Tick the box which applies to you. For statistical purposes only.
I take a few minutes to consider, glance at my skin and decide that it would be less confusing to the application receiver if I stick to the colour code assigned to my race.
I wonder what it would be like if the application form read:
Tick the box which applies to you. For statistical purposes only.
We’re confronted with this question on every application form for a University outside Africa and even on some designated countries on the continent. Rest assured, it is for “statistical purposes” only. No one really wants to know whether you are black or white, except to safely gauge the number of black people that will be on the campus.
In my historically white Afrikaans University in South Africa, the percentage representation of black people was capped at 40%. “Statistics” prevail in order to maintain the status quo. On a University Facebook page where students are allowed to post literally anything, the topic once came round to protests that took place around 2014 when black students demanded a 50-50 representation of black and white students at the University. One student, in typical hot-headed manner commented saying that,
“Why don’t you create your own Universities? T***s was made for us. You’re lucky we saved you from your bows and spears. You would still be running around chasing animals.”
We are hunters and gatherers trying to get into Universities with civilized individuals.
A statement like that is not in the least shocking to anybody who has lived in the black and white movie that is (present-day) South Africa. It was easy for me in the year 2014 to just tap out of the comment section and continue with my black day.
Pre-1994 South Africa
But before we could tap out of comment sections on Facebook and go back to sitting in the zebra stripped style of seating in our lecture rooms, that is; black people row, white people row, black people row where one white person stood up and moved, there was the apartheid era where separate development of races was the policy. Universities were divided by race. Historically black Universities, sometimes referred to as “bush universities”, taught to the appropriate standard of African curricula and qualifications for these kinds of institutions, which were only recognised in one’s native community.
During a lecture, with his deep-rooted accent and his severe, almost-sneering face, my most friendly Afrikaans lecturer was speaking to us about the University as it was in the 1980s. His eyes glazed over, no longer present except in body, he told us about the little chapel by the road outside the Law building. That road that is just one of the in-roads of the University once was a main street. And the chapel, that stony beautiful Catholic chapel, it was where he married his wife. And after they were declared husband and wife, two doves, from nowhere, suddenly flew up and out of the building.
He smiled. The whole class smiled. We were lost in his thoughts, shy too because we could see his heart glowing.
“.. the University THEN,” he continued, “it, it was,…” . He was brought back to the present day. He stammered, as he looked around the classroom, “…very different from what it looks like now…”
He smiled forcefully.
“There were only… there were no..” I don’t think he completed his sentence. I was smiling hard, uncomfortable inside but smiling. I sighed and hoped that he knew that we didn’t think he was one of them who wished things were the way they used to be. He was the friendly guy. He was happy to have us, intruders.
The University was different in the eighties because no black people were allowed. I wouldn’t have been allowed to sit in that lecture hall if it were 1988. I was sleeping in a room and sitting in a classroom that was not built for people like me. And some others would still be kept out, because of the 40%.
Pearl of Africa
When I left home, I belonged to a country and a tribe. When I touched down at O.R Thambo, Johannesburg, I became a race, instantly inheriting victim-hood. I was about to spend the next four years feeling invisible. How does it feel when your skin becomes a mask, like tight leggings you can’t pull off? It gets stuffy in there. You want to come out. But they say no, no, no, everything you do is because you are black. You laugh like that because your black. You sleep like that because you are black.
I had probably only interacted with white people through that Non- Governmental organisation that gave us free reading books. The main image I had of white people is that they dress in shapeless “African-print” clothes and wear UMOJA slippers in public. In fact some people of the older generation still have a difficult time differentiating between Asians and Caucasians.
We Africans never interacted directly with any European colonialists. We grew inward, peeping at our cultures through their eyes, untouched by race but engrossed in the determination of hierarchy by features; the broad nosed versus the high nosed, brown skin versus dark skin.
I soon learned that I was squarely outside the kind of mammals whom they could interact with as a peer. They only understood us through a give and take relationship. When I looked at my residence neighbour Mariana’s emerald- green eyes and her rush of flowing brown hair, at her best-friend Elma’s sparkly blue eyes and shocked white skin, I saw the stark difference between us. And I thought about how our history books had not been too ridiculous when they said;
“When the first European missionaries reached the Coast of East Africa, the indigenous people feared them because they thought they were butterflies or ghosts…”
Butterflies! Ghosts! …maybe even cats. My skin was too brown, my hair too tough to ever become a part of their exclusive club.
I recently read Chimamanda’s novel Americanah about a Nigerian girl who leaves Nigeria to study in America and spends 13 years there. Her interactions with the white community, her interactions with the black community and, finally, finding her place back in Nigerian society resonate with my own experience away from home. Even though the countries are different and some experiences are uniquely American, the chemical reaction between Africans, Whites and Blacks was still the same; the shunning of Africans by Blacks and even the more cordial relationship between whites and Africans as the “better blacks”.
To be black and to be African are two very different things.
So if you never walked in Soweto with a banner saying FOR FREEDOM WE SHALL LAY DOWN OUR LIVES, or you never had to pretend that your family was not your family because interracial mixing had made you pass off as white, the black community will not receive you with open arms. You are not one of them.
In South Africa, the first generation of black elites is the generation of babies born in the 1990s. The parents of those children still remember very clearly their days of pushing white babies in strollers; while we Africans, in the 1950s and 60s, were in Universities in our home countries and some even in Europe. Having a degree in Medicine or Law no longer holds that hope of happily ever after that it still holds for black South Africans.
Being black is also an exclusive club.
Blacks feel privileged to have been “raised” in whiteness, even if they were on the outskirts. Divide and rule them is the philosophy.
Hierarchy of colour
“You’re from Africa?!” he exclaims. “You don’t speak Xhosa? What do you speak there? Esh but you’re not dark like them.”
Either the hierarchy of race led to the hierarchy of colour or the hierarchy of colour determined the hierarchy of race, I think the latter came first but even to Africans, black as a colour of skin is shunned by some like proof of too much African-ness. When the colour black became associated with low things, even here on our continent where dark people live, black became too dark. In the glorification of whiteness, brown and yellow became second best, almost there.
But still there are things that blacks accept of their African pre-colonial cultures that we Africans shun, ridicule and even fear; African hair, “Sangomas” and language.
I never heard a group of black South Africans speaking to each other in English, and when they did speak English, it was always half and half with a local language in a way that would definitely exclude their outsider friend. In my country, local languages are at-home languages only.
There is a series called Black-ish about an upper-middle class Black American family experiencing some difficulty infiltrating the upper-middle class because of their colour. It is an anti-Hood narrative of black America but I find that it is, at the same time, filled with so much anti-African sentiment.
It’s not just Black-ish though, a number of other black films make reference to Africa as a place they are grateful to have escaped.
I hope this boat ain’t taking us back to Africa
One race, different people?
A sad ending to the story of Black man meets White man, craters that will never be filled, and parallel to this, a hopeless struggle, to become more and more like the oppressors.
There is a pointed representation of black Americans on television as loud, violent and overtly sexual. I sometimes wonder how much of this is what it truly means to be a black American or it is what black people have been taught to think of themselves. Why is it that in societies where Africans were most oppressed is where the most violent, broken image of blacks is predominant? Is it because blacks are just violent and angry or did they lose something while trying to fight for their humanity?
In rap culture and music especially, I found that while African music is still courting women, black music is (to quote all top hits of today) just “f*****g all dem whores in da club.” And this new American fetishism of the African body? Don’t they know that having an African bum is almost the same as having an African nose? There is no specific bum or nose for every African. Now we African girls are also trying get an “African booty”. The irony.