Back when I was almost black
Getting a taste of blackness and acceptance was a glorious thing, as I got the privilege to see the black perspective from the inside out.
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Once upon a time, I was an honorary black person.
I married a Xhosa woman from the Eastern Cape. It turned out she was sort of Amampondomise royalty, and had an enormous circle of celebrity friends. I, therefore, got to hang out with some of the coolest black people on the face of the earth. Literally.
In doing so, my Xhosa improved, and I got to the point where I could pretty much follow a conversation in vernac without too much trouble. I even built up an armoury of Xhosa phrases that I could drop into those conversations – as much for comic effect as anything else.
I also developed a better understanding of a black person’s perspective on life. Of course, I am completely white, so I could never really understand what it’s like to be black, but I got closer than I used to be.
Our child is black, so I had to try as hard as possible to understand the black perspective, because I will need to empathise and advise, as she makes her way through a society that is still dominated by white interests, indeed built to serve white people.
I developed a distaste for white entitlement and racism. I also became able to recognise it in myself, and I’ve been on a crusade to unlearn it ever since.
I got to hang out in black spaces, where I would often be the only white individual among dozens of black people. This is was the real privilege. I learned to just hold my tongue, listen and learn. The white gaze can ruin all kinds of occasions, so the best thing to do is just keep it low key.
“You’re five-to being black,” a woman said to me once, and I took it as a compliment, though I know that is impossible. I was and remain as white as driven snow, and that will always be the case. But for a while there, I was allowed into the black people’s club.
I gained an understanding that one battles to get any other way, I got to see the black perspective from the inside out. It wasn’t always pretty, or fun, because white people have a lot to answer for. You develop a bit of self-loathing, but it was leavened by the knowledge that I was down with the homies.
I was like the Johnny Clegg of Sandown Extension, in my mind. The Joe Slovo of those braais at that complex in Douglasdale. I got kinda smug about it, I won’t lie.
Then we got divorced.
Pretty soon, I reverted to being a standard white guy. All of a sudden, 90% of my friends were white. Shorn of my black sidekicks, other black people started to treat me as the middle-aged white man I in fact am. That privilege of association was gone.
Worst of all, there were still vestiges of my former attitude. I would try to speak Xhosa to black people. Gradually, that stock of Xhosa catchphrases began to dwindle, and I started painting myself into embarrassing linguistic corners.
That unstated acceptance that I am obviously not a racist because of all my black friends, my black wife… that is no longer there. I am white, and I will be judged by my actions.
It’s been a rude awakening.
The other day, my daughter and I spent two minutes trying to remember the Xhosa for shoes. We had to look it up on Google translate: iihlangu.
I’m a bit sad, because I don’t know if I’ll ever again be so fortunate as to be surrounded by black people, to have them pay me that ultimate compliment of just ignoring me and carrying on with their business.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of interesting people of other cultures. White people can be pretty cool too, when they’re not absolute assholes.
I also know that fetishising black people is somewhere in the same WhatsApp group as racism and bigotry. So I don’t really want to be consciously inserting myself into black spaces, as I once did.
The only real hope I can see for myself, is for society itself to transform to the point where black people take over each and every white space that ever existed, and it becomes impossible to find any more islands of whiteness. Where white people can be something like bit players, allies, or supporting cast.
Okay, it’ll probably be a while before that happens. But I’ve had a little glimpse of what that might be like, and it’ll be awesome.
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