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The black double agents among us

By Tshepo Mogotsi

“You speak English so well, where did you go to school?” That could easily rank in the top five annoying questions asked to products of the “Model C” system. And when I answer “Hillview High” (a name that has never and will never feature in any Easter Rugby tournament) a dense cloud of awkwardness and confusion invariably descends on the conversation.

The thought that someone could find a black person’s more-than-decent grasp of the Queen’s language perplexing, leaves me rather perplexed. It’s as if the result of this decades-long move towards integration was supposed to be something other than what it turned out to be. What I also find curious is the privilege that draping my words in a “Model C accent” affords me. It grants me audiences with people of influence when I know, for a fact, that the people who most deserve such opportunities, are those who enunciate with a little more fervour than is comfortable and whose English doesn’t come out of their nose. It also serves as incontrovertible indication that I’m well-versed in the nuanced grammar of “whiteness”, that I’m safe to be around, that I’m not about to pull a red beret out of my back pocket any time soon.

However, should I require anything from a sales assistant/cashier/official with a skin tone of similar hue to mine, I’d do well to put that accent away if I’m to progress in my endeavour without evoking derision. My recent move to the republic of the Western Cape has made this a rather challenging feat, as my handle on the isiXhosa language can only be likened to Miley Cyrus’s handle on the concept (and mechanics) of twerking: comical at best, cringeworthy at worst. So I’ll usually open an exchange in Setswana and they respond in isiXhosa, which sometimes backfires because I’ll be called out for being too hard-headed to learn the language.

The ability to emulate a duality of cultures, as and when convenient, is as beneficial as it is crippling. I was recently reminded of this on the day of the commemoration of Steve Biko’s death, simply because of my glaring lack of knowledge on the subject of Black Consciousness. I’ve spent the majority of my life choosing to camouflage my blackness because I was very aware of how well I blended in and how far I got when I did so. It wasn’t until I was in the middle of a discussion about the significance of the #KnowYourDA campaign that I realised that not only my speech but also my reasoning mirrored that of middle-class white people. Perhaps it’s because we realise how precarious our social standing is, or how volatile the social currency of speaking whiteness when you’re not white, but me and those like me have, for the longest time, ignored the warnings of our peers to “emancipate [ourselves] from mental slavery”.

The fact that only black people can create the space required to self-define, means we (both black and non-black people) need to get comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable, it means privileged, middle-class black folk will have to confront and interrogate their thinking and ultimately, it means non-black people need to listen. Not justify, not think of comebacks, just listen.

Anybody who’s not black would, in all likelihood, be baffled at the need to disguise one’s blackness, as they’ve never had to appropriate a culture that isn’t their own. Just think of one black person you know who speaks “really well” and ask yourself how your relationship with them would have been different if they didn’t.

Tshepo Mogotsi is a marketing professional, husband and connoisseur of fine hand creams.