MILISUTHANDO BONGELA ON WHY WHITES SEEK THAT OL’ BLACK MAGIC
The modern trend of white people appropriating black culture to make money happens in the context of historical and present-day racism
If South Africa had a totem pole of cultural appropriators, Nicholas “Pule” Welch would be at the top of it. He would tower above Johnny Clegg, Hlengiwe (the white woman who appears on TV sounding like a Zulu person), J’Something of Mi Casa (whose musical mediocrity is hidden by his “black” dance moves and theatrical utterances of township slang), Die Antwoord (oily global pop sensations who appropriated elements of Cape coloured culture and lived experiences of violence and addiction), and the pantsula-dancing Swedish girls whose video of impressive moves in front of an Orange Farm shack is doing the social-media rounds to applause.
But these are amateurs who swim in the irresolute waters of cultural appropriation among entities like Spur (an entire brand built on appropriating Native American culture) and the word ‘ubuntu’ (which officially lost its meaning when the family of Chris Hani’s killer Clive Derby-Lewis used it to motivate for Derby-Lewis’ release).
They don’t hold a candle to White Pule, a brilliant polyglot, compelling actor, competent comedian, great TV presenter and our very own Rachel Dolezal. A white man who believes and tells people he is black.
He dresses like a skhothane, refers to white people as “them” and insists he is a black man from an Mkhize clan, even though nobody fears his “black body” when he is on the streets. To him, having spent a lot of time with black people in townships means he can appropriate a black accent when he speaks English, a language he criticises black South Africans for speaking.
He has also publicly scolded black people for being “too white”, neglecting the fact that blacks have been forced to assimilate or perish at the hands of people who look like him under his costume.
But unlike Dolezal, White Pule doesn’t submit to the reality that he is, in fact, white.
This “black man trapped in a white man’s body” forces his way into communities, a culture and people’s consciousness because his white-male power allows him to.
And the quarter-to-self-loathing black people who hire him for gigs, under the bewildering spell of an innovative form of white racism, have yet to draw a line to say: “Thanks, but no. You don’t get to be black just because you want to; because no matter how hard we try, which we have, we will never be white.”
White bodies have historically “othered” and oppressed African, Asian, South American, Caribbean, North American and aboriginal Australian bodies, cultures and religions. While many of these cultures have been assimilated into a globally powerful European way of being, they have managed to retain many aspects of their cultures and languages, code-switching their way to multifaceted existences. So it becomes a problem when white bodies also want to take what’s left of these cultures as a curiosity, to escape their whiteness in pursuit of “the other”, or for attention and praise, which leads to the kind of money that a black person wearing a spotty and speaking in tsotsitaal won’t make for being that very thing.
All of this would be a harmless cultural exchange if we lived in a world where white South Africans spoke indigenous languages as well as black people speak English and Afrikaans. It would be cute if there had been a true integration of cultures in our country, if there were as many white girls pantsularing as there were black girls doing ballet demi pliés.
But this is happening in a context of a historical and presentday racism founded on power, money and control of the black body as an object of the white gaze in science (Saartjie Baartman), art (Brett Murray and Brett Bailey), pop music (Miley Cyrus) and literature (Noddy).
The black body has always been used in the service of whiteness and capitalism, from miners to domestic workers.
When black people speak English, pray to a Christian God or make bacon and eggs, they are not appropriating British culture – they have assimilated because they were dominated and forced to do so.
I see cultural appropriation as another page in the history book of white people having forcibly taken almost everything black people have owned.
If I served on an imaginary court of cultural appropriation, my sentence would be simple: Just leave us alone already. Stop studying us, probing us, touring our townships, copying our hairstyles and making millions pretending to be us.
MEN IN BLACK From left: J’Something from Mi Casa, Johnny Clegg and Nicholas ‘Pule’ Welch