Being A Black Woman In The World - Part 1

By Winnie Nomzamo Madikezela Mandela | Last updated: Mar 28, 2006 - 5:30:00 PM

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[Editor's note:  The following text is the prepared speech of Winnie Madikezela Mandela for her March 4 address to V103's Expo for Today's Black Woman held in Chicago, Illinois. Unfortunately, she did not complete her address due to several unsatisfactory complications in the arena, so The Final Call publishes it in its entirety for our readers on behalf of the illustrious freedom fighter. Click here for part 2.]

Winnie Mandikizela-Mandela
Photo: Kenneth Muhammad
( - I feel greatly honored to have been invited to this august gathering. In his address to the 1900 Pan African Conference a prolific African American writer, scholar, and philosopher W.E.B. Du Bois declared the problem of the twentieth century "as the problem of the colour line". Indeed the 20th century has sharpened and deepened distinctions between the colonizers, the powerful, the wealthy, the developed and privileged on the one hand, and the colonized, powerless, poor, diseased, and the landless and disadvantaged on the other.

The fact that these distinctions manifest themselves along the colour line suggests that Du Bois was both insightful and prophetic. As we peek through the next century, it would appear that we are no closer to resolving the problem of the colour line.

The theme and the necessity of this function speak to the challenges that we face as black people and black women in particular. Discrimination against black women is multi-pronged, multi-sectoral and transgenerational. Black women are discriminated by the white supremacy; they have to contend with male prejudice fed by patriarchal notions, they suffer abuse from white women who are also beneficiaries of white supremacy. At the same time, they are expected to form alliances with these women to defeat male privilege. They are expected to be in solidarity with their male folks to fight racial oppression. In this regard they have little choice. They cannot sit on the sideline and watch the black male being reduced to an endangered species. After all, these men are the fathers of their children, the lovers, and their sons. In short, there is no other species that understand oppression as black women do.

We need to remind ourselves of these challenges even as we celebrate our achievements of survival. Malcom X put it eloquently; that we will survive America. We survived apartheid and are now faced with a challenge of defeating global apartheid and global gender discrimination. In approaching this task, we shall draw lessons from past struggles. Our successes should not lull us to complacency. The forces of evil continue to refine their strategies to fight back. We need to constantly remind ourselves that our oppression has economic and material interests. Our oppressors spend sleepless nights trying to reclaim the lost territories. We cannot defeat the specter of racial discrimination without a clear-eyed analysis of what constitute racism. We need to debunk those analyses that are unhelpful to our cause. Our understanding of the drivers of racial oppression should empower us to address other forms of discriminations – gender, class, religion and sexual orientation.

Let us briefly reflect on racism. Many analyses of racism proceed from an assumption that the eradication of racism and other forms of discrimination is in the interests of all. Yet despite a universal condemnation of discrimination, racism persists. Even the most successful persons of colour are haunted by the plight of less fortunate brethren caught in a cycle of dehumanizing deprivation.

A new approach is needed: one that locates racism within the broader context of social and economic exploitation. This approach links racism with power and the politics of self-interest. It explores the connection between white privilege and black oppression by arguing that oppression is necessary to sustain privilege.

We need to link the privilege of whiteness with racism. This provides a lens through which we can understand the persistence of racism in society. A different lens can make the same point: conditions of male privilege are dependent on the oppression of women. Both concede the existence of unearned privilege.

Victims of the abuse of power perceive power as inherently evil and therefore view the pursuit, possession and application of power on their own behalf as corrupting. A long history of subjugation has undermined their self-confidence. They do not see themselves capable of mounting a successful campaign against their oppressors. They see their salvation as inextricably linked to forming alliances with their oppressors and exploiters. This orientation toward power is a prescription for unending subordination. But without resolving and neutralizing the power differential, the oppressed will not be able to defeat discrimination.

The United States, supposedly a champion of human rights and democracy, is a case study of how the dynamics of power and self-interest sustain racism. Despite significant gains derived from the civil rights movement, enactment of anti-discrimination laws and judicial decisions, racial justice continues to elude millions of African-Americans.

The absence of visible signs of discrimination and the existence of legislative equality creates an impression of racial neutrality. However, statistics on poverty, unemployment and income show that the slow advances made during the 1960s and 1970s have been reversed. The unemployment rate for blacks is 2,5 times the rate for whites. Blacks are three times more likely than whites to have incomes below the poverty level.

These realities wreak havoc and anarchy in black communities. They are the bitter harvest of race-determined unemployment in a society where work provides not only sustenance but also status and an all-important sense of self-worth. The fact that few whites identify with blacks has not made matters easier. Neither has the dismissal of allegations of racial discrimination as mere "excuses put forward by those unable or unwilling to compete on an equal basis in a competitive society".

In his book, Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism, Derrick Bell, a former Harvard law professor, uses fairy tales to explore issues of self-interest and power in a non-threatening manner. Fairy tales provide an engaging way of reaching the truth before listeners retreat into defensive habits of thinking. The Space Traders, one of Bell's fables, provides new insights and suggests innovative strategies for understanding and combating racism.

Story time: Visualize 1 000 ships from a star far out in space landing in a US harbor. Millions of people across North America wake early to witness the moment of arrival. A sizeable party of the space visitors emerges and begins to move towards shore. To the surprise of everyone, the leaders of this vast armada can speak English.

The ships carry treasures of which the US is in desperate need: gold, to bail out the almost bankrupt government; special chemicals capable of restoring the unbearably toxic environment to its original pristine state; and a totally safe nuclear capacity to relieve the exhausted supplies of fossil fuel. In return the visitors want only one thing ñ to take to their home star all the African-Americans living in the US.

The visitors emphasize that the proposed trade is for the Americans freely to accept or reject, that no force will be used. But the visitors do not reveal why they want only black people or what plans they have for them.

For black people, the space traders can only be bad news. They urge black leaders to take action. Whites, long conditioned to discounting any statements of blacks unconfirmed by other whites, choose to follow their own perceptions. "Will the blacks never be free of their silly superstitions? Here, in this truly historic moment, when America has been selected as the site for this planet's first contact with people from another world, blacks just revert to their primitive fear and foolishness."

This offer could also solve the nation's racial problems. After all, a large percentage of blacks rely on welfare and other social services. Their departure would substantially ease the burden on the budget. The cost of caring for black Aids victims alone has been extraordinary. After agonising over the trade offer, white Americans agree to condemn millions of fellow citizens to intergalactic exile in return for the promise of restored prosperity.

On a promotional tour, Bell asked his audiences whether his conclusion was likely. Most blacks accepted the likelihood of the outcome of the story. White people were certain that in the communities they know best, most whites would support the trade. The outcome of the story, and the fact that the audiences agree with it, is consistent with the historical experience of people of colour. Whatever their ideological differences or economic status, black rights, interests, property ñ even black lives ñ have always been expendable whenever their sacrifice would further or sustain the interests of others. This can be extrapolated to all oppressed people or victims of discrimination irrespective of colour, social origin, gender or sexual orientation.

Without addressing issues of power differentials and the politics of self-interest, debates on racism and other forms of discrimination will fail to provide sustainable solutions. This will require looking at those means that sustain oppression. In the context of oppression of black women, we need identify those global politics of self-interest and perpetuation of privilege that keep women and black women oppressed.

There are many lessons that are becoming apparent in South Africa. In our haste to bid goodbye to the past, we have failed to appreciate the tenacity and magnitude of racism. We allowed ourselves to be hoodwinked by seductive phrases such as rainbowism and non-racism as if invoking these phrases in our speeches and literary footnotes will magically transport the country into an idyllic future.

Too often our responses to race indicate either that we have not fully understood the implications of our commitment to non-racism or that we seriously underestimate the distance we still have to travel before we realise a non-racial society. We now know that racism is intractable. Occasional gestures like hugging on sports fields, appeals to the national anthem, and sporadic and isolated protests are inadequate, if not empty. If we are to solve the problem of racism we need to have a proper grasp of what it is, its historical context, how it manifests itself and what new forms it is likely to assume in the new dispensation.

Read part 2