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

CityPress - - Front Page - Mil­isuthando Bon­gela voices@city­press.co.za

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

Die Ant­wo­ord

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