What would Steve Biko have thought about the ‘out­ing’ of Rachel Dolezal in the US as a white woman ‘pre­tend­ing’ to be black?

CityPress - - Front Page - Xolela Mangcu voices@ city­press. co. za Mangcu is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Cape Town and an au­thor

Much con­tro­versy sur­rounded the Spokane, Washington, head of African-Amer­i­can civil rights or­gan­i­sa­tion the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion for the Ad­vance­ment of Col­ored Peo­ple (NAACP), Rachel Dolezal, who pre­sented her­self as black un­til her par­ents “outed” her as white. Some have been crit­i­cal of Dolezal be­cause they say she went black to ob­tain cer­tain aca­demic po­si­tions. The NAACP fired her for mis­rep­re­sent­ing her­self – not be­cause she was white, or so it claimed.

But can a white per­son in fact be black? There are nu­mer­ous cases in­volv­ing light-skinned black peo­ple pass­ing for white.

Dolezal sat­is­fies at least one el­e­ment of Steve Biko’s def­i­ni­tion of black­ness. “Blacks are all those who are, by law and tra­di­tion, dis­crim­i­nated against and iden­tify as a unit to­wards their as­pi­ra­tions.” Biko wrote that “black­ness is a re­flec­tion of a men­tal at­ti­tude – skin pig­men­ta­tion has noth­ing to do with it”.

He was not en­tirely orig­i­nal in this po­lit­i­cal def­i­ni­tion of race. As early as 1865, Tiyo Soga, who was mar­ried to a white, Scot­tish woman, had told his young sons to iden­tify as black. The great Mar­tini­can philoso­pher and co-founder of negri­tude Aimé Cé­saire said: “Black­ness is a his­tor­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence; bi­ol­ogy has noth­ing to do with it.”

These are the rea­sons I find the crit­ics of black con­scious­ness as race es­sen­tial­ism so de­lib­er­ately dis­hon­est and, there­fore, disin­gen­u­ous.

Its po­lit­i­cal def­i­ni­tion of race al­lowed black con­scious­ness to counter the apartheid gov­ern­ment’s regime of di­vide and rule, es­pe­cially in seek­ing to sep­a­rate coloured and In­dian peo­ple from African peo­ple.

The def­i­ni­tion of black that in­cludes Africans, coloureds and In­di­ans in our Con­sti­tu­tion can­not be un­der­stood out­side of this achieve­ment by the black con­scious­ness move­ment. The ANC had al­ways seen these “groups” as eth­ni­cally dis­tinct, hence the ex­is­tence of the coloured and In­dian con­gresses.

But what about the ar­gu­ment that, while Dolezal may iden­tify as black, she never ex­pe­ri­enced racism and, there­fore, does not sat­isfy the first part of Biko’s def­i­ni­tion? Fair enough. How­ever, that does not pre­clude Cau­casians who pass as black and live that ex­pe­ri­ence from iden­ti­fy­ing as black. In her book The Sun­burnt Queen, Hazel Cramp­ton tells the story of a young girl who was saved from a shipwreck in 1784 by the amaMpondo in the Eastern Cape. She was brought up as a woman of the amaMpondo and mar­ried an amaMpondo chief. Cramp­ton writes that there were hun­dreds, if not thou­sands, of Cau­casians who be­came black through this form of ac­cul­tur­a­tion.

Some might ar­gue these chil­dren did not have a choice in the mat­ter, but that does not al­ter the fact that their iden­tity as black was not based on phe­no­type – skin colour. There were also many older white women who chose to iden­tify as black be­cause they had fallen in love with or mar­ried a black man. I had a friend in New York whose mother had to hide her white, Ir­ish iden­tity to stay with her hus­band.

The history of mis­ce­gena­tion (racial in­ter­breed­ing) in the Eastern Cape is one of our best-kept se­crets. Just as there are lots of black fam­i­lies with white an­ces­try, there are lots of white fam­i­lies with black an­ces­try.

There is no such thing as pure black or white by blood. In fact, sci­en­tists have shown that skin colour is the least im­por­tant ge­netic vari­a­tion among peo­ple. Black­ness and white­ness ex­ist only as po­lit­i­cal iden­ti­ties. Black con­scious­ness made it pos­si­ble for black peo­ple with com­pli­cated an­ces­tries to iden­tify such iden­ti­ties, while apartheid pre­vented the emer­gence of a na­tional po­lit­i­cal com­mu­nity that ac­knowl­edged such mis­ce­gena­tion.

But how could Biko say black­ness was not a mat­ter of pig­men­ta­tion when our treat­ment is so ob­vi­ously based on skin? Biko’s view was that how you are de­fined by oth­ers is not nec­es­sar­ily how you de­fine your­self – a les­son for ev­ery­one, par­tic­u­larly our chil­dren. It is not skin that gives us our iden­ti­ties, but our con­scious­ness. Black­ness may now not have the same mean­ing as it did un­der apartheid – and it has never had any one mean­ing through­out history.

The chal­lenge is whether we can have a new na­tional con­scious­ness that re­spects the his­tor­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ences of black peo­ple – as we do the his­tor­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ences of Jewish or Ir­ish peo­ple. These are also not bi­o­log­i­cal iden­ti­ties but his­tor­i­cal ones. What is so dif­fi­cult about ex­tend­ing the same logic and re­spect to black peo­ple while build­ing a tran­scen­dent na­tional com­mu­nity?

Biko’s great­est rel­e­vance to our na­tional life now may not be in his def­i­ni­tion of black­ness but his con­cept of a joint cul­ture. In­stead of a non­ra­cial­ism that seeks to erase peo­ple’s his­tor­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ences, such a cul­ture would recog­nise that, as Biko put it, “we have whites here who are de­scended from Europe. We don’t dis­pute that. But for God’s sake, it must have African ex­pe­ri­ence as well.” He in­sisted that “the cul­ture shared by the ma­jor­ity group in any given so­ci­ety must ul­ti­mately de­ter­mine the broad di­rec­tion taken by the joint cul­ture of that so­ci­ety. This need not cramp the style of those who feel dif­fer­ently, but on the whole, a coun­try in Africa, in which the ma­jor­ity of the peo­ple are African, must in­evitably ex­hibit African val­ues and be truly African in style.”

Just as we de­vel­oped a po­lit­i­cal def­i­ni­tion of black­ness, we can still de­velop a po­lit­i­cal def­i­ni­tion of what it means to be African be­yond race. But such a def­i­ni­tion must not de­pend on the era­sure of our his­tor­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ences. Nowhere in the world are na­tional iden­ti­ties built on such de­nial.

FRECK­LES TO FRIZZ Rachel Dolezal (37) was the head of the Spokane, Washington, chap­ter of the NAACP and iden­ti­fied her­self as at least partly African-Amer­i­can. How­ever, her Mon­tana birth cer­tifi­cate says she was born to two par­ents who iden­tify as Cau­casian. The fam­ily pho­to­graph on the left was taken when Dolezal was a teenager

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