“In common with many Bombay-raised middle-class children of my generation, I grew up with an intimate knowledge of, and even sense of friendship with, a certain kind of England: a dream England composed of Test Matches at Lord’s presided over by the voice of John Arlott, at which Freddie Trueman bowled unceasingly and without success at Polly Umrigar; of Enid Blyton and Billy Bunter … I wanted to come to England.
I couldn’t wait. And to be fair England had done alright by me; but I find it a little difficult to be properly grateful. I can’t escape the view that my relatively easy ride is not the result of the dream-England’s famous sense of tolerance and fair play, but of my social class, my freak fair skin and my ‘English’ English accent. Take away any of these, and the story would have been very different. Because of course the dream-England is no more than a dream.”
These are Salman Rushdie’s words from his 1982 essay “Imaginary Homelands” where he discusses many questions and among them the question of the identities of writers who find themselves in another country and feelings of estrangement. He wrote the essay in response to people’s views about his novel Midnight’s Children, which he wrote while in England. The extract above captures my sense of being in South Africa over the past 21 years. Unlike Rushdie I am not in another country grappling with an identity complex of being in another place. I am however oscillating between my working-class childhood in a black community and my middle-class adulthood in a mostly white community. To borrow Rushdie’s words:
Like most black kids who went to school in the suburbs, I grew up with an intimate knowledge of, and even a sense of friendship with a certain white community: a dream white community composed of rugby matches at Selborne College presided over by the hum of war cries by the boys, at which (insert rival boys school here) scored tries unceasingly; of Enid Blyton and Walt Disney movies … I wanted to be a part of the white community.
I couldn’t wait. And to be fair, white people had done alright by me; but I find it a little difficult to be properly grateful. I can’t escape the view that my relatively easy ride is not the result of dream white community’s famous sense of tolerance and fair play, but of my social class, my freak fair skin (and relaxed hair) and my ‘English’ English accent. Take away any of these and the story would have been different. Because of course the dream white community is no more than a dream.
The extract has helped me understand the assimilation and double consciousness that many black people have written about and experienced while grappling with their existence in a world that privileges whiteness (and to some extent Englishness the way Tsitsi Dangarembga writes about in Nervous Conditions). In the South African context this has largely been a result of black people being educated in institutions where whiteness and white privilege is sine qua non and unquestioned. At some point, the penny drops — the moment of consciousness happens — and the black person realises that something is amiss, that moment of not being “properly grateful”.
A few months ago the Ruth First Lecture at Wits university held the attention of those who are interested in talking about race in South Africa. Panashe Chigumadzi, Sisonke Msimang and Lebo Mashile spoke about race. Panashe’s piece was titled “Of Coconuts, Consciousness and Cecil John Rhodes: Disillusionment and disavowals of the Rainbow Nation”. The ideas centred on a new generation of black people who were experiencing racism in different ways because they intimately understood whiteness and for a spell had assimilated into whiteness because of the schools they attended and in the name of integration. But while dipping in and out of the white community they began to see the faultlines.
A quote from Panashe’s speech:
“It is these very Coconuts that have been increasingly disillusioned by and have pushed back against the notion of the Rainbow Nation. We were a conduit for the country’s absolution from the real work of reconciliation as we were shipped off, Woolies skhaftins in tow, to the likes of Pretoria Girls High and Michael House. Yet, it is this very generation, supposedly robed in the privileges of democracy, that is now ‘behaving badly’ and ‘militantly’. Instead of becoming the trusted go-betweens between black and white, we are turning to conceptions of blackness and mobilising anger at the very concept of the Rainbow Nation. The fantasy of a ‘colour-blind’, ‘post-race’ South Africa has been projected onto us Coconuts, but our lived experiences are far from free of racism.”
It may have been as a result of reading Steve Biko or witnessing white friends say offensive things on Facebook. Or it may have been feeling a sense of doubt because of affirmative action and having to justify taking the job to their white friends who talk about “reverse racism”.
I’m sure Rushdie wouldn’t approve of me equating the experience of being black in South Africa with his experience as a person of colour in England. And that’s particularly the problem: many black people do not experience certain spaces with the ease and comfort one ought to in their own country. To avoid speaking on behalf of my entire race: as a black person I have often felt like if I perform a blackness that makes white people comfortable (ie assimilate). I feel like a performer. I feel like I will be caught out and cast out as “one of those black people”.
At some point in my interactions with white people I have often been complimented “you’re not like other black people” and I have been left to decipher the subtext for myself because what does it mean to be “other black people”? I’ve spent most of my adult life juggling these compliments and having to decide how to respond to white people who haven’t questioned their white privilege because they have black friends who went to the same school and speak English with the same accent.
I don’t have any grand solutions because racism doesn’t work with grand solutions (the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was an example of a grand solution and many feel it’s unfinished business). I’m not convinced that coconuts alone will save South Africa from racism because racism is intertwined with other aspects of who we are like gender and class. As Rushdie points out “take away any of these [the accent, class, education and skin colour] and the story would have been different”.
When I share my experiences with my mother she often reminds me that unlike white people, I don’t have a date of arrival (on this continent) the same way white people do therefore I shouldn’t be apologetic about questioning whiteness and white privilege.
Unfortunately the nature of racism means that very few white people are willing to engage with white privilege. It often feels like it’s a one-way conversation and black people are angry because they are
“inherently angry” and white people are the “victims”.
 Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, 1982
 The boys’ school in East London where I grew up.