
|Umatshayana:||ball game where a team of two parties tries to hit moving targets made of one or more persons|
|White-adjacent:||middle to upper-class black person socialised in a white environment|
Cited work Scott Woods: Blog poet, Scott Woods Makes Lists
Nayyirah Waheed: Tumblr blog poet, Salt