Being A Black Woman In The World - Pt. 2
By Winnie Nomzamo Madikezela Mandela
Updated Apr 18, 2006, 01:01 pm

The resolution of the race problem requires, among other things, that we understand racism from the perspective of the victim, a point raised by Faegan and Sikes in their book, “Living with Racism.” A proper understanding will dis-empower those who seek to exploit our racist past for political expediency. We will be able to form alliances with others concerned about our plight. Otherwise, we will be condemned to a cycle of blame and political point-scoring at the expense of building a united and non-racial society. While apartheid laws have been removed from the statute books, and we seldom experience blatant discrimination, the subtle form that exists has equally devastating effects.

 

Not unexpectedly, most Whites refuse to acknowledge that racial discrimination remains widespread and entrenched in the traditionally White-controlled workplaces, company boardrooms, law courts, schools and other places.

 

In fact, some commentators have argued that the emphasis on racial discrimination and redress is unconstructive. This view is derived from a limited notion that sees “racism” as certain extreme views and actions about White superiority and supremacy; prejudices and actions acted out only by extreme bigots not considered representative of the general White population. This viewpoint, with the luxury of looking at racial discrimination with detachment, makes it easier for Whites to deny the reality of much of the racism reported by Blacks.

Racism is more than personal prejudice. It refers not only to discriminatory actions of particular bigots, but also institutionalized discrimination through which people of different race groups are dominated.

People often experience racial exclusion, hostility and discrimination in the way institutions work. Blacks realize that no amount of hard work or achieved status can protect them from racial oppression in some institutions. In other words, power and institutional resources back racism.

 

We must also understand racism as lived experience. When Blacks speak of racial discrimination, they do not speak in abstract concepts of discrimination learned from books. Rather, they speak of mistreatment encountered as they traverse historically White places.

 

Thirdly, experiences of racial discrimination are not only painful and stressful; they also have a cumulative effect on individuals, their families and communities. A Black person’s life is one of unending disruption and mistreatment suffered personally and by family members. For the majority of Whites, however, acts of discrimination and acts of violence are “isolated” events. As a result, Whites often feel that Blacks tend to “overreact.” What they forget is that “Blacks live lives of quiet desperation generated by a litany of daily large and small events that, whether or not by design, remind them of their place” in society.

 

For instance, for Whites “kaffir” or “nigger” may simply be an epithet that should be ignored. To most Blacks, however, the term brings to mind racially motivated murder, torture, denial of constitutional rights, limited opportunities, unequal treatment before the law and daily humiliation.

 

Lastly, such daily experiences affect a Black person’s behaviour and understanding of life. When you have the door slammed continuously in your face, you learn not to take initiatives. You become less proactive, less creative and less innovative. You may become resigned to following orders. This may explain why Whites, already used to being affirmed, jump at the slightest opportunity while Blacks often wait to be asked to perform tasks.

 

As in most discussions on racism, the approaches tend to focus on how Blacks are disadvantaged by racism in societal institutions. An incisive approach should, however, include a focus also on advantages that Whites gain from Blacks’ disadvantage.

 

Unmasking White privilege

 

Racism is about oppression and White privilege. In her incisive article “White Privilege,” Peggy McIntosh argues that Whites are not taught to recognize this unearned privilege. “White privilege” is “an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.”

 

McIntosh describes special circumstances and conditions she experiences that she did not earn, but have been made to feel that they are hers by birth, citizenship and by virtue of being a conscientious law-abiding ‘normal’ person of goodwill. A few of these are listed below:

 

1. I can go shopping alone most of the time, fairly well assured that I will not be followed or harassed by store detectives.

2. I can turn on the television or open the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely and positively represented.

3. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.

4. I can be fairly sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.

5. I can go into a book shop and count on finding the writing of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods that fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can deal with my hair.

6. Whether I use cheques, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance that I am financially reliable.

7. I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color.

8. I can swear, or dress in secondhand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or illiteracy of my race.

9. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.

10. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.

11. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.

12. I can remain oblivious to the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.

13. I can be pretty sure that an argument with a colleague of another race is more likely to jeopardize her chances for advancement than to jeopardize mine.

14. I can be fairly sure that if I argue for the promotion of a person of another race, or a program centering on race, this is not likely to cost me heavily within my present setting, even if my colleagues disagree with me.

15. If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.

16. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.

 

These unearned advantages make Whites to feel at home with the world. Some of these privileges allow Whites to escape penalties or dangers others suffer. Whites receive daily signals and indications that they count and others don’t or must be trying, not very successfully, to be like Whites. She indicates that this amounts to “cultural permission not to hear voices of people of other races or a tepid cultural tolerance for hearing or acting on such voices.” Such privilege confers dominance, gives permission to control, because of one’s race.

 

To conclude, any discussion on race and racism that fails to highlight Whites as beneficiaries of racism would be grossly inadequate. By focusing on both the White privilege and Black disadvantage as by-products of racism, we might begin to come out with remedies that might inaugurate a different consciousness. What lessons can we draw from our struggles? A study of the Black Consciousness Movement’s engagement with the apartheid system should provide a philosophical and analytical framework through which we can tackle male and White privilege.

 

Black consciousness

The critical impulse behind Black Consciousness philosophy revolved around the basic question of continuing Black submission to apartheid. This resignation to racial domination, Biko argued, was rooted in self-hatred. It encouraged a dependence on White leadership and made it possible for dubious leaders to become spokespersons of the oppressed masses. By openly confronting White racism, Black Consciousness instilled in Black people a heightened sense of racial awareness, and in the process provided an alternative to the psychological complicity to racial oppression. Black people were able to challenge their own inferiority, and rejected the negative notions that Whiteness imposed on them. By inducing pride and dignity in Black people, the Black Consciousness Movement demanded of Black people to become their own liberators, thus expediting the subjective prerequisite for liberation. An important aspect of the Black Consciousness Movement was its location of the possibility of change within the Black community. This lesson applies to Black women wherever they are.

 

Unfortunately, many aspects of this legacy have waned with the years. The victim mentality has crept in, and the element of self-respect and pride has largely disappeared. Today, political tolerance, an important feature of the Black Consciousness Movement has effectively disappeared. We have since failed to sustain the tradition of robust intellectual engagement and with it the legacy of reason.

 

Writing in the “Bounds of Possibility: The Legacy of Steve Biko & Black Consciousness,” (1991) Budlender noted that the emergence of the Black consciousness was profound and bewildering, especially for White liberals. For years, White liberals identified themselves with Blacks, and perceived the growing self-assertion as a form of rejection. They had become so used to speaking on behalf of Blacks and felt the carpet pulled under their feet, leaving them with no moral authority. The analogy applies to White women and Black men. The Black Consciousness Movement critique political, psychological, cultural, economic and personal dimensions:

The political critique of the Black Consciousness Movement challenged the notion that because the ideal is a shared society, shared organizations and methods of struggle are the only ways to achieve. In the context of the time, shared organizations led invariably to White domination in the realm of ideas, with Black demands mediated through White eyes and mouths.

 

The Black Consciousness Movement pointed out the impotence and ineffectiveness of White liberalism. It was pointed out that White liberals not only did not exercise power, but appeared also bereft of ideas and strategies of accessing and assuming power.

 

The psychological and cultural critique pointed out that when Whites talked about collaboration and integration, this often led to assimilation and adoption of White liberal values and attitudes by Blacks. Putting it bluntly, Biko wrote:

“The concept of integration, whose virtues are often extolled in white liberal circles, is full of unquestioned assumptions that embrace white values … It is an integration in which the black man will have to prove himself in terms of those values before meriting acceptance and ultimate assimilation.”

 

Of course, there are those who had become so colonized and could not see salvation outside the White liberal establishment. These are the types that looked with awe at the White power structure and accept what they regard as inevitable position. Commenting on this type of Black man, Biko wrote:

“They have been made to feel inferior for so long that for them it is comforting to drink tea, wine or beer with Whites who seem to treat them as equals. This serves to boost up their own ego of making them feel slightly superior to those Blacks who do not get similar treatment from Whites. Sisters we should not fall for these gimmicks!”

 

In a sense, the situation is not so different today. Increasingly the oppressed in the world are encouraged to reconcile themselves to the logic of capitalism. Increasingly, we are told there is no alternative to globalization.

 

The economic critique of the Black Consciousness Movement raised the symbiotic relation between liberalism and capitalism. The argument raised was that those who advance liberal values are opposed to the fundamental change of the exploitative system. The fact that liberalism found support among the wealthy did not help. The personal critique alluded to the fact that White liberals were sons and daughters of those in power. As beneficiaries of that power, they could therefore not be expected to participate in dismantling the power that accords them those privileges.

 

As we engage the globalization of apartheid, racism and sexism, we need to ask whether those we have entrusted with responsibility have the willingness to learn from this important chapter in the history of our struggle. Or, will they choose to become junior partners of structures and institutions that have brought mayhem to the oppressed in developing countries?