Power / Race

Why I am Against so-called Transformation

In September I was invited by Dr Birgit Schreiber, director of the Centre for Student Support Services at the University of Western Cape (UWC), to talk at the 2nd Annual Steve Biko Frank Talk Dialogue. It was an invitation I gladly accepted. In truth, it was one of those invitations one accepts with so much enthusiasm you forget to check the dairy. When the invitation came I had been at the time thinking of Biko – again. Fortunately, as I have been trying to cut down on the non-essential, to re-learn the benefits of being still, I had free time.

Steve Biko the most potent weapon of the oppressor

Basically, what I said was I am against transformation, diversity or integration because these concepts keep on being used as a cover for  retaining capitalist, white, heterosexist patriarchy under new masks. I am against transformation when it means you are the only black female or male the party, as Eric Miyeni might say. Why would anyone want to be the lonesome face of colour in a schoolroom, university lecture, department, boardroom, or sport team – unless she or he is buying into the argument that the person is seduced into feeling she or he is a special black, a black person without race, perhaps even more like whites? If you are content to be the black friend – which has an undertone of ‘not a real friend’ – that is fine; but don’t be fooled into believing that is integration or transformation. It is assimilation.

If transformation in effect sucks the life out of black conviviality, takes away from black originality, kills efforts to nourish and renew black cultures, then it is not transformation but an effort to surreptitiously breath life into the old structures.

Readers of New African Men will be familiar with my arguments. But 7 billion aren’t. I suspect I may have to repeat this, in different ways, to different audiences, until I get tired of doing so. Or make a song with Pharell, Nicky Minaj, or someobody else like that. Since it won’t happen, in the meantime I will work on and enlarge my arguments and refine them.

This is what I said at UWC:

 

Why I Am Against So-Called Transformation

 

I am against so-called integration, in schooling particular. But my worry about how we have come to do integration, or in its new iteration, transformation and diversity, extends to other spaces and institutions. Not in sexual love perhaps, as I have advised that

“young men and women should be encouraged to have good, ‘normal’, sexual intercourse at the earliest opportunity with a person of another race or ethnic group before they reach a certain age. This is not only in the interest of a much more comprehensive sexual education. It may be one way of attaining liberated masculinities [and femininities]. Most crucial, though, good interracial sex could have deep significance for reconstructing our national politics” (Ratele, 2004).

 

I still hold that position. However, that debate is a subject for a different audience. Biko, as far as I know, did not write about sexuality even though we know that sexuality are as political as race and culture which he wrote about. He also did not write about the politics of gender inequality even though, interestingly, he wrote about black men.

Today I would like to focus our attention on integration (or diversity or transformation, the terms often being used interchangeably in different settings). I want to make the case as to why integration has not been what we wanted. I have in the in mind but will not be able to address questions raised by the debates that started at the University of Cape Town regarding the low numbers of black professors that now have extended to other universities. These are questions of the meanings and articulations of integration of course – class, race, gender, sexual, bodily, and cultural integration. We need to keep them in mind.

I am against integration because black children and young people in so-called integrated schools tend to be in the minority, numerically, but more vitally culturally, and thus the notion of integration is a lie. What we have instead is assimilation at best and the reproduction of middle-class hetero-patriarchal whiteness.

I am against integration because these so-called integrated schools teach black boys and girls to admire white, capitalist, hetero-patriarchal ideas and to become schizoid about black wisdom, languages, pride, beauty and all the life-giving values they may have learned at home.

Nathaniel Steward, 17, recites his lesson surrounded by other bl

Because in these schools what is called ‘quality education’ is embedded in the very ideologies which reproduce the cultural superiority of hetero-patriarchal capitalist whiteness.

Because the cultural costs for handing over black boys and girls to schools that teach them to admire white, capitalist, hetero-patriarchal values, if subtle in any single lesson, over the long term are high and, like nyaope and crack-cocaine, destructive.

Because as a parent to a smart and happy black boy I would not want him to be an academic superstar and yet oppressive to others who are different from himself; it makes me terribly sad to see how others can make him unhappy because he is a smart happy black boy in a world that tends to criminalise and pathologise black boyhood.

Because no parent in her right mind would want a school that teaches her child that black cultures are inferior to white cultures, girls have fewer rights than boys, or homosexuality is a disease or sin.

Without completely undermining the positive efforts of individuals, groups and government to change the lives of specific individuals, groups or entire communities, I have not been able to get my mind away from the question of what do we envisage in talking racial integration; what are we transforming when we do racial transformation; to what end is racial diversity.

I have for a while now entertained several philosophical and political questions about launching projects and policies to change our society on the back of the prevalent idea of integration. Biko, as you know, had thought about the same issue back in 1970, and possibly before then.

The integration they talk about is first of all artificial in that it is a response to conscious manoeuvre rather than to the dictates of the inner soul. In other words the people forming the integrated complex have been extracted from various segregated societies with their inbuilt complexes of superiority and inferiority and these continue to manifest themselves even in the “non-racial” set-up of the integrated complex. As a result the integration so achieved is a one-way course, with the whites doing all the talking and the blacks the listening. Let me hasten to say that I am not claiming that segregation is necessarily the natural order; however, given the facts of the situation where a group experiences privilege at the expense of others, then it becomes obvious that a hastily arranged integration cannot be the solution to the problem. It is rather like expecting the slave to work together with the slave-master’s son to remove all the conditions leading to the former’s enslavement.

This is Biko in the piece “Black Souls in White Skins?”. Aelred Stubbs, the editor of Biko’s I Write What I Like, introduces the piece by saying,

At the 1st General Students Council of SASO (South African Students’ Organisation) in July 1970 Steve was succeeded as President by Barney Pityana. Steve was elected Chairman of SASO Publications. The following month the monthly SASO Newsletter began to appear carrying articles by himself called “I write what I like” and signed Frank Talk. At the Black People Convention/SASO Trial the Judge at one point interjected: “Isn’t (accused) number 9 [Strini Moodley] Frank Talk?” to which Steve replied. “No, no, he was never Frank Talk. I was Frank Talk” (see p. 108). This article and the one that follows, from the August and September 1970 issues of the Newsletter respectively, give an authentic exposition of the philosophy of Black Consciousness.

 Steve Biko book cover

It is my view that in chasing racial integration (or better, racialist integration, transformation or diversity) black people often end up losing more themselves ourselves, being sold short or selling themselves short, even hurting themselves again. Apartheid racism, like other forms of racism, did not only segregate white from black. It also created an internal segregation, a doubleness first noted by W.E.B. Du Bois, inside of black. Even though his concern was the black American, Du Bois’ observation could have been written for black South Africans:

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this 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. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

 

Whereas the dream of racialist integration often hurts black people, again, freedom from colonial and apartheid oppression is another matter. We wanted to be free of coloniality and apartheid racism. We wanted the power to self-determine. Freedom and power to control our lives which was taken away by white supremacist heteropatriarchal ideology are what we couldn’t live without, what we struggled for. The rights to live where we want and study and work, to question and choose and dream and love, those are some of the rights towards which the freedom struggle aspired.

Often what we get is something else, or something else in addition, something we may not have asked for. What we lose, what we lose as a society, like a loss of language, is difficult to measure, and near impossible to recover.

Biko asks:

Does this mean that I am against integration? If by integration you understand a breakthrough into white society by blacks, an assimilation and acceptance of blacks into an already established set of norms and code of behaviour set up by and maintained by whites, then YES I am against it. I am against the superior-inferior white-black stratification that makes the white a perpetual teacher and the black a perpetual pupil (and a poor one at that). I am against the intellectual arrogance of white people that makes them believe that white leadership is a sine qua non in this country and that whites are the divinely appointed pace-setters in progress. I am against the fact that a settler minority should impose an entire system of values on an indigenous people.

 

The tragedy – or perhaps the odd thing – is that sometimes many of us, or perhaps a few of us, are taking too long to realise what black people lose in prevailing models of integration, transformation and diversity, what with both politicians and capitalists telling us that all blacks need to make them happy is not all of that freedom and power to determine what they need, but rather to follow the all-knowing leaders or a nice pair of jeans.

I recall talking to a friend with money, B, a few years ago about why him and his friends did not go into property development and arrange so that the culture of the development would allow for a new conviviality, a less white set of values. It was an interesting conversation. In the end, it seems, the black upper- and middle-classes in the main move into previously white or still white neighbourhoods. Not into Nkandla (I always suspected Zuma was onto something, and that may be it), not into the old parts of the township, and not to the village. White suburbia was the future of the black person. (You may have noticed that the white upper- and middle-classes are not in a rush to move into black neighbourhoods. When they do, it gets front page headlines or a new name like ‘design district’ or ‘artisan precinct’.)

It may be necessary to remind ourselves that integration into a largely unchanged white neighbourhood, school, university, corporation or other institutions and spaces has been a mixed blessing – actually more mixed than blessing. Whiteness here signals not to how people look, but what they believe, to not their skin colour, but their cultural identification. Integration has mainly been at the expense of the development of black culture, its institutions and spaces. The kind of integration we have has the effect of turning people’s attention away from doing the work of rebuilding black convivial institutions and spaces. Convivial institutions and spaces, to be clear, refers those places that allow and facilitate

“autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment. I consider conviviality to be individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value.” (Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality, 6-7).

 

Convivial black institutions and spaces, and eventually a convivial society, will result from working on social and economic “arrangements that guarantee for each member the most ample and free access to the tools of the community and limit this freedom only in favor of another member’s equal freedom” (Illich, 7).

Toni Morrison has dramatised the problem of integration that depletes black cultures. She has been on my mind ever since I started to think of the failure to rebuild black conviviality – rebuilding while questioning. In Love, for instance, she writes about the losses brought by integration: “it’s like we started out being sold, got free of it, then sold ourselves to the highest bidder.”

Actually, she has written and spoken about it in several places. In fiction and essays and interviews. She has bothered herself quite a bit, and for while now, with what was lost during the Civil Rights Movement. It’s strange that I am only HEARING her now. Here she is on the subject in a somewhat famous essay, Rediscovering Black History, published in 1974 in the New York Times Magazine:

There is no need to be nostalgic about “the old days” because they weren’t…but to recognize and rescue those qualities of resistance, excellence and integrity that were so much a part of our past and so useful to us and to the generations of blacks, now growing up.

 

More recently, in a series of articles on Slate, Tanner Colby argues to the same effect. He says that left arguments on race may sound good in theory, but ‘many of them don’t hold up in the real world (Tanner Colby, Feb. 3 2014, The Massive Liberal Failure on Race: How the left’s embrace of busing hurt the cause of integration. Slate.). He writes that

five years ago, while fervently supporting the candidacy of the man who would become America’s first black president, I came to the realization that I didn’t actually know any black people. Most of the people I did know (i.e., other white people) didn’t know many black people either. One, maybe two, was the norm. I asked one white guy I knew if he had any black friends, and he replied, “You mean ones that aren’t on television?” I wanted to know why integration—actual, genuine integration—had failed so spectacularly.

 

And, he says,

“With the right being derelict, the left assumes stewardship of our new multiracial America by default. So there is an added responsibility to get it right, to purge outdated orthodoxies, admit past mistakes, and find real solutions that work. And if you’re going to look at where the left went wrong in repairing the sins of Jim Crow, you have to start at the beginning, with the squandering of the greatest liberal victory of all: the 1954 Supreme Court decision meant to put an end to segregated schools, Brown v. Board of Education.”

 

That applies to apartheid too, of course: we are squandering the victory over apartheid racism.

To argue for treasuring what we had beyond the clutches of racial laws, is not the same thing as saying apartheid times were the good old days. “In the legitimate and necessary drive for better jobs and housing,” as Morrison has said in the same essay, “we abandoned the past and a lot of the truth and sustenance that went with it. And when Civil Rights became Black Power, we frequently chose exoticism over reality”.

I emphasise sustenance and truth, because even if what we understood and used to nourish ourselves in the past were at times not quite forensic science, because it is what sustained us, it brought us here, didn’t it. There must be something good about that, whatever little it was.

In discussion on the subject of transformation and integration, representation is often confused with seeing bodies of different colours and genders and able-bodiedness. It may be that you find more diversity when you pay attention to what is happening in the same race, same sexuality, same gender, and same disability groups. This is an old argument. Often when a group is racial diverse, the focus is, ironically, on the ‘racefullness’ of the group. If there is conflict it ends up being about race when it might be about ten other things. Yet when parties in a same race group are in conflict, no one ever says anything about race (and racialisation in fact may be in play), and all the intrapsychic and interpersonal conflicts, because the histories of subjectification and all the human messiness that makes us into the kind of beings we are rise to the surface.

Our interest in accounts, policies and programmes of transformation, integration, or diversity ought to  start or end with the question: to what end? Fact is racially or sexually or gender mixed groups are not interesting in themselves. Many people are boring despite their class, or race, or gender, or sexuality, or disability. Worse, they can be downright nasty and violent.

I am against integration because I desire genuine integration. That is something we have not achieved yet; it is a culture towards which we need to work. Integration, or diversity, or transformation, it seems to me, should never be about black people being integrated into a white value system, as Biko said. Integration must be about the realisation of new self and group identities, a ‘mutuality of orgasms’ (as Chabani Manganyi [1973], said) between individual members, and the fertilisation of the integrated group as a whole.

Here, at the end, is Biko:

At the heart of true integration is the provision for each man, each group to rise and attain the envisioned self. Each group must be able to attain its style of existence without encroaching on or being thwarted by another. Out of this mutual respect for each other and complete freedom of self-determination there will obviously arise a genuine fusion of the life-styles of the various groups. This is true integration.

 

Is this not what we want?

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3 thoughts on “Why I am Against so-called Transformation

  1. Bhuti, please follow the story of Freedom’sKitchin. there are young people out there shaping new kinds of black convivial spaces. You would be proud of them

  2. Pingback: We need a united front of antiracist, feminist, decolonial, anticapitalist, queer, black scholars | New African Men

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