When men say ‘F*** off whites!’
There is a genuine affirmation in seeing parts of your experience articulated, and even though I unequivocally reject the violence of the term “coconut”, the experiences articulated by Panashe Chigumadzi and Sisonke Msimang at the Ruth First lecture are important. It was great to be in a space where they could be said without having to explain them, without the feeling of having whiteness over one’s shoulder.
However, as soon as the high wore off, I was kept awake by some very serious questions and issues.
Even though a dialogue like this is important in providing a counternarrative to both the rainbow nation story and whatever whiteness insists is the truth, we must be aware of how privileged these spaces are. The middle class cannot lose sight of its place. Chigumadzi explained that “coconuts” were coming to grips with their own complicated and nuanced place in contemporary South Africa, but the working class had long understood, without fancy grammar, that the black middle class was hugely compromised.
We must be aware, even though the spaces we occupy are fraught with different challenges, that the black middle class experience is still the more palatable one because it uses white supremacy’s tools: its language, academia, universities, debates and discussions. And so we continue to look for particular experiences and conversations.
This was obvious in the response of one member of the audience, whose contribution included repeatedly shouting: “F*** off, white people!” He provided a snapshot of a real, guttural, lived experience and a conversation about black rage and hurt that we are still to have.
The room’s response was unsettling – general shock, embarrassed murmuring and some shouts voicing displeasure. In that moment, we abandoned him, quietly distancing ourselves from him and his palpable anger at both whiteness and the room, and this man’s voice was rejected as intrusive and inappropriate.
He was swiftly reprimanded and threatened with removal, which was tantamount to tone policing to me, whether intended or not.
South Africa is fast falling into the trap of only accepting certain forms of black anger as legitimate. Panels, discussions, debates (as if there is a thing to debate about the violence of white supremacy), negotiations with university officials, columns and opinion pieces such as this, round tables, endless talking, endless engagement on masters’ terms ... We run the risk of overselling the black middle class’ ability to reject white supremacy – because it is complicit in it too.
It is a pleasure to see young black voices being given prominence, but it continues to coddle white supremacy if we only hear from the twang, the right academic English words, the polished columns – and the people who have the luxury of more than just hurt, anger and sadness.
In this way, we continue to be the buffer between the poor majority of this country and the masters, whether we intend to be or not. We cannot, even as the conscious middle class, fully understand what the majority of this country is feeling or going through.
We must guard against being stuck in an unending moment of navel-gazing, and thinking that is enough. And I realise fully that this is harsh, but living one’s politics is not meant to be easy. In the same way we have been clear that white people have to actively seek out divestment from their privilege, so too does the black middle class have to (from what little, but still important-enough-to-be-of-consequence privilege that we have) if our consciousness is to mean anything at all in a country like ours.
The fantasy of a ‘colour-blind’, ‘post-race’ South Africa has been projected on to us coconuts, but our experiences are far from free of racism Panashe Chigumadzi, Of Coconuts, Consciousness and Cecil John Rhodes: Disillusionment and Disavowals of the Rainbow Nation
RACE TALK Political analyst Eusebius McKaiser moderates a debate about race with Panashe Chigumadzi (centre) and Sisonke Msimang at this year’s Ruth First Memorial Lecture at Wits University