The double-edged sword that is proximity to whiteness

ZUKISWA PIKOLI believes that the protests that broke out over hair policies and racism in schools are a continuation of the years of unexpressed trauma that many other black children went through as they tried to exist in white spaces after the end of apartheid.

It is a double-edged sword, this proximity to whiteness, that we wield and die by in South Africa as the Assimilation generation born of the struggle generation. We are what you would call the test-tube babies of post-apartheid South Africa. We, of the parents who were allowed to move into the suburbs, attend formerly white schools – often being one or two of black kids in the classroom. Our parents had good jobs – white people jobs. We had white friends (only at school though), spoke with model C accents and were the ones labelled “different from all the other black people”. We are the ones who today get invitations to sit around our white friends’ dinner tables, often being the only black person there and our thoughts and perspectives seemingly given more weighting – unless of course they are inconvenient to their white sensibilities.

I have been the perpetual outsider for the majority of my school career. When I joined my parents in Zimbabwe at the age of five, I could not speak a word of English and had to fast-track my way to conversant understanding in time to start pre-school. I was of course also not Zimbabwean, which further alienated me from the other kids and, unsurprisingly, found I had to be my own best friend at school. When I got back to South Africa in 1990, I was promptly whisked away to an almost exclusively white Catholic school deep in the scenic hills of one of Port Elizabeth’s most affluent suburbs. I immediately got the reputation amongst the nuns that I was quite the precocious kid. I had arrived at the school a year younger for my grade and insisted that I would not be repeating a grade just because I was younger, especially after having achieved academically equally to those older than me.

As I left PE and moved to the suburbs of Johannesburg again, I found myself among a minority of black kids but never quite gelled with either black or white kids. I was too black for the white kids to ever come visit my house, and too white to ever have meaningful friendships with black kids. The older I got, the more I realised that this sense of division was by design meant to further the assimilation project that was post-94 South Africa.

You see, if white people were going to accede to sharing spaces and power with black South Africans, it would have to be on their terms: assimilation. It meant that in order for us to exist side by side, we would have to relinquish our cultural identities in order to be less of a perceived threat. We would have to adapt to the life of white suburbia, and there, it was unimaginable that our cultural rituals would dare be performed. At school, we were expected to take on the language and accent of white people and not dare “speak that funny language” among ourselves in an English medium school. We could not gather in large groups because “black people are so loud” and “what mischief are we planning?”. We could not grow our afros because this was considered the mark of a political rabble rouser and “know it all”. This alienation was the general theme throughout my schooling career, including varsity which is allegedly supposed to be the great leveller, but the recent sweeping student protests have put paid to that rainbow nation fairytale.

And so, when the furore over hair at Pretoria High School for Girls broke out on our collective timelines and newsfeeds, it was like the rupturing of a boil. It brought to the surface the suppressed trauma that those of my generation went through and had to silently accept so as not to unsettle the hard-fought truce our parents had negotiated. A truce that meant that, as part of our new assimilation into this new rainbow nation frontier, we absorbed the trauma that came with the alienation of existing in white spaces. A truce that meant that to survive, you had to safeguard your proximity to whiteness and blend in with white people so well that they even forgot you were among them long enough to say racist things like “Your hair is so soft,” or “Oh no, I can never pronounce any black names – don’t you have a shorter name?” or “You are so much fun, why are other black people always so angry?”.

I remember working at the South African office of an international publishing house and I was the only black person in my position – the only other black people were support staff. It was never discussed in conversation with my colleagues that I was the only black at the table; it was just accepted. After leaving there, I started to get angrier and angrier at the honorary whiteness I had assumed – whether it was being invited to sit with the lily-white directors at Christmas parties or being trotted out to make presentations to the global CEO as a token diversity example. These of course were meant to create the illusion of being progressive, making me a pet project towards the unattainable white standard.

And so, when I see this practice still being perpetrated on kids young enough to be my own, I am filled with the then-unexpressed rage and sadness. Our children, our beautiful African children are told that their very being is offensive to white sensibility and needs to rejected. They are being told that their personhood is not recognised in the face of white supremacy, unless it is in the aspirational pursuit of whiteness.

My heart hurts for all the black little girls and boys out there whose identities are being broken and invalidated by illegitimate white educationists intent on snuffing out blackness. What are our children being told when instructed not to embrace their natural hair? They are being told that Africanness and blackness are something to be restrained and feared, something to be fought and resisted, an undesirable, a threat… yes it is indeed Die Swart Gevaar! In place of boards that read “Beware of Natives”, we now have codes of conduct that prescribe how to contain the and bridle the native.

That the burden of this fight has been laid at the feet of these babies pains me to no end because we as the previous generation have and continue to fail them. No learner should have to take on a system designed to further an oppressive agenda. Why are parents not fighting for the innocence of their children? The idea of not wanting to rock an already precarious boat surely is not as threatening as that of having the spirit and dignity of our children broken.

Zukiswa Pikoli profile picZukiswa Pikoli currently works as a freelance writer and hospitality entrepreneur.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons