Gcobani Qambela
Gcobani Qambela

Blackface, Khaya Dlanga and why we can’t disentangle sexism from racism

Speaking recently at Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism in Cape Town, iconic political activist and scholar Angela Davis in her talk “Anti-Racism: Transnational Solidarities” remarked that “black unity” is often a term that never fits the lived reality of many black people. She made an example of how in the “black power” movements in the US, “black power” often ended up merely denoting power for only black men, while black women had no space to participate in this “black power”. Davis urged us to connect struggles against racism to other struggles especially gender, sexuality, class and so on. Achille Mbembe, who introduced Davis, observed that one of the most important lessons from Davis is that theorising without praxis is not good, and that we should see ourselves as we are, and not as we ought to be.

I was reminded of Davis’s talk as I read the latest contribution by Khaya Dlanga to the Mail & Guardian where he laments the responses of people to the #blackface controversy. Dlanga remarks that “You would think that someone who goes to university, like the two students who dressed in blackface would be self-aware and knowledgeable enough to understand that certain things are just unacceptable.” What interests me about Dlanga is not the shallow analysis of the blackface incident, more than the ways in which his article shows how many black men still cannot connect struggles against racism to broader struggles — gender, sexuality and class. While it seems at first sight that Dlanga is anti-racism in general, a closer inspection of his work — his praxis, reveals a black man deeply committed to anti-black racism that is targeted at black women, while privileging primarily black men.

In another recent column, “I don’t want to be a fetish” — sex and race in SA, Dlanga starts off sharing a story about his black male friend who told him to write a column about how he (the friend) has ended up dating white women as he struggles “to get with black women in South Africa”. This friend, according to Dlanga, went to elite schools and has not been exposed to many black people. He says this friend has not been able to crack “the black code” and so Dlanga took it upon himself to teach him phrases such as “towning”, “yellow bone”, “eziwey” among other misogynoirist terms.

The first thing I noted in reading this column was the ways in which according to Dlanga, for a person to be able to get the “black code” to date black women, then they have to participate in misogynoir. All these phrases he teaches his friend are not everyday terms or even acceptable. Dlanga explains “towning” to mean “having sex without a condom”, “eziwey” is a derogatory way of referring to women as “these things” and lastly “yellow bone” plays into colourism politics where people of the same race are treated different based solely on skin colour.

Terms like “yellow bone”, like blackface, are deeply wounding and are directly tied and embedded in colonialism and the dehumanisation of black people. In African Masculinities: Men in Africa from the Late Nineteenth Century to the Present, Lahoucine Ouzgane and Robert Morrell note that European historians, drawing on earlier work of ethnologists would glorify the achievements of the Egyptians “while tacitly or explicitly negating the history of non-Egyptians”. They note that “one way of doing this was to develop derogatory terms for peoples deemed to have been part of ancient civilisations. Another way was to credit lighter-skinned inhabitants of the continent with more intelligence than darker-skinned people and to attribute to them the credit for African civilisation”.

bell hooks in Black Looks: Race and Representation notes that there are direct links between the persistence of white supremacist patriarchy and the institutionalisation of certain representations of blackness “that support and maintain the oppression, exploitation, and overall domination of all black people”. It is this fashion that Yaba Amgborale Blay notes in “Skin Bleaching and Global White Supremacy: By Way of Introduction” that “colourism constructs a spectrum upon which individuals attempt to circumnavigate the parameters of the white/non-white binary racial hierarchy by instead assigning and assuming colour privilege based upon proximity to Whiteness”.

Dlanga has a very serious misogynoir problem, whether he is calling black women “yellow bone”, “side-chicks” or blaming them for male violence — he seems intent to use his public space to denigrate black women. Moreover, that he’s made “towning” fashionable in a context like South Africa where black women are the most affected by HIV is its own unspeakable violence nje. His favourite term of “eziwey” is demonstrative of how he sees black women — as things. Like those two white girls at the University of Pretoria it’s worrying how a man like Dlanga can’t see his misogynoir.

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