This is a difficult post to write. Partly because I haven’t written a stream-of-consciousness-type post like this in such a long time, and partly because it requires admitting some less than palatable truths to myself: I have witnessed myself becoming governable.
I probably wouldn’t have caught myself falling down this rabbit hole had I not physically removed myself from the bubble that is my so-called institution of higher learning for a solid 72 hours. This school has been one of the best things to happen to me – distinguished faculty, renowned degree, etc. But it has also had some of the most unexpectedly pernicious effects on not just me, but on people I care about. I’ve watched friends get sucked up by a system that does not care about them and would spit them back out at the first convenience. I’ve watched the revolutionary black men that I hopped on a plane with, with the intent to disrupt Western peace and cause a ruckus, abandon the black women that have been holding them down since they got here for the comfort of white spaces – or as A Tribe Called Quest put it, “time is running out on black power Africans in the day and white thigh supporters at night//every time you see them they’re chasing some white woman with their tongues hanging out”. And then there’s me. I’ve watched myself get diluted. I’ve watched myself turn into a shadow of my true essence, and I literally didn’t notice until I was physically removed.
That, is terrifying.
There’s the story you’ve undoubtedly heard somewhere before – I, like countless black women, have continued to protect black men. Even black men who honestly care more about what I can do FOR them than about the person, because I’m a caregiver. It’s my biggest strength AND my biggest weakness. I’ve allowed myself to fall into the Work Mule role of the black woman, and with that have allowed “community” to take precedence over my own boundaries and my own health. I’ve allowed threats of violence to make me less vocal in public spaces and I’ve allowed myself to stray away from writing about things I’m passionate about for fear of the age-old Hotep. And the worst part is – this is nothing. Though undoubtedly unacceptable, there is nothing here that I did not expect. For me, the most shocking thing has been the white folk that I’ve found myself adjusting for. I, smart-mouthed and sharp-tongued, I, Bukiwe *insert-my-7-middle-names-here* Sihlongonyane, have found myself moving out of the way for whiteness (and I mean this both metaphorically and literally – looking at you frat boy who shoved me out of the KAF line last week).
WHEN DID THIS HAPPEN?
This place has made me hyper-aware of whiteness even though I didn’t grow up in a racialised society in the way it is in this country. As Feminista Jones so succinctly phrased it – white people take up a lot of fucking space. And even though I notoriously give nary a single solitary fuck about hurt white feelings and am known to have dangerously little patience for anything even vaguely hinting at white supremacy, I’ve internalised racism (and misogynoir) in the most frightfully subtle ways. I’ve allowed micro-aggressions to convince me that I don’t actually want to walk out of my room with my baby afro out. I’ve allowed professors (remember that distinguished faculty we spoke about earlier?) to treat me less-than because they assume I, as a relatively money-less black African woman, can’t possibly be as intelligent as my peers (I must have used juju to get into this damn school in the first place then huh?). I’ve allowed loud, strategically-placed debates about affirmative action in the Hinman line (by white women no less… lol) to make me doubt my own capabilities. I always assumed that my upbringing and my UWC education would make me immune to any kind of inferiority complexes, but I’ve caught myself folding inwards – speaking softer, with less of an “accent”, not calling out bullshit (like that professor who spent hours trying to convince me that Africans have smaller brains, until I eventually gave up… who trains these people?!), and not bothering to protest when these people insist on pretending they don’t know what the words “excuse me” mean.
I’ve caught my subconscious assimilating.
And the thing that people don’t understand, is that mental health is a Real. Thing. You know there has to be a very, very deeply ingrained problem when nearly every woman of colour you know has some kind of mental health battle they’re going through. This is not a coincidence. Elite institutions of higher education, especially ones kept running by racist systems, are attempting to turn us into soul-less productivity machines, and resistance is physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually taxing. It requires constant screening -“am I still here? are my people still here with me? surviving? pushing back?” And sometimes the answer to that question is no. Because God forbid you slip up and forget to maintain that 4.0. Giving in to the system can be so much smoother on the soul sometimes, and so I caught myself becoming governable. But 72 hours of warm weather (shaarats to San Fransisco) and the aura of hundreds of magical black womyn later, I’m reminded of how important it is to transcend the image these spaces are trying to feed us of ourselves. I’m reminded that we’re more than just the productivity these spaces demand of us, or the multitude of “a real woman is”s that the patriarchal gaze has consistently tried to project onto us. And, arguably most importantly, I’m reminded (and I’m here to remind you just in case you’d forgotten and seem to think it’s okay to try me) – that I really, truly am not the one.
Photo-Cred: Sandile Dube.