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  • Writer's pictureColleen van Niekerk


Updated: May 4, 2021

When I was growing up in South Africa during the nineties, one of the most widely-spread images of an African in the media, was a vulture standing beside a malnourished toddler in Sudan. A victim of famine, a small life on the brink. Under the virulent apartheid that governed my own country, another well-documented image was that of Hector Pieterson, a schoolboy from Soweto, murdered by apartheid’s trigger-happy and largely white police force. In the photo his body is being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubu, whose expression, to this day, remains beyond words.

Black trauma, vicious and visible, has been a part of the way the world sees BIPOC people, and how we see ourselves, how we have been told to live, for decades: a man has the very essence of him strangled away beneath another man’s knee, white police officers drag a man named Rodney King out of his car and beat him mercilessly, the Canadian police and military forces are deployed against First Nations in the Oka crisis. Rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat.

What I was taught growing up under a white supremacist regime was that those images and that lived reality of the hungry and the hunted was an inevitable consequence of being Black, a result somehow of our moral failing to be white. Redemption lay in more closely approximating whiteness, and our expected role was to perform, to accommodate, acquiesce and always, always to know our place.

While we have fussed over the straightness of our hair and the toning down of who we are, around us white people have stumbled around unable to pronounce our names, or remember them, dismissing our languages and accents, confusing us with other Black people, speaking and living over top of us while paying and promoting us far, far less than we’re worth. If the person of colour is an immigrant as I am, there’s the added conundrum of the geography of your native land (“South Africa is a country?”). If you’re not an immigrant, you might catch them gasping with incredulity as they say “Oh you’re from here?”.

Entertain us, be exotic for us, comfort and cajole us, is what we were told, while the scars we carry, the complex histories and the full rounded humanity of who we are, is something we were told to flatten. The BIPOC life through white eyes has always felt like it was meant to be one of indignity but never indignation, for anger was not permissible without consequence. But the work that those who are in power, that those who are white have, is to understand that this is the tension that we have lived in, been born into, that our parents have lived with all of their lives: whiteness at the centre and our worth, our very survival, gauged by proximity to that centre. That has to go.

Dignity, the kind of dignity that comes with being a whole person with all the freedoms and rights that any white person has, was not something we were entitled to by default, but an aspiration.

Here’s my fear with the groundswell that appears to make this moment in history different to those other times: I don’t want this to also be about performance, about those who neither truly understand the scale of institutional, systemic racism, nor have a grasp of the work that comes with a commitment to remedy it, giving us empty platitudes. I don’t want this to be about the representation of Black trauma once again, as a means to assuage white guilt or elicit white charity. This is our lives, everyday, everywhere. We have routinely been told to accept less, that our grace and dignity doesn’t come from self-actualization but from how well we handle the misfortune of our skin tone, and the circling vultures.

The only work that matters is not the work of apology and mea culpa, of head-scratching and hand-holding. It’s how actively, how courageously undoinging and rebuilding is being done, within each of us and around us. Words harm, but ultimately different words are not enough to precipitate change. Not taking meaningful action risks taking us back to Black trauma as a display that reduces Black people, that dismisses our humanity entirely. We have seen that newsreel before.

As a person of colour, who is deciding how you live, where you live and under what conditions both economically and politically? Are people of colour in positions of power in your community? Why not? What is required to enable that? That is the work, the often mundane, exhausting work that ultimately is where justice truly lies. But this should also be an act of awakening by the white populace that involves them actively making room at the table, reconfiguring where everyone sits, being quiet so that they listen better, as opposed to consistently telling the help to go sit in the kitchen while they solve the problem. And that is not as easy as marching, not as easy as making a placard, claiming ignorance, asserting corporate commitments that, like wind and tweets, come and go. We default to white power in so many settings because we have seen so little of any other kind, not because those two things, those two words, have any kind of special relationship.

Those of us who are BIPOC didn’t become that three weeks ago. We’ve been in this skin, bearing it, all of our lives. Change has to come, not only for the sake of the dead but for the sake of the living. If it can’t in this moment, then when will it ?

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