Racism has succeeded not just in making anti-Black violence a part of normal human existence, but it has also succeeded in making Black people numb to their own pain and suffering, and in many instances, made it normal for Black people to become participants in their own oppression.
[Veli Mbele delivered this talk at the Nelson Mandela Metro University's Racism and Power Dialogue Series, held at Rhodes University on 15 June 2016].
The central thesis of this reflection is that, in contemporary terms, racism or white supremacy and anti-Blackness define the essence of Black positionality; and that, in what is generally regarded as the mainstream discourse in contemporary South Afrika, racism or white supremacy is often horribly and deliberately misdiagnosed. This misdiagnosis is principally facilitated by such ideological constructs as non-racialism and colour-blindness, which are a consequence of the continued hegemonic hold of white thought over Black thought.
This ideological hegemony assists white supremacy and anti-Blackness in their overall mission of keeping Black people ensnared in a state of perpetual captivity. The concepts of white supremacy and racism will be employed interchangeably, racism or white supremacy, in the context of this reflection refers to the exclusive lived-experience of people who are classified as Black, in an all-consuming anti-Black context. System in the context of this reflection refers to the system of racism or white supremacy as will be defined later. Consistent with its stated thesis, this reflection will, amongst others:
· Reflect on the consequences of thinking Black today;
· Provide a Black existential conception of racism;
· Illustrate the resilience of racism; and
· Reflect on the implications of non-racialism and colour-blindness for Black people today.
The consequences of thinking Black today
Informed by lived-experience, as a rule, whatever idea, event or people I encounter, I examine or engage with on the basis of the question: what does this mean for Black people? This means that, the value I attach to the ideas, events or people I encounter is automatically measured against the value that these hold for Black people. Using this as my navigational guide, I propose to examine the questions of nonracialism and colour-blindness on the basis of what I regard as one of the principal questions for a discourse such as the one we are having here today, which is: What are the implications of nonracialism and colour-blindness for Black people today? As I was grappling with the structure of the main topic, I noticed the conjunction ''and'' between the words ''nonracialism'' and ''colour-blindness'', and found myself generating a set of related questions, some of which include the following:
· Are nonracialism and colour-blindness two different constructs or practices or are they synonyms or complementary constructs or practices?
· Is one a consequence of the other? and
· If they are indeed synonyms, does this imply that, the manner in which the topic, under examination, is framed, presents us with the possibility of engaging in a false discourse about two constructs, which are presented as distinct from each other, when in fact they are not?
Whatever our interpretation of the main topic or responses to the supplementary discourses that arise from it, in my view, the value of our discourse here today, will depend on, amongst others, whether we engage in discourse on the question of racism as part of a set of conscious and transformative actions, that are aimed at dismantling the system of racism or whether we do so purely out of a desire to manage the system of racism better.
While the aforementioned questions may seem unnecessary, if not irritating to some, for Black people, grappling with these questions is not just absolutely necessary, but also obligatory. And this is because of the implications that racism carries for the Black peoples' understanding of what racism is and is not, and how they must interpret and respond to it.
In practice, this means that, even when Black people have to think about thinking about their position in the world, racism has a way in which it coerces Blacks to discipline their thoughts so that, when they verbalise them, they come out as well-manicured, polite and don't offend the inventors and primary beneficiaries of racism, and produce as a response, a type of liberal discourse, which is some refer to as the politics of respectability.
In explaining this form of self-censure, Frank Wilderson, observes that: "...there is a way in which all Black speech is always coerced speech, in that you’re always in what Saidiya Hartman would call a context of slavery: anything that you say, you always have to think, ‘what are the consequences of me speaking my mind going to be?’
Steve Biko makes a related observation, when he says: "There is in South Africa an over-riding idea to move towards “comfortable" politics, between leaders. And they hold discussions among themselves about this. Comfortable politics in the sense that we must move at a pace that doesn't rock the boat. In other words people are shaped by the system even in their consideration of approaches against the system.'"
He goes on to say: " Not shaped in the sense of working out meaningful strategies, but shaped in the sense of working out an approach that won't lead them into any confrontation with the system. So they tend to accommodate the system, to censure themselves, in a much stronger way than the system would probably censure them.”
This phenomenon of Black speech as coerced speech was palpable in the tampered speech of President Obama who, out of fear of offending AmeriKKKa's white power structure, reduced the contemporary lynching of Black young people, by the police in AmeriKKKA, to poor gun control.
We saw a manifestation of the same when our own president, out of fear of offending the South Afrikan white power structure, minimised the racist and white supremacist nature of South Afrikan society by stating that South Africa is not a racist country and that there were only a few individuals who had racist attitudes.
What these two examples illustrate is that, even though both the AmeriKKKan and our own president occupy what is regarded as the most powerful political positions in their respective countries, like all Black people both of them know intuitively that they have to think very hard about the consequences of their speech on matters that concern Black and white relations.
What racism is and is not
Because of the existence of the phenomenon of coerced Black speech and the continued uncritical acceptance of the false white supremacist notion of white thought as the benchmark of all human thought, one of the most fatal errors that the Black world has committed in its response to racism, was to rely on the very people who think of them as lesser beings to define what racism is and is not.
One of the most honest and useful definitions I have ever come across is the one that is provided by the Black existential psychiatrist, Frances Cress-Welsing. She defines racism as follows:
‘Racism (white supremacy) is the local and global power system and dynamic, structure, maintained by persons who classify themselves as white, whether consciously or subconsciously determined; which consists of patterns of perception, logic, symbol formation, thought, speech, action, and emotional response, as conducted, simultaneously in all areas of people activity (economics, education, entertainment, labor, law, politics, religion, sex, and war).”
From Welsing's definition we can at least make the following deductions:
· Racism or white supremacy is a historically-evolved- global system whose chief motive is subjugation;
· It is a system of power whose primary concern is the dominance and survival of a particular group (white people);
· It impacts all aspects of human existence;
· It is the sole invention of white people;
· It is not-race neutral but violently pro-white and anti-Black; and perhaps most importantly,
· It is a system of violence that is maintained and reproduced through visible and invisible forms of violence.
Understood in this context, the essence of racism can therefore not be found in being called “kaffir”, “nigger” or “monkey” or having bananas thrown at you at a soccer match - while being taunted with monkey sounds. Neither can it be reduced to the experience of encountering a white old lady at a traffic light and after noticing your dark figure, presumably moving towards her car then she nervously locks her already locked doors. Racism is not even about the number of Black nominees at the Oscars.
The essence of racism is to be found in the violent and bloody history of Black people, which is defined by all manner of invaders coming into Afrika, violently capturing the bodies, land and natural wealth of Afrikans and, thereafter, forcefully transporting them in chains to various parts of the world and selling them and their children into a life of permanent slavery.
Racism is when, in addition to taking over your country, its natural and other forms wealth, the invaders kill you if you resist and impose their entire alien way of life on you, your children and grandchildren, and enforcing and reproducing their dominance through military and other forms of overt and covert violence.
Racism is when, as a consequence of the aforementioned, the invaders determine (without your permission), not just where you will be born, where you will live, whether or not you will receive an education or job, who amongst you will go to jail or will be co-opted by the system, at what age you are likely to die, but also what language you and your children will speak and which religion or god you will bow to.
Racism is when, after doing all of this to you, the invaders still have the nerve to blame you for your state of powerlessness and attribute this to your genetically-induced inferior intellect, laziness, inherent criminality and lack of an entrepreneurial spirit.
Having experienced all this anti-Black terror for centuries, racism is when you and your children continue to exist in a social-political-economic-cultural-intellectual context wherein you must constantly stress about whether articulating the pain of your condition might not get you in trouble, offend others or constantly having to account for or explain your every thought and action, to the very people who believe your intellect is below that of a monkey. In essence, racism is an act of war by non Black groups, against Black people.
The resilience of racism
As stated, like all systems of oppression, racism is essentially a system of violence that is maintained and reproduced through violence. Some of the forms of violence through which racism is maintained and reproduced are subtle and difficult to detect because they are often embedded in what is presented as anti-racist discourse or practice.
One of these mutated forms of racism is nonracial racism or colour-blindness. This is a response to racism which in theory purports to oppose racism, but in practice merely seeks to persuade Blacks to fight for the reform of, recognition by or incorporation into the system of racism. By doing this, the approach that is based on nonracialism or colourblindness helps sustain the system of racism and enables it to mutate, gain legitimacy and assume more sophisticated forms, which are almost impossible to detect.
In the so-called post-independence era on the Afrikan continent, these mutated and subtle forms of racism have helped facilitate the installation of puppet-type governments, whose appearance is Black, but are actually controlled by powerful and ruthless- white- domestic and foreign political and economic oligarchies. In the arts, entertainment or sports, racism ensures that certain Black artists, entertainers or sportspersons are deliberately promoted above others and profiled as high achievers.
In academia or business, racism carefully selects certain Blacks (often highly certificated) and allocates them prominent positions in previously exclusive white spaces such as universities, research institutions, foundations and corporate institutions. As part of its tactic of deception, these Blacks are usually showered with overwhelming amounts of media attention, wherein they are promoted as so-called symbols of Black excellence.
All of this is calculated to not just obscure the violent and anti-Black nature of the system, but also to create the illusion in the minds of poor Blacks (especially Black young people) that the system is changing for the better and if they only have ambition and work hard, they too might be counted amongst the select group of Blacks, who are periodically celebrated as the first to achieve this and that. In essence, it is this category of Blacks, some of them well meaning individuals, who are made visible by the system as part of its strategy to obscure the invisibility of Blacks as a group.
The implications of nonracialism and colourblindness for Black people today
While the emancipatory conceptions of racism and white supremacy, which are firmly predicated on Black existential reality, give us a useful interpretive lens through which to understand Black positionality, the interpretive lens of anti-Blackness arms us with the weapon of intellectual precision, in our analysis and understanding of Black positionality as manifests today.
According to Michael Jeffries: ''...anti-blackness more accurately captures the dehumanization and constant physical danger that black people face. The “anti” in “anti-blackness” is denial of black people’s right to life.’
Lewis Gordon observes that: ''In anti-black societies, to be black is to be without a face. This is because only human beings (and presumed equals of human beings) have faces, and blacks, in such societies, are not fully human beings...’
Therefore the interpretative lens of anti-Blackness helps us to understand not just the violence that the individual Black body encounters in its daily interaction with the individual white body, but also why the rare death of white bodies in France or that of a Syrian toddler- has the capacity to instantly thrust the world (including the leaders of the Black world) - into a global frenzy of rage; and why the public and systematic lynching of over 500 000 Black bodies in West Papua - is incapable of eliciting the same degree of global outrage and sympathy.
It helps us to understand the mind-numbing-psychic orientation that normalises the regular and mass death of Black bodies in such places as Sudan, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, Somalia, Ethiopia, Burundi, Libya, Kenya, Egypt's Sinai desert, the Arab world or the periodic drowning of Blacks in the Mediterranean.
Anti-Blackness helps us to understand why the brutal deaths of Amodou Diallo, Tamir Rice, Eric Gardner, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland of AmeriKKKa, Alem Dechasa of Ethiopia, Andries Tatane, Nqobile Nzuza, Mike Tshele, Lerato Seema, Osiah Rahube, Jan Rivombo, Mgcineni Noki and more recently, Sikhosiphi Bazooka Rhadebe of South Afrika - will not spark a rebellion within the Black world.
At a theoretical level, anti-Blackness empowers the discourse on decolonisation and radical anti-racist practice today to realise that, the anti-Black nature of the world doesn’t merely Other Blacks, proletariatise them or confer upon them the status of the subaltern- it brutally and physically obliterates the very idea that Black people exist as a category of humans.
In conclusion, the biggest tragedy is not so much what racism and anti-Blackness have done to the countries or wealth of Black people, but rather what it has done to the psychic integrity of Black people. Racism has succeeded not just in making anti-Black violence a part of normal human existence, but it has also succeeded in making Black people numb to their own pain and suffering, and in many instances, made it normal for Black people to become participants in their own oppression.
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, multi-culturism, 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. And as our consciousness evolves into a higher realm, we might also be able to collectively understand what 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."
* Veli Mbele is a South African essayist and Black Power activist.
* THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM
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