To be or not to be a darkie

I decided I wasn’t going to blog about this, but somehow I’ve broken the promise to myself. The recent remark by Dr Blade Ndzimande about a darkie government and Lindiwe Mazibuko’s response has put political discourse at the centre of attention again together with the class conundrum and the effects it has for who can legitimately participate in politics.(http://www.mg.co.za/article/2011-02-16-darkies-and-coconuts-trends-in-parliament/)

I’m not going to talk about whether “darkie” is a derogatory word or not, or whether “Uncle Blade” was misguided in his response to Lindiwe and I’m not sure if I want to think about what this means for political discourse. What I do consider to be worrying is that the idea of being black enough is one we are still having...why do we care so much?

Young South Africans who have been educated at former white schools (private and public) and might have moved to the suburbs have been at the brunt of the identity crises in South Africa. I will use myself as an example: the first time I heard the word “coconut” was in passing, in town from yet another boy I wasn’t interested in talking to while walking home. Usually these boys had always retorted with “Yu,awusazenzi bhetere nje!” (You think you’re better). A friend of mine who was staying in the township kindly explained that this was the new concept used to describe someone who was black on the outside and white on the inside (but according Fred Khumalo’s latest article it also refers to a self-loathing black person who sees white people as a standard of success, goodness etc http://www.timeslive.co.za/opinion/columnists/article923808.ece/Shedding-light-on-us-darkies). I was blank because we (my friends at school and my neighbours) all agreed that we had the same colour blood running through our veins. What has always been interesting for me about the word coconut is that those who were accused of being coconuts never came up with the word yet we are always upset when people refer to us (some of my friends and I) as coconuts. We were told who we were and we got carried away with the term accusing those who weren’t coconuts as “ghetto...crusty...riff raff”. The war of words reflected one of the sicknesses about human nature: that we think we have the right to put others in a box and treat them the way we want to treat them rather than what they deserve.

What’s always interesting for me is that over the years, apparent “coconuts” have willy nilly accepted the term and used it to make sense of the identity shift taking place with a new subculture emerging amongst black people. If we all accept that identity is not fixed and changes because of an array of often complex reasons, why is it that when black people embrace the changes in their lives and try to form new meanings, it is turned into a war about “my accent is better than yours” rather than simply accepting that there are changes that we cannot make sense of. The idea of being black enough has always been about somebody else deciding for me if I am black enough as though that were the most important part of who I am as an individual. I began to worry when I was upset if someone called me a coconut...so what if that’s what they choose to see me as when I meet them? I am not my skin the same way I am not hair.
Someone asked me simple question that helped me understand the race (and often class) conundrum: What do you think of yourself first thing in the morning? Recently I have been thinking “oh shit the Masters...am I going to wake up today?” or “really? I’m waking up alone on a single bed, again?” or “damn it! I’m 24, I should be getting a job and medical aid”. I don’t remember ever thinking “I am a coconut”. I’m not sure if I’m trying to make a point of anything, but the coconut conversation really ought not to be our biggest problem in South Africa-so what if Lindiwe Mazibuko didn’t grow up in the township? The point is she’s adding value to her country by choosing to be part of making changes (however dubious the DA can be). And so what if “Uncle Blade” did grow up in the township? That’s his reality and consequences of apartheid first hand. The truth is they have something in common, they are human, and I hope they can agree on that.

Comments

  1. Hi Atha, great blog! Have so enjoyed writing my own I am always fascinated to see what others have to say. I read the novel "Coconut" (by Kopano Matlwa) the other day and was blown away. You should give it a read: it makes the whole "Coconut" argument that much more complex. Hope all well with you. xx Clea

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  2. Nomalanga here -

    I promise myself I'd skip this debate too but here I am.

    I remember the word darkie making me uncomfortable when I was in high school because it tended to be used by snobbish blacks. They used it to make condescending statements about other blacks.

    But then it was also used a generic term for referring to black people, especially when we're talking about ourselves to ourselves.

    I've never used the term because I find it awkward. But it isn't offensive to black people.


    I'm a little uncertain as to why Blade's comment drew censure, but I guess, in parliament, it can get a little dicey.

    However in the context of his sarcasm, using the word it makes sense.

    I was also annoyed with the whole Umalusi conspiracy theories nonsense.
    What Blade was saying was true.
    I couldn't figure out what people were thinking - were they really implying that our top mathematicians, most of whom are independent scholars sat around a table and decided to deliberately distort the pass rate to make Motshekga look good.

    I mean, what made this year different from others.
    Kids are always failing in this country.
    It was so easy for the accusation, especially from self-hating blacks like Jansen, to come.
    And I was like - Hello, the pass mark is 30%, of course more kids passed and most dont have to do Maths and the markers are getting more and more lenient, kids dont even have to spell correctly anymore, that's where the problem is.

    Blade was right. This reactionary crap in this country is so giddam tiring. I can hear the exasperation in his words.

    And its like the further we get away from 1994, the strong white reactionary sentiments get. There's this need to equate black people's usage of racial terms with white racism.

    It's actually really tiring.

    In the context of this exasperation, I can see why Blade got sarcastic. Of course, he should have apologised to parliament because that is not a casual forum.

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  3. I could write a very long defence of the word coconut.

    Of course, it will be used by people to delegitimise other people's opinions. But then again, being a coconut is not accident of birth.

    What about white parents who have black kids. Kids shouldn't have to pay for their upbringing. But I also challenge white parents who want to pretend their kids don't live in a world hostile to their blackness.
    It is a type of denialism.

    Particularly since, no matter how much I wanted to, I doubt I would ever be allowed to adopt a white child, since this world says a child should grow up in its 'ethnic' group, and yet, black kids grow up fine in white society. It's just plain denialism.

    White parents with black kids should themselves endeavour to integrate THEMSELVES first and then their children into a very equal social setting.

    But some people want to be patted on the back and pretend that their whiteness in itself was not a privilege that allowed them to adopt that black child.

    Those black kids must be brought up with a much social integration as possible, like white kids who play with black children in the townships. Those white kids are just different, they are just socially balanced.
    They dont care if they have black accents, they are the most visible sign that social distance is breaking.


    So uppity niggas will always get it.

    This doesn't mean every black with a white accent is uppity.

    But I ask again, if having a black accent was the gateway to social acceptance at school and in that particular white economic milieu, would I sound so white?

    No, the adoption of a white accent by black kids has to do with trying to be socially acceptable in white schools. Hence, many actually lost same accent suddenly after school.

    Actually, I remember changing my accent in Std. 6 but never getting it right. I always said SE-KAM-STE-NSIZ. But my friends kept saying, no no SUR-CUM-STA-NCES

    Obviously, I'm staking a position. Life is a lot more subtle than i put but I have yet to read a defence of the term coconut and its use to mock today's Model C/ private school blacks.

    SOCIAL FACT - YOUR accent and mannerism are a social passport in this country. For the good or the bad.

    it's the tucking the hair behin dthe ear crap.

    Lately i've been flicking my dreads from my forehead, they're actually in the way because i can't tie them, but i also know that this has to do with television Pentene ads, subconciously.

    And typical white south africans wouldnt know the difference because they aren't exposed to much that is socially different from them, so they could be like "oh its just flicking your hair"

    Yeah right.

    Its like my friend said when i told her i was about to go film the surfing thing for the tv show,

    "Eish, please dont embarrass us when you come out of the water by wiping the water off your face with one hand in a circular motion over your face and to your lips the way darkies do."


    i laughed.

    coz the more elegant way to do it of course, is to wipe the water off my face by putting both palms on my face and then moving my hands sideways, like a Ponds ad.

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  4. Don't get me wrong - the term is rude, presumptuous and condescending.

    But that is exactly the point.

    Mockery alienates, but it equalises.

    Blacks who get far because they can mimic whiteness deserve a label by those who can't get far because they are 'too black'

    Of course the other dimension to coconutness - it is when blacks educated blacks continue to mimic whiteness to get somewhere but ALSO posture blackness to be seen as cool.

    But in reality, these blacks dont know sht about black lives, but they wind up speaking for the black experience simply because they have access to a media world that tends to privilege the voice of blacks who are middle-class.

    The other black performance is that of the JZ type - where you perform your blackness so excessively because you actually feel you may have lost it. that's equally annoying.

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  5. I've found myself constantly having to prove my "blackness"...

    I'm currently doing my masters, and with my research alone, i can say i have done something for the world, but that is not enough. Not by my own peoples standards. I must speak some sort of vernacular to really prove that i am someone.

    I always want to tell people, look at the murderer in prison, he speaks perfect vernacualr, but yet you sit here and judge me as if i too am a criminal "how dare i not speak my mother tounge fluently, am i not ashamed, am i not black?" they tend to ask...

    Like i said, i'm tired. One day i'll snap. One day i'll say that to them, "has your skin colour made you a better person than me?". Not hang my head in shame for not being "black enough"...

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  6. wow,anonymous...thanks for sharing,i feel your sentiments and share some of your frustrations.the truth is though we ought to know we are sufficient as we are,twanging accents and all and suprisingly we have a place in the new south africa.i personally don't feel the need to convince others of that anymore...i'm wary of making the mistake that when people criticise my lack of blackness they are criticising me as a person.essentially they are also exposing their insecurities because they need to jeer at others in order for them to feel they have a place in the world...i just don't get it...

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  7. I might be late for the "debate", but none the less this reminds me of how I got my education. I grew up in a rural area called kwaNongidi, but I never went to school there. From pre-school I went to those previously Indian/Multi-Racial School. Most of the 'stuff' we were taught or did or engaged in or we were 'fed' confused me. I was confused because I didn't know where I ("I" being where I come from) fitted. I rebelled in everything that I was taught in school because it was different from where I had to go home to. Yes, I was ridiculed as umXhosa amongst amaZulu although my mum was umZulu, but mostly because I went to "those schools". There was nothing fancy about my school it was just that it had a platform of competing with "white-schools". Needless to say although many of my peers spoke English mostly and with a "twang", I resented them I didn't play with them to an extent that I use to beat up my sister for singing along to English songs. I befriended people who came from the same background or acted with no 'white substance'. In order to be accepted I made sure I had no "twang" in my English up until now. Am I not a coconut? I could say it depends whether I am with my schoolmates or with my people. It pains me to realise that the same people I loathed back then are not what I thought they were. They have the same ideas of black progress, although they may seem to think lightly about the subject because of the easier fit in the system. It's not about uDarkie or iCoconut, but about one feeling undone by his or her education and one feeling better than the other because of ones education. It may be instinctive to think of someone with a "twang" as being more intelligent primarily because of the class stigma, sadly knowledge has nothing to do with the way you talk, but the passion you have to seek it. It's a shame that we allow this class wedge to destroy our unity.

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