Being A Black Woman In The World - Part 1By Winnie Nomzamo Madikezela Mandela | Last updated: Mar 28, 2006 - 5:30:00 PM Click here for part 2.]
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.
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 work places, 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 institutionalised discrimination through which people of different race groups are dominated.
People often experience racial exclusion, hostility and discrimination in the way institutions work. Blacks realise 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:
I can go shopping alone most of the time, fairly well assured that I will not be followed or harassed by store detectives
I can turn on the television or open the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely and positively represented
I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race
I can be fairly sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race
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
Whether I use cheques, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin colour not to work against the appearance that I am financially reliable
I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my colour
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
I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial
I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race
I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group
I can remain oblivious to the language and customs of persons of colour who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion
I can pretty be sure that an argument with a colleague of another race is more likely to jeopardize her chances for advancement than to jeopardize mine
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
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 colour will have
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 on 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.
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, Black Consciousness Movement demanded of black people to become their own liberators, thus expediting the subjective prerequisite for liberation. An important aspect of 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. BCM critique political, psychological, cultural, economic and personal dimensions:
The political critique of BCM 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.
BCM 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 BCM 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?