Athambile Masola
Athambile Masola

A Biko moment

I’ve been having a Biko moment for a while now. A “Biko [1] moment” is that moment when someone says something racist but I’m left wondering if I’m reading too much into the situation. That moment when I have to debate in mind if I feel welcome in a space because there’s an atmosphere of exclusion, but there are no words or signs declaring the exclusion. This Biko moment has been a prolonged one; probably since I moved to Cape Town.

So, a few days ago I made a mental list: “Things I wish some white people could be aware of.” I was troubled by it mostly because it came from a place of frustration and mostly because I’m trying to be that black who actually doesn’t care about whiteness. I’m supposed to be post-race. I am brim-full with my Eurocentric, white supremacist education so most days I think of race as a performance the same way that gender is a performance. I grew up scrambling everyone’s brains because I decided to major in English and I’m an English teacher. I understand the Englishness in my everyday life. The problem is though, I can’t bear that the same questions I had in 1994, when my family moved to the suburbs and I went to a former white school, are the same questions exactly 20 years later.

Surely I should have dealt with this Biko moment when I was in grade one in 1994, right?

But here it is, things I wish some white people could be aware of:

1. Don’t make “black jokes”. Ever!

2. Don’t tell me you speak isiXhosa but when I speak to you in isiXhosa you can’t get past the greetings (and you tell me you’ve been trying for years. Really?)

3. If I introduce myself as Athambile, don’t ask me if I have another name that’s easy to pronounce because you’re not good with remembering names (I don’t even have a click in my name). Also, please spell my name correctly.

4. When I walk into the room, I am not the spokesperson of my village, tribe, clan or race. I like being an individual most of the time.

5. Don’t speak “black” and then laugh out loud ie don’t put on Julius Malema’s accent to make a joke. And don’t laugh when I choose to code switch.

6. Stop being enamoured with my hair. I’m not a monkey in a zoo.

7. Don’t ask me to be your “black friend”. It’s not my fault you don’t have enough black people in your life. Just don’t talk to me rather.

8. Don’t think I’m writing this list on behalf of black people; I’m not.

9. Don’t do a retake of Trevor Noah’s jokes; you might just get it wrong and I’m left wondering if you’re racist.

10. When you have a misunderstanding with another black person, don’t ask me to speak to them on your behalf and then tell me “you’re not like other black people”. Because in that moment, you lose me.

11. Please don’t tell me apartheid didn’t affect me because we went to the same school. I inherited my grandmother’s pass book (literally) and you probably got a car or a house or a trust fund when your gran passed away.

12. Please tell other white people when they are being racist. It is not my responsibility to talk about racism.

13. I don’t fully understand “white guilt” (the same way some white people “don’t get” ancestral worship). I’m especially uncomfortable when you talk about “white guilt” and hijack a conversation when black people are trying to address the real issue of white supremacy.

14. Stop gushing “your parents must be so proud” when you discover where I studied and how far I studied in university. I got an education; end of story.

15. When you diss affirmative action and I’m in the room, it’s really awkward.

16. When talking about poor people, don’t use the word “them/they” then look at me awkwardly to check if I’m okay with that. It’s not okay.

17. And no, there’s no such thing as reverse racism when we talk about employment equity.

18. I get really uncomfortable when you talk about being raised by your “black nanny”. Who was raising her children?

19. Don’t be surprised when I tell you I don’t have a holiday house.

20. Being African is not a fetish. It’s not something you can wear or eat or listen to.

21. Just because we went to school together doesn’t mean we “grew up together”. Did our mothers have tea while we played with Barbie in my backyard? Have you ever been for a play date in Mdantsane [2]? The answer is no, so we didn’t grow up together. And that’s okay.

22. Don’t correct me if I mix up “he/she” when I speak because from the context you probably know what I mean. Also, don’t be so judgmental about how multilinguals speak English. We juggle many language rules in our heads. And that’s normal.

The problem with a list like this is that racist vitriol is sure to follow and I will be accused of being racist. I’m not racist. Nor am I an angry, black woman. And if I were an angry, black woman, I think I would be justified. There’s a lot to be angry about in South Africa.


[1] A reference to Steve Biko whose writing is responsible for my understanding of race relations; especially in the new South Africa.

[2] Mdantsane is a township in the Eastern Cape. Where I grew up before we moved to the suburbs.

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