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The Problem With Respectability (Race) Politics

Written by Doreen Gaura for her column on iamtehn.com

About four years ago I made the life changing decision to go BACK to natural (no such thing as “going natural” in my opinion); about half a year later I was back on the job market after completing my internship at a renowned regional (SADC) gender organisation in Johannesburg. With a full head of uncombed, Afro textured hair, and at the risk of sounding as though I am tooting my own horn, I was totally rocking it, I sent out dozens of CVs and decided to volunteer at another NGO in a bid to keep my foot in the door.

Somewhere in the middle of my professional purgatory, some relos from back home visited with us and like any concerned Zimbabwean adult, they wanted to know what my plan for the future was i.e. was I actually actively looking for a job or was I sitting on my lazy, ruffian tattooed and pierced ass, just sponging off people as is the usual assumption made about people who look like me. I told them that I actually had an interview lined up for a managerial position with an organisation in Cape Town (the very same one I find myself currently employed at) to which they responded with a barely concealed sigh of relief that was quickly replaced with a look of what I can only imagine horror fornicating with disgust would look like were they flesh and blood; something freakishly ugly. “You are planning on doing something about your hair aren’t you? You can’t go for an interview looking like that!” the one relo exclaimed. To be fair, hers was constructive criticism because she didn’t just stop at the criticism but went as far as to offer up a range of “solutions” to my perceived dilemma which ranged from me getting a weave to me relaxing my hair, however, not one “solution” involved me keeping my hair natural. Apparently that isn’t an option on the road toward “respectability”. Who knew?

This actually isn’t an isolated incident but is in fact the story of my adult life in my Zimbabwesphere as it is the story of many-a-person of colour around the world since time immemorial and as Jay Smooth articulately pointed out, the story of the very many Treyvon Martins’ and the abuse they have suffered and/or their subsequent deaths. In spite of the political and the perceived socio economic emancipation of the brown (black) person, the quest to “deniggerfy”/ “dekaffirise” the Afrikan seems to be very much alive and kicking and it appears that it is the very same brown person who claims to be emancipated that is leading the battalion into war against the “unrespectable black”, be they sitting at a CNN news desk in the U.S. or in an office at Karigamombe Centre, Harare.

I have found that we are the biggest critics of “blackness” and are quite content with being dictated to by others what determines our right to respect. “You have tattoos? Well then, you deserve to be discriminated against and be passed over for that job you applied for that you were the most qualified for out of all the other candidates who applied isn’t it?” “You have dreadlocks? Well then, it makes total sense that you were profiled at Maputo International airport and suspected of drug trafficking because in all fairness, you do look like a thug.”

This is not just the plight of the average Shupi/Jane or Joe/ Kwame on the streets of Harare or Joburg or Accra or Miami or Kent but it also goes to the highest office of the land in a lot of places, especially Southern Afrika. I have heard South Africans express their dismay at how Msholozi a.k.a. Jacob Zuma sometimes likes to tog the traditional Zulu attire, ibhetshu, because they think it’s embarrassing or unprofessional but the very same people are totally OK with the leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, traipsing across the globe being profound and enlightened and shit, all the while donning an orange curtain like thingy and I must admit, some very groovey beads.

People say presentation is everything and in a lot of ways they are right but they negate the fact that presentation cannot be viewed in an overly simplified and singular manner. A good presentation is not necessarily reliant on what you are wearing or what your hair looks like but on how you carry that look that serves to express a part of your personal identity. I have eight tattoos, a nose ring, finger combed “nappy” hair, I do not own a suit (I hate them; they’re stuffy) and my idea of dressing formal is donning one of my many kente, capulana or chitenge print outfits and believe me when I tell you that none of these aspects of my “presentation” prevent me from writing articles and papers that have been published around the world, or from addressing parliamentarians and politicians in South Africa and Italy on children’s rights,or from drafting national guidelines on combating child exploitation with SA government and ILO (Internationl Labour Organisation) officials, or being invited, on two occasions, by the Department of Labour to be the keynote speaker at their national events on the National Day Against Child Labour. Not only do I do these things which are part of my job in spite of my allegedly unrespectable look but I do them well.

When Don Lemon of CNN suggested that if brown people presented themselves more respectably by, say, young brown men pulling up their pants, tragedies like that of Treyvon Martin would be easily avoided I saw red. Now don’t get me wrong, I personally detest the whole sagging jeans thing, but I would never discriminate against someone or justify an injustice committed against someone because they had their trousers hanging halfway down to their ankles. To me it’s no different from the “she deserved to get raped because she was wearing a mini skirt” codswallop that misogynists often spew. This line of thinking only serves to justify systemic racism and the continued oppression of brown people and blames the victim instead of the perpetrator.

And it doesn’t end at appearance mind you, but it even goes as far as accents and our command of the English language or the professions we choose. Venturing into the arts is still not considered a respectable career choice in a lot of places, especially Zimbabwe where artists not only struggle to eke out a living through their art but also to gain respect from society for their chosen profession. The same goes for the way we speak. People are more ready to accept and respect someone who speaks private school English than someone who speaks English with a heavy Shona or Ndebele accent. We use one’s fluency in the English language as a bench mark for their intelligence regardless of the fact that the former does not necessarily guarantee the latter. Trust me, I have met some fluent English speakers in my time who are as thick as door nails and not quite as useful. If anything, this bar that has been set as a result of colonialism only serves to discredit people’s opinions and positions and render them inadmissible or void and this is mainly because a lot of Afrikan peoples who are otherwise well informed on a particular subject find it difficult to articulate themselves effectively or coherently in the English language.

The idea that brown (black) people need to look or act a certain way to deserve respect or be safe from racism or discrimination is ludicrous and reinforces the colonial belief that Afrikans are primitive or subhuman. It serves to justify the historical (and in a lot of ways still existent)oppression of the brown person. The real tragedy is that this system and the issue of respectability (race) politics are so entrenched in our societies that we as brown people have internalised them and are now their propagators and are zealously feeding into it (racism)ourselves. What we do not realise is that this detracts from the real issues and prevents us from reclaiming our common identity, redefining it on our own terms(whatever the result maybe: sagging jeans and dreadlocks or not) and subsequently demanding its (said identity) global recognition as equally respectable and demanding an end to the vindication of racially charged discrimination and violation.

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Positionality and Privilege in Spirituality: I am a Healer

Written by HeJin Kim

Which is a very loaded statement; not in the least because the word “healer”, in English has all sorts of new age connotations, but mostly because of my own positionality. More accurate would be to say that I am iSangoma, which would be confusing to anyone who doesn’t know what that is (basically anyone who is not from Southern Africa and/or doesn’t speak a Nguni language.) The problem is that there are two ways for me to look at it: personal and political… though the two aren’t separate (it would be easier if it was), the old saying “the personal is political” might be somewhat retro, but it still applies in many of its interpretations.

But let me start in a more linear way to explain what I’m trying to explain. I am iSangoma, I am also Korean (South-Korean… and a Korean adoptee, specifically), and as I write this, I’ve been living in Cape Town for the last four years. iZangoma are traditional Zulu healers, though it is hard to really translate it; its etymology lies in the word ngoma which in various places in Southern Africa means drum, and in others refers to a song. Still, that doesn’t explain much, and nowadays the word iSangoma is used in South African English to refer to any traditional healer, from any of the many of the indigenous cultural groups in the country. The easiest way to explain it is that such traditional healers are “called” by their ancestors to take up the profession of a healer, this calling is innate to a person – meaning, you either have it or you don’t – and presents itself as a period of illness, then you find a healer who will initiate you, and Bob’s your uncle.

I could spin an interesting story,  about how I found out about my calling, how I’ve suffered, how I’ve been shown the iSangoma who initiated me, and describe all the personal hardships that the initiation entails; but I’m not going to. I understand the interest in the story, especially with the unusual factor of not being a black South African; but that’s just the thing, that simple fact means that telling the story isn’t, and shouldn’t be, so simple. I am asked often why and how I became iSangoma, and in some cases this is done in the context of “are you a valid iSangoma?” or am I being a new-age hippie; the story of my calling and initiation would answer that, but not in the right way, I feel.

Whether me being iSangoma is valid or not would be a nice discussion, on a spiritual level, but in essence is mostly relevant to myself and those patients I treat. But on a broader political level, it needs to be criticised in the context of post-colonialism and cultural appropriation. I have been questioned regarding my initiation by other (black) iiZangoma, and by other black people in general, and I don’t mind; in fact I think it is important that they do. They rightfully question why I entered something that is so intrinsically linked to their culture. It doesn’t offend me, rather it gives me hope. Too often we forgo questioning cultural appropriation. At its best, it is justified in the spirit of a some sort of utopian “nobody owns spirituality”, and “we are celebrating a culture”; at its worst it is exotification. In the context of a post-colonial world where white privilege endures, whether they are the minority or majority, it if needs to be questioned further; is such cultural appropriation simply a new form of (spiritual) colonialism?

I am actually urging people to critically look at me and what I do and say; wait, correction, I am urging people of colour, and specifically those black people whose culture I have entered, to criticise and analyse me – don’t really give a damn what the rest of the people think. Whatever I feel and believe on a spiritual level does not ever mean that it should simply be accepted. Being a person of colour has been brought forward by some friends of mine as a reason why my situation is different, and perhaps to a certain extent it is, however, racial dynamics are different depending on context and locality and being in South Africa means that being of East Asian heritage is quite different than in other places. I think it is also too simplistic to say being a person of colour precludes any possibility for cultural appropriation.

I have accepted a calling to be initiated, and was resistant at first. The whole thing didn’t make sense to me; why should I be iSangoma? It would make more sense to be Manshin – a Korean spiritual healer – but then on a personal/spiritual level it wasn’t at all about choice. I have, however, learned – and am still learning – the fine line that is my responsibility to walk, and talking about the political issues at hand is critical.

Apart from being ambushed by one friend, I’ve tended to hold off discussing it too much in the public sphere. The only thing I have realised is the fact that I needed to acknowledge the personal stake, the validity (to a certain extent) in some places, in order to respect those who were gracious enough to accept me into their spiritual and cultural realm (i. e. the people who initiated me, and opened themselves up for criticism as much as I have been opened up to it).

Above all, my own positionality is important, and something anyone engaging in spiritual practices that are not their own, needs to acknowledge. I have a privileged position in this context, and discrimination towards black iiZangoma is something I don’t face to the extent they face it, black iiZangoma are often stereotyped as backward, anti-Christian, etc. all too often. My own context means that I don’t have to face this, as I don’t live and practice in the same context.

For the most part, I’ve learned that it is a continuing journey, and a constant struggle to find the balance; it is the same struggle anyone with any privilege must endure. And often, it is about learning when to shut up.

* HeJin Kim, apart from wondering why she writes this in the third person, is a blogger and an activist. She is a Korean adoptee who wastes what little spare time she has getting lost on the internet, and ends up writing about issues of race, gender, sexuality, and her troubles as an overworked NGO worker. Check out her blog at http://universityofbrokenglass.wordpress.com

 

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The Hairy Nature of Our Race Identity

Last week, the controversial topic of Brown women’s hair, was on pretty much everyone’s lips in South Africa and possibly across the globe (and most certainly on social networking platforms) thanks to the latest edition of investigative journalist Debora Patta’s programme, 3rd Degree which was “investigating” brown women’s hair styles and our alleged propensity to keep it anything but natural.

To begin with, I must highlight that I have misgivings on having a Caucasian woman attempt to tackle this issue. I have these misgivings, not because I believe that Caucasians should not have opinions and subsequently air said opinions on our hair but when it is done in the manner in which Patta did it, it comes across as patronising and condescending to have an “investigation” into the cause of this occurrence while simultaneously ignoring the real roots of what, in my opinion, is a form of self hatred on the part of the Brown woman and the Brown man. In addition to this, I would probably have been more comfortable with Patta’s latest insert if she had looked into the issue more broadly i.e. included an investigation into why Caucasian and even Asian women also go through similar lengths and pains to change their natural appearance because let’s face it, they do crazy and hella painful stuff to their hair too all in the name of beauty.

It goes without saying, if my Afro – textured hair isn’t a dead give away in itself, that I am strongly opposed to wigs, weaves and the texturising/ relaxing of hair by healthy brown women i.e. those not undergoing chemo therapy or experiencing balding. However, in spite of my aversion to it, I acknowledge that I have no right to dictate to anyone what they can or cannot do to feel “beautiful”.

As Afrikans we have always had our own versions of cosmetology and forms of beautification and to be fair, how does one determine what the limits of this vanity fuelled quest for ultimate beauty should be for an individual and should they claim the right to attempt to establish this determination? I do not have an answer for this neither do I wish to find one as that would translate to me finding one other way of controlling people, their bodies and how they choose to identify themselves. I do however wish to, through this article, highlight and explain, more specifically for those who do not believe that these trends bespeak a certain form of hatred and shame of their “Afrikanness”, why I believe that certain forms of the beautification of the brown woman have very racial, borne of colonialism and slavery, connotations and attachments.

Three years ago, I woke up on a Saturday morning and I realised that I had no recollection of what my hair looked like in its natural form. This was because I had been relaxing it from the time I was 13. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I got tired of being asked where I’d got my “weave” done and on one or two occasions being mistaken for another race i.e. mixed race/ coloured. This was not because my hair was exceptionally long as I had a tendency to cut it into a bob when I wanted to “try something new” but it was because of the texture of my hair which looked a lot finer and silkier than “normal” (whatever the hell normal is) Afro – textured hair and even when it had growth it never really showed as it tended to blend in with the relaxed tips. That Saturday morning I walked to the nearest salon and I literally had to beg the female hairdressers to shave my head. They remained steadfast in their refusal to heck away at it until the barber, not necessarily a bleeding heart or humanitarian but more of a savvy businessman, offered to do it for me. Fast forward to today I have a head of natural, albeit not very “kinky”, hair and I have never been happier, in spite of the sometimes hassle of managing Afro – textured hair as it grows longer. I love not only my natural hair, but the natural hair of all brown people. It looks and feels so beautiful I now cannot imagine why I laboured away at making it look as close as humanly possible to that of Caucasian or Asian women and why I, at some point, even took pride in its extra straightness and flowiness.

I have never spotted a weave, even back then. That is where I always drew the line. I would however, very occasionally get synthetic braids and although I haven’t really had a full head of braids since the chop, I am not entirely against them as they are more similar to the various forms of hair adornments that women and men across the continent used to spot even before our colonisation except that they used strands of treated tree bark and various other forms of fabric. Historically, up until the European slave trade, and the height of the Arab Slave Trade, penetrated sub-Saharan Africa, we had invented diverse ways of styling afro-textured hair and our hairstyles were used to define status, or identity, in regards to age, ethnicity, wealth, social rank, marital status, religion, fertility, manhood, and even death. These adornments and styles, some of which resemble the modern day synthetic fibre, were not an attempt to assimilate another race but were a result of our own creativity in a bid to spruce ourselves up as it were.

This is the opposite of wigs, weaves and even the texturising/relaxing of Afrikan hair and bleaching it blonde. All these, practices that are not exclusive to Brown (Black) women but include mixed race women too. Women who are inclined to make use of any one or all of these different offerings of “beauty” have defended this by saying that they want to look, well, beautiful and these things afford them that but I cannot help but wonder if they really do not realise that they are indirectly and perhaps inadvertently saying that there is nothing beautiful about Afrikan hair. That they are saying that they do not feel beautiful until they have a Caucasian or Asian element attached to them? Brown women with relaxed hair are often very distressed when they get growth in their hair. They absolutely hate it and the very sight of it is ugly and upsets them. Put simply, they hate their natural hair so much that they will urgently “fix” it with a retouch.

Many people refuse to acknowledge or accept racial identity and how we as Brown people view ourselves and place ourselves on the proverbial food chain of life as a contributing factor to our desire to carry on what I believe to be a trend, now become a culture, borne out of our oppression. Afro – textured hair aka wool hair, aka nappy hair was seen as “something bad that needed to be fixed” and to some extent it is still seen as such but now it is us ourselves who think that. During the times of slavery (and colonialism here in Afrika), Brown people were overloaded with the suggestion that straight hair was more acceptable than natural, kinky/curly hair textures such that slaves and “freedmen” began exploring solutions for straightening, or relaxing, their tresses in order to thrive, or merely to avoid mistreatment and legal and social discrimination.

Hair straightening is deeply rooted in colonialism and slavery with its foundations being a bid to make one more like the “master” and automatically gaining superiority over the other “backward” and “lesser” Brown people therefore attaining a social upgrade by physically bringing yourself closer to the “superior” being. Also it was an attempt at being more acceptable and easier on the eye for the “master” who considered us savages not only because of our cultures but because we were what they considered an “eye sore” physically.

Sadly, this desperate need to subscribe to the Eurocentric standards of beauty does not end at our hair but even goes as far as skin lightening and skin bleaching. We have over the last several generations, seen the emergence of a kind of Brown person who equates light skin to beauty and to me that is the greatest tragedy and the most blatant symbol of our continued enslavement.

“too dark… Needs to tone her skin a little… Pretty though!!”

That was the comment on the photo above that was posted by a brown woman on the Shadders page on facebook. It is tragic that people think that way. What people do not realize is that the emancipation of the Afrikan neither starts nor ends at political & economic emancipation but should find its foundations in the emancipation of the mind starting with readjusting our view of ourselves.

Interestingly and possibly sadly enough, we see today a paradigm shift, with Caucasians being more appreciative and being the “defenders” of natural Afrikan features and recognising our natural hair and dark complexion (for those who are more darker skinned) for the beautiful attributes that they are. From my own personal observations, you will find Caucasian parents to a Brown child leave their child’s hair natural and Brown parents be the ones to straighten, relax and beweave their children and as in one horror incident I saw on facebook not too long ago, for children as young as 3months old.

Am I saying that Caucasians or Asians are not beautiful? No way! But I am saying that we are as equally beautiful and this is not in spite of but because of our “nappy” hair. People are more interested in changing Caucasians’ perceptions of us; trying to force them to like us and respect us in an attempt to “empower” ourselves and yet it is our perception of ourselves we should be focusing on. Their respect of and love for us does not matter if we cannot respect and love ourselves first. That said, perhaps if Patta’s expose had tackled the issue from this perspective I would find it less offensive and perhaps if my fellow sisters acknowledge this element of latent internalised racism/self hatred within ourselves and we start interrogating the source and the reasons behind our perceptions of beauty can we truly start addressing the issue of identity and empowerment. Until then, the brown woman can never truly claim empowerment and independence and she will instead continue to be a modern day “freak show” attraction for journalists like Patta who like to poke and prod at the fascinating species that is the brown person; a little reminiscent of 19th century Europe to be honest; and to be dressed up and dressed down to suit the whims of the Eurocentric elite.

© Doreen Victoria Gaura/ Colouredraysofgrey, 2012

 

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