Am I still Black?

I am deeply disturbed. I must cope with waking up feeling Black in a world where that word no longer has meaning (@QPiTSM – tweet from 31 Jan 2014)

Let’s talk about what it means to be Black. But in doing so, I do not wish to begin a debate between black and white. I don’t believe that debate – or even conversations – across race are of much use today. Perhaps let me say that I don’t think that such debates are truly possible (truly communicative) at the moment because a discursive language does not yet exist. The current language – the one we’ve inherited from apartheid – operates along a racist rationale. This is not to say that people are racist but rather that they are only partially willing to question the notion of race. People are willing to accept that all races are equal or that poverty and wealth are inequitably distributed along racial lines but they are much less inclined to question the notion of race entirely and to say that race does not exist. If we begin our debate on the basis of this lie (the existence of race) then any fruit that may come from the debate will be tainted by the lie. However, what is the point of debating in the first place? Debate assumes that there is a truth and that we are all actually searching for it. But what if some of us are simply looking for a narrative to justify the present? What if we only want to keep our land and our wealth and to be free of guilt?

White people[1] already have their own version of the truth, a historical narrative that suits their own interests within the present and which serves to defend or rationalize their current position within society. This is what I call the white-mythology. It is history but with a strong mix of present-day values. So, for instance, I read recently on a blog by Shane (someone whom I assume might be the Afrikaner version of myself) an article question whether white people actually stole anything from black people – a valid question. In order to make his point, Shane first reminds us that the notion of ownership of land did not exist in Southern Africa prior to the white man’s arrival. And so “how can the white man steal what you never owned?”. He then proceeds to point out that the oldest inhabitants of South Africa were the Khoi-San and that the Bantu people, who he classifies as the Blacks, came from the north. Based on this he then compares the arrival of the Bantu to the conquest of Africa by the peoples of Europe, even though the fact that the Bantu did not desire exclusive ownership of land means that these two events were fundamentally different. Thus Shane conveniently endows Blacks with the intelligence to desire ownership of land when it suites his narrative but he also denies them this intellect when it becomes a hindrance to him. This is how the white-mythology operates, assimilating pieces of history and manipulating them to serve the present-day needs of those who consider themselves white. Like all mythology throughout history (and across cultures) it does not serve as a method of recording history but, instead, it attempts to teach a particular lesson to the present generation and to guide their decisions within the present. Here then Shane is presenting a narrative that can coax us towards accepting racial inequality.

My favourite piece of white-mythology is the story of Jesus Christ[2]. Jesus, of course, lived in the Middle-East and he never set foot in Europe. Yet his story and the laws of his ancestors were assimilated into the historical narrative of Europe and these became the new truth and they grew to supplant many of the previous truths (e.g. older European religions and theories on creation). At times some facts had to be altered in order for Christianity to fit into white-mythology, such as Jesus’ appearance for instance. Interestingly, when Jesus was alive, I doubt that his race would have ever been considered important. More than anything he would have most likely described as a Jew or a Hebrew by the Roman officials who controlled his home country back then. However these descriptions would have been used as indicators of culture rather than the biological facts that later colonialists and slavers claimed them to be. Even the Gauls, whom the Romans under Julius Caesar conquered and enslaved, were only considered savages because of their cultural practices but the Romans never doubted that they were also people. Race did not exist.

The existence of race is thus a myth (a myth within the larger white-mythology). The invention of race is what I call the myth of whiteness. While it may seem as though racism suggests that there are many races, all endowed with different abilities, in reality there is only black and white. The whiteness-myth simply arranges everyone along a spectrum of inferiority and superiority. Thus coloureds[3] may be better than black people but they are still inferior to everyone else because they share a common ancestry with blacks. Asians and Latinos may be better than blacks and coloureds, maybe because they are credited for some ancient civilizations, but they can never be as good as the whites who are credited with even better civilizations. Of course, in reality, the modern capitalist civilization is actually the only one built by people who thought of themselves as belonging to a race. This is because, as we’ve already pointed out, race did not exist.

It only became necessary to systematically separate humans into the quasi-biological classifications known as races in the 18th century, during the slave trade[4]. By then the slave trade had grown large enough to become an indispensible part of the western capitalist economy. In my opinion three things had come to pass around this time, which made the 18th century irreconcilably different from previous points in history. The first was The Enlightenment, the second was the French Revolution[5], and the third was capitalism.  The impact of the enlightenment was that it gradually became accepted all around the western world that “all men are created equal” and that they should all be free. This would obviously pose a big problem for anyone wishing to enslave and sell other people… but we’ll get back to that. The second big change was due to the French Revolution (1789 to 1799), which coincided with more revolutions across the Atlantic in the Americas. The founding fathers of the United States revolted against British rule (1775–1783) and established a new nation premised on the principles of fraternity and equality, which they drew from The Enlightenment. Revolutions also later happened in Brazil (1822) and other parts of South America. All of this, of course, was inherently at odds with the third major change in world history; and this was a big change. Capitalism had emerged in the west, in part also as a result of The Enlightenment. Free men and women would now sell their labour and their land within the free market. With all this talk of freedom, how could capitalists and colonizers justify the slave trade as well as the dispossession of the natives in the new world, which were very necessary for cultivating the vast resources in these “newly discovered” countries? Racism thus emerged as a useful fib to explain why people of darker skin could be sold as commodities and why their lands (property that should be respected and protected by law within the free market) may be taken away from them.

All of this of course is history and, as I have said, we have little use for history. The point to take from this is that history and facts are malleable and they have indeed been moulded throughout history to suit the purposes of those living within the present. Furthermore those of us who do not consider ourselves white must note that if we do not begin to question the white-mythology and – most importantly – to question the myth that some people are born white, then we automatically continue to live within the dictates of the white-mythology. Do not forget that the aim of the mythology is not simply for it to exist as a historical fact but rather it seeks to become the basis on which present-day decisions are made. In other words, once it is accepted by society, the mythology begins to generate new facts. African children who are raised within the white-mythology – regardless of how often they are told about equality – cannot help but ask if they are inferior to the white children inasmuch as the latter have the ancestry of conquerors and civilization builders while the former are descended from slaves and conquered people. The solution then is to completely forsake the white narrative and not to even entertain it in debates. Instead those of us who do not consider ourselves white must consider ourselves Black. Note that to be Black, from henceforth, is thus a matter of choice and it is not about the colour of one’s skin or about any attachment to history. However, I think you still do not understand what I am saying. Black and White are both part of the same white-mythology. So maybe I should phrase it this way:

Those of us who do not consider ourselves white must choose to be red… or purple… or turquoise… We can choose to be something new and to be outside the narrative. As red people, the only historical fact we are willing to accept is that we have no history and so we are willing to inherit the entire history of the world as our own and we will re-shape this history to fit our present condition and the problems that we face.

[1] For me being white is not a matter of skin colour but it is a choice and thus there are African people who are in essence white in that they have chosen to aspire to the positions once held by the masters of the white political economic system. See Steve Biko’s “I write what I like”

[2] Also see my article on “Black Jesus: awaiting a third Messiah” where I show how Europeans assimilated Christianity into their historical narrative and how this was challenged by Black Consciousness thinkers in the 60s and 70s who tried to claim the Christian narrative for themselves

[3] In South Africa the children born from interracial parents are called coloureds

[4] Notions of people being different because of the colour of their skin had already been around since as early as the 1600s but once the slave economy was fully in place racism became part of the legal system

[5] The French Revolution is one of several revolutions that occurred at this time but it is the one that is closest to home in the minds of the Europeans and thus it has the biggest impact in terms of influencing their thinking


2 responses to “Am I still Black?

  1. A good article as regards supporting facts about what an unruly horse the concept of race is.
    In reality the concept of race, and its subsets such as “Black, Coloured, White, Hispanic .. etc are simply convenient social constructs to enable differentiating between ethnic groupings.
    As regards the attack on Whites for their “convenient” narrative, it is pertinent to point out that Blacks too have their own “convenient” narrative steeped in a partisan view of history.
    Thus we see a highly populist Black view that White folk are to be always associated with racism because colonialism was racist, even though colonialism had very little to do with racism, and Africa would have been colonized even if the people were as white as snow.
    It is NEVER mentioned in Black led discourse that colonialism was driven by an international culture, embedded across the planet from the time Cain killed Abel, of “invade, conquer and subjugate”, regardless of race, colour or creed.
    Certainly, it is NEVER mentioned that our very own King Shaka Zulu, Mzilikazi and King Lobengula, behaved in exactly the same way.
    So White folk are pilloried with being the source of the culture of inequality, even though that culture was fully embedded in the region when the White man arrived.
    See —- “Looking back at colonialism – soberly”.

  2. Pingback: Am I still Black? | The City·

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