All blackness is not equal

Black South Africans at the funeral service of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko
Black South Africans at the funeral service of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko
Image: Tiso Blackstar archives

It’s been 42 years since Steve Biko was assassinated. Black consciousness is not what it used to be and the hallowed ground it was founded on has been sullied with contestation many times.

It served its purpose when what seemed to be a single-issue struggle needed to be won, but we have grown beyond one dimensional politics.

In South Africa blackness became a call to action for all those oppressed under the racist, fascist supremacy of the Apartheid state. Many heeded the call.

Today we have much more to consider in a system where although not officially criminalised, being black still bears much contempt in a white supremacist world order.

Blackness, framed as a world view leaves much to be desired in a place as material, as visceral as South Africa. As time has passed, questioning blackness has become an imperative for many of us.

The value of Biko’s framing still resonates today and unity in the quest for self-determination and agency in identity is still needed. Powerful as the ideology is, we can’t remain blind to the fact that all blackness is not equal.

As it intersects with gender (identity), ethnicity, skin tone, class and sexuality the material experiences of those considered black by any ideological standard differ. When we consider black as an experience under white supremacy how do we reconcile the differences among us.

How do we address the divides Biko tried to bridge, without losing sight of the fact that we are all oppressed, however unequally?

Personally, I have grappled with occupying the ideological position of blackness knowing very well that I am positioned differently to someone who embodies black in the eugenics sense of the word. The consequences for my life are not the same as the person who looks black.

Powerful as the ideology is, we can’t remain blind to the fact that all blackness is not equal

Some have argued that black is simply a look and not an ideological positioning, which may tend towards the very eugenics so often decried in modern day race talk. Prof Pumla Gqola states that for many of us the somatic (bodily) is the key to meaning making in terms of race, and when considering the way in which race and its meaning changes depending on the observer, this rings true.

Amongst ourselves this contestation is important for the way we make meaning of ourselves are our humanity, but in the eyes of white supremacy we are relied on for our ideological divisions.

A black person, considered black by any standard, can be more useful to white supremacy for their alignment to its principles, than a white passing coloured person whose mind will not be swayed.

The science of race. Image: 123RF Stock Photo
The science of race. Image: 123RF Stock Photo

We cannot ignore the reality that the way we look influences much of how we experience the world and the opportunities we are afforded in a system set up to rank our humanity along various lines of difference. At the same time, we cannot discount the value of liberatory ideology espoused by those with more proximity to whiteness, when they are truly invested in using that power to dismantle the system.

When I say this, I don’t mean in the academic sense and I am not oblivious to the fact that poor black South Africans of all ethnicities have little capacity to be unpacking ideologies of liberation when their material conditions constrain them so severely.

Maybe then, it is our job, as the privileged to spend ideological blackness on dismantling the systems that bear down such a brutal stranglehold on material blackness.

The contestation and remaking of blackness will remain a difficult conversation under the suffocating gaze of white supremacy’s ever-present threat of violence. Who says what matters and some of us should be labouring more than others. How we know where the boundaries sit is a process of discovery and unlearning all the same.

It is difficult to make vulnerable an already besieged and brutalised positionality such as blackness and we may not ever find an equilibrium, but the possibilities enabled by the creativity that has taken up residence in the least respected among us will ensure we make beauty out of broken things.

Jamil F. Khan is a PhD critical diversity studies candidate

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