Photo by De Volkskrant
It has been over 100 years since Du Bois first described the effects of white domination and supremacy on the black mind. He reflected on how it affects a “double consciousness” as a peculiar sensation. The sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity (Du Bois 1989). It is interesting that Du Bois’ works are becoming relevant in our contemporary context where we are trying to figure out how to forge a struggle in a post-colonial and post-apartheid context, where the oppressor is no longer physically identifiable and, indeed, takes on many forms.
Our oppressor today is internal as much as it is the lack of economic rights and justice. We have internalised and made our own the standards set by a white-dominant culture. This dominant culture ascribes to itself, according to writers like Du Bois et al, excellence and advancement when, per critical race theory, these standards are average, exhibiting mediocre opinions, views, perceptions, stereotypes, images, values, habits and ideologies. That standard can be labelled as excellent as it doesn’t measure itself against any other but its own. Yet at the same time, like a mirror image world, the oppressed experiences feelings of self-doubt, disgust, disrespect and hate for one’s self, community and race. Where we are taught from our first breath that whiteness is a standard to which we must aspire. It is a self-hate that is, in my view, pervasive in our society. Du Bois challenges us to take seriously the Sun Tzu maxim that ‘to know your enemy, you must know yourself’ and it is in the knowing of self – the understanding of how oppression is internalised and reproduced – that is crucial to forging effective methods of resistance (Pyke 2010). Stuart Hall (1989) remarked that internalised racism is one of the most common and least studied features of racism. Why is this the case? Why do we not want to understand ourselves and address the epistemic violence of white supremacy?
Stuart Hall (1986) defined internalised racism as the ‘subjection of the victims of racism to the mystifications of the very racist ideology which [both] imprisons and define them.’ Internalised oppression is a multidimensional phenomenon that includes the intersections of kyriarchy (multiple systems of domination) (Pyke 2010).
The previous century is littered with autobiographies, speeches, essays, editorials, films, music, poetry and novels by black anti-racist activists, writers, artists and social commentators that touch on the topic of internalised racial oppression. The issue of Colourism (where privilege is afforded to lighter-skinned black people in relation to your proximity to whiteness) is a key manifestation of internalised racism. In a South African context this proximity to whiteness is experienced by and a viewpoint imposed particularly upon coloured communities. The oft-repeated joke about “not too white, now not black enough” is familiar to the South African society.
Coloured lineage and identity are complex things, descendant from indigenous persons of the Cape, Malayan and other Indian Ocean slave immigrants and also interracial relationships with white English, Dutch and related colonists (some of which has a particularly dark side in the shape of slave rape). It has been argued that in the coloured community, the issue of anti-blackness and internalised racial oppression is prevalent. Colloquially, it is known that black people refer to coloured people in South Africa as having an ‘amper baas’ mentality; meaning because they were ‘almost white’, ‘almost the boss’. The result is that, for many black people, experiences of racism and oppression comes not only from the white sections of Sout Africa but coloured communities as well. At the same time, black communities express some animus toward coloured people as well, suggesting that coloured people don’t have any culture or traditions that are uniquely theirs. In this scenario, one can see how the overarching white-dominant culture enforces a divide and conquer approach where all peoples are measured against, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, the ‘norm’ of white standards.
Where blackness is the antithesis of all that is good and worthy of life, any people are ‘better than’ black people, even ‘non-black Persons of Colour (NBPoC), according to critical race theory. Blackness is understood as the opposite of whiteness, something that is not completely whole, something that is inherently lacking. Blackness is dehumanised. At the same time, whiteness bestows humanity, it makes someone an individual, a person. From this, the argument that all NBPoC can find happiness in their non-black condition, follows. That for NBPoC there is a comfort to be found in an ability to say, albeit unconsciously perhaps, ‘I might be poor but at least I’m not black.’ This strand of race theory argues that if you are non-black it means that you are closer to human, more deserving of humanity and dignity. And, again, it is an example of how structural white domination/ supremacy has conditioned the world; the closer you are to whiteness, the closer you are to a dignified life (and all its associated privileges and opportunities).
The quest to rid oneself of their blackness, to try and be more human, more white, more acceptable, is seen in how we straighten our hair, bleach our skin, speak only English – so that we can live comfortably with that “double consciousness” and move between the various worlds that black people must navigate for success. In our efforts to enhance our feelings of self-esteem and raise our consciousness, black people attempt to reconfigure ourselves in a positive manner. But how does one do this when goodness, positivity and positive humanity are defined as possessing whiteness? When, by default, attaining whiteness is always an unreachable goal. And, a further question then pops up: how fair is it for us to judge those who straighten their hair, why accents change depending on the audience, why some people have a ‘work personality’ different to their natural expression, especially along racial lines? In humanity, like with feminism, there is always personal choice and freedom to express your identity in a way that makes sense for any one individual. How do we reconcile that notion with the various works on internalised oppression?
Whiteness is an identity that black people cannot ever truly and wholly possess. So if we are denied the inclusion into or use of whiteness as a positive identity to be part of the human family, at what point will black persons stop seeking to assimilate? At what point do we as self-respecting blacks call a family meeting and say, ‘Hey! We need to deal with this self-hate of ours and the consequential actions that stem from that self-hate’ so that we can be free from aspiring to whiteness. Or, at what point do we have the right to ask that of our brethren? We must free ourselves from aspiring to whiteness, yet the how is very challenging. And what we do know is that we seek to be tall standing on our own two feet, shoulder to shoulder with others and not aspire to whiteness that only makes the master tall because the rest of us are on our knees.
Ashanti Kunene is an Intern for the Sustained Dialogue Programme
Bois, W.E.B. Du. The Souls of Black Folks. New York: Penguin, 1989
Hall, Stuart. “Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity” The Journal of Communication Inquiry 10(2). 1989. 5 – 27
Pyke, Karen D. “What is internalized racial oppression and why don’t we study it? Acknowledging racism’s hidden injuries.” Sociological Perspectives 53(4). 2010. 551 – 572
 Non-conforming pronoun