Blacks / Race / Whites

Why I Don’t Understand Black People, and Why You Too Shouldn’t Pretend To

I Don’t Understand Black People.

I don’t mean I don’t appreciate the facts of blackness and its meanings.

I don’t mean race is an unimportant category in trying to understand life in South Africa, Brazil, France, the United Kingdom, United States, and many other parts of the world wherever whiteness is hegemonic.

And I don’t mean I don’t like black people – even though this is preferable to saying I like black people since the latter is not only dishonest but sickeningly patronising. How can you like all black people, unless you have a Jesus-delusion complex? 

I mean I often don’t get black people because they can be strangers to me precisely at the moment we are meant to be a homogenous racial, or cultural, entity.

Thinking African man. Cape Town, South Africa. Tuesday, December 13, 2011 (c) Kopano Ratele

  I know that I can make the exact same statement and none will bat an eyelid. How do you feel when someone with my surname says, ‘I don’t understand white people’. Possibly, nothing. At best, a raised eyebrow, middling, let’s-hear-what-he’s-got-to-say sort of interest. A black person isn’t supposed to understand white people, not really. It doesn’t matter if he has a PhD in whiteness studies, was brought up by white people, married white, has close white friends, and has half-white children.

But not understand black people? That is just plain weird. Black people are supposed to understand each other. By nature. She doesn’t need a PhD in black studies. Or was adopted at birth by Charlize Theron, married a girl from Brits, all his friends are white, and has half-white children.

I thought I would make the confession because there seems to me to be this new opened space where we are getting to talk about race and culture in South Africa, which one hopes will last for a little while longer, and which affords us an opportunity to renegotiate the African cultural contract and black racial solidarity.

It is in this space that I think we should encourage deliberation on how we understand blackness and the culture it gives birth to.

Consider this incident. A few months ago while taking a walk I was stopped dead in my tracks by something said to me by a boy apparently walking to school. As he was about to pass me in the other direction, the school boy in uniform looked me in the face and said ‘heita’.

Though there are learners over twenty years of age in the regular school system, I assumed from the way he looked and his voice that he was about 17 or younger. I had to ask him whether I had heard him right.  I asked him if he mistook me for his peer because he couldn’t but have seen that I have a grey beard. I then went ahead to tell him that I hope that in future he should think before he takes such liberties with any other older person again. Fortunately, he didn’t answer back, for who knows how this might have gone down. I thank the stranger for that.

School boys, Hanover Park, Wednesday 28 September 2011 (c) Kopano Ratele

There are many ways to read this encounter, but I want to draw out of it a fortuitous point about misrecognising each other as black people.

The boy may have decided that as black people in a formerly white space the two of us knew each other – without actually knowing one another. This knowingness is rather common, unfortunately. We commonly assume we know each from skin colour, and so, the downside is, we never get to actually learn of each other.

However, the boy should also have known then, if he knew from me from my looks, that among people of my colour, in my interpretation at least, one never greets an older man or woman with ‘heita’.

His racially-informed over-familiarity estranged me. It rubbed me the wrong way because I want to think that his was a non-deliberative misunderstanding of blackness. If he wanted to offend me he should have said so. That would have been something else entirely. But I suspect he wasn’t being deliberately offensive and yet managed to offend me.

In order to avoid this very common, unthinking affront black people cause one another, I am hoping my son learns not to presume, in contrast that young school boy, to understand black people just because they look like him. I hope I manage to model to him that understanding others is not something given with one’s body. It demands work. This holds in all of social and psychological life: at school, work, in love, friendship, family, and about oneself.

I also am trying to inculcate my little one to respect his elders. Before that gets confused with traditionist notions of respect, I am certainly not encouraging my child to be servile or uncritically obedient to authority. I will teach him respect is bi-directional, to be earned. In that way I consider critical respect as a good value to transmit to the next generation.

I want to say that it was from a certain point in my life that black people became strangers to me. Yet this would be untrue. Like all people I was born a stranger and only became a native later. I was not born black, even though my skin colour is a beautiful chocolate. I developed into a black person, because blackness is not a matter of whether one is as pretty as Muhammad Ali. But I digress.

The incident with the school boy is one of many where I am increasingly, and not unhappily, reminded why it is best to be both a native and stranger to one’s culture. It is not always such a great thing to think you know your own people, and more so in this country we call home.

It is not original to state that as children we have no choice as to the families we are born into, whatever believers in destiny and a god’s plan would have us believe. Sperm and ovum have no will.

We get the parents we get, and we have to grow into the best we can be with the genes and upbringing we get. The same of course can be said from the perspective of parents: it’s a lucky draw. If everything works well, we have sex, get pregnant, and have to do the best job we can with the children we bear.

Studies of child development show that as children we arrive with no concept of anything. We have no capacity to take care of ourselves. We have no name, words, love or culture. We don’t even have a self-concept, no me or you, us or them. We can’t differentiate ourselves from others. Our parents are strangers to us, and the same applies to the rest of our families and community. We start out as foreigners in the culture we shall later call ours. 

In this way an important task of parenting, besides taking care of the physical needs of their charges, is to turn the new arrivals into insiders. A task one can say has been delegated to parents by their avowed culture, this financially unremunerated job of making the new ones feel at home in the world, is deeply psychological, besides of course being the principal element of culture.

Parents are always cultural propagandists for the unwritten project of indigenisation. More often than not they speak without any self-consciousness on behalf of a particular point of view, about how to see the world and oneself, especially when that view is seemingly neutral as ‘think about all sides’.

We learn from our parents that being Sotho is better than being Zulu, or vice versa, for instance. We learn about what it means to be black. When they have done a good job we in turn transfer some of these lessons to our children. And so it goes.

The world is of course always seen, interpreted and lived from a particular vantage point. In a way that is the most basic definition of culture: how we apprehend the world. And tradition is then when that interpretation and way of living is transferred from one generation to another

But it isn’t all that simple. The greatest advantage parents have is that they propagate their views with the language they teach the child, with, as it were, the language of breastfeeding and putting the neonate to bed. This advantage is recognised by the schooling system one of who purpose is to undo by teaching the child ‘other languages’ in the broadest term of that word.

It is precisely why, where there is a great gap between what the child learns at home and at school, the foreign culture of the schooling system can kill the child’s identification with her home culture and traditions. An example where this operates is where the medium of instruction at school is not the same as the mother tounge.

For the majority of black people this is the reality that obtains. What children learn at home is undone by what they learn at school, even at the simple level of the language that the learning is done.

I am aware then that for many black people the sort of rainbow miracle that is constitutional democratic South Africa is still a foreign country. Many black people are strangers in this society they call their own. They still have to make it into a home. 

Over time I have reconciled myself to the fact that home is as often where the hatred is and filled with pain, as Gil Scott-Heron once said. Apartheid surely contributed to the uncontained hatred and pain that suffuses black homes and selves, but a significant amount of it inwardly caused and directed. Home is not necessarily where you are best understood.

I don’t understand black people because I appreciate that it is in the nature of the world and internal to culture that even at the best of times, home is not always a warm place of storybooks and television sitcoms. Violence happens at home. Life-changing lies are told to you at home. Inequality, sexism, racism, superiorities, how to hurt others, and stinginess with affections are some of the lessons one get from home.

I don’t understand black people since it displease me when someone, black as much as white, claims that they understand me even though they have never spoken to me. And you can’t speak to me for an hour or two and start acting like you know a person. Even a year of life history interviews will never do justice to the complexity any grown person.

I don’t understand black people because even after undertaking numerous studies of blackness I still feel excited about starting a new study and listening to the voices of those I study.

Working men, Sea Point, Cape Town. 1 June 2012 (c) Kopano Ratele

I don’t understand black people because blackness is constantly being remade, reloaded, changed and challenged. The category we call black culture, more than for instance Sotho culture, is in fact a much more emergent one, a collective and fraught work of innovation. To call oneself black is to consciously come together with similar minded people so that we can make a home for us in a racist world.

I don’t understand black people because, like many other people who look like me, I am not only and always black in my interactions with the world. Sometimes I am a man with a question about what blackness entails.

I hope this gets me into fruitful trouble, yet I suspect it is as likely to elicit all sorts of nastiness and lead to all kinds of misinterpretations. Still, I want to go even further and state that those black people who make unqualified general claims about ‘black people this or black people that’ should be regarded as a threat for our social health.

To overcome this incipient menace to our future solidarity, I propose that we hold the first of the quinquennial Free Blacks Conference. I also propose that the first theme be ‘who are we when we are not oppressed’.

This article was first published on Times Live on June 27, 2012.

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