– Ndapwa Alweendo
It was difficult for me to decide who my imagined reader was when I sat down to write this piece. Do I speak to other black people and possibly just encourage them to relive some of the traumas of whiteness with me? Or do I join the seemingly endless number of black people who repeatedly experience the indignity of justifying their own existence?
In deciding what our collaboration would look like, Ethne Mudge and I discussed how her presence in this conversation would likely attract a subset of white readers who need to hear facts from a white person before acknowledging it. I know a lot of those white people.
I don’t want to talk to them.
And yet, there are other white people who perform allyship in a way that requires comment. There is a certain kind of white person, perhaps the same person that Ethne is speaking to, who believes that they are already doing a great job to dismantle racism in society. They know the right slang, they give to charitable foundations, they help the black people that clean their house and maintain their gardens. Maybe they played some role in the liberation struggle. Whatever it is they’ve done, they want you to know it.
These are the kind of white people that seem baffled when confronted with anger about racism that’s still happening. They claim to understand that racism is present and affects black people, but are uncomfortable with this very reasonable response to marginalisation. In my experience, it’s because there is this unspoken assumption that they are, at the very least, better than their white predecessors. White people are living in a society where the constitution protects Namibians from racial discrimination, they share public spaces with black people with minimal complaint, they send their kids to mixed-race schools, they admire a certain type of non-threatening black politician. So, the question is, what do black people have to really be angry about when things could be so much worse?
Anger is inherently political. As a response, it challenges the idea that any rate of change is better than none, the idea that oppressors need to be comfortable to take on responsibility for their actions and their privilege. As a black person who grew up in the newly independent Namibia, assimilating to whiteness became a necessary survival tactic. I became very good at it, and part of what it entailed was not getting angry, no matter what. There were various reasons for this. The white people (both children and adults) around me, mostly at school, were already accommodating black students and expecting more would be greedy. It was important for me to be ‘the bigger person’, even when that meant accepting dehumanising behaviour.
What followed was 12 years of consistent microaggressions. A guidance counsellor who called all the black girls “Susie Matwetwe” and thought it was a fun joke. A teacher who made a point of shaming the black boys in front of the whole class for not succeeding academically, something that (to me) spoke more to their ability as a teacher than the competence of students. Teachers liked me because of my proficiency in English, something that came at the expense of fluency in my mother tongue. Whenever the black students gathered during break time, teachers would tell us not to hang around in “gangs” or “loiter” on the basketball court. Once, when asked to model for a white classmate’s art project, I was told that I was “actually quite pretty”. My training kicked in, I swallowed the bitter resentment that rose in my throat, and I said, “thank you”.
Like many black people, I spent many years internalising this anti-blackness, and processing it has meant sitting with the anger of a child and a teenager and a young adult realising that the world they are meant to aspire to will never really welcome them.
I share my personal history to illustrate a simple point: I should be angry. It is right for me to be angry.
Black anger has been policed and deliberately misunderstood for as long as it has made white people uncomfortable. For black men, it ties into the myth that they are naturally aggressive and difficult to reason with. For black women, the stereotype of the ‘angry black woman’ is used to limit their responses to the racism and sexism they face. And at the same time, the idea that black women should be soft and welcoming to white people, playing the kindhearted ‘mammy’. Both these perceptions of black women are silencing mechanisms because they work to skew our responses to misogyny and racism as unreasonable, instead of what they really are: anger at being dehumanised.
It seems that one of the most difficult things for privileged people is accepting that marginalised people are angry. White people, in my experience, love talking about racism: reverse racism (not real), black-on-black racism (also not real). They give impassioned monologues about how the former affects them (“a black person said they don’t like white people!”) and how the latter overshadows the racism perpetuated by white people (“why don’t black people help each other?”). But the real and structural racism that black people in Namibia face is something that must be spoken of in a way that doesn’t make them feel attacked. This, of course, speaks to the white fragility that defines whiteness. But there is something else at the root of the defensiveness of white people who consider themselves as allies.
The question that I want to ask every defensive white person is this: why are you constantly looking for the limit of your personal responsibility to dismantle racism? Why are you determined to find the horizon where racism is finally eradicated? There is no limit, and there is no horizon. At the very least, there isn’t one that we can define right now.
The role of so-called white allies, the work of anyone who proclaims themself an ally, is to use your privilege to dismantle inequality. There is no finite list of tasks to be performed, because inequality itself cannot be quantified in a simple list. Sometimes, in the case of racism, it means supporting black business. Sometimes it looks like taking the time to educate the white people around you who hold racist beliefs. Sometimes it looks like amplifying black voices. Sometimes it looks like sitting down, listening, and examining your own behaviour for unconscious bias.
None of these should be conditional on black people not being angry with you, and none of them are attached to praise. The idea that white people deserve praise for allyship implies that there is something about their actions that is praiseworthy, that they are somehow going above and beyond by treating marginalised people like human beings.
I understand why this is the case, to some extent. (Ethne would say that I am being too accommodating, another behaviour learned during the Assimilation Era that is hard to let go of.) There are few countries that have entered the post-colonial era and led a deliberate reckoning of the racial dynamics in the country. In Namibia and South Africa, the end of the apartheid regime meant the end of legally mandated racism. But when it came to people’s beliefs, there was a misplaced but somehow understandable hope that integration would somehow lead to the end of racism. There was nothing that forced white people to change their beliefs, just some of their behaviours. And the white people who had stood up against apartheid were lauded as heroes instead of simply people doing the right thing, people with their own unconscious biases and harmful beliefs.
For the older generation, my parents’ generation, things did change on a huge scale. The things that weren’t available to them were open to their children: private schools, better medical care, leisure and recreation – we were the generation that was going to experience all the things they couldn’t. Of course, accessing most of those things was a privilege – not necessarily because those things were always superior, but often simply because they cost more and were more exclusive.
Comparatively, the independence generation (or ‘born frees’ as they are called) seemingly had far less to be angry about. Stories I have heard in passing from elders in my family tell of violent racism, physical and sexual harassment, segregation, torture, forced exile; all things that we are, at the very least, more protected from than they were. And when that is the past from which you enter a supposedly democratic era, I can only imagine the relief at being able to move through the world with more freedom.
However, Namibia did not change in 1990 as much as that generation hoped. For those of us who see democracy as the norm, and are simultaneously connected to the past through the intergenerational trauma within our families, racism is still a constant in this country. And there lies the source of our anger. Not only were we promised that we were finally welcome in our own country, not only did we assimilate and contort ourselves to fit into our own country, not only were we gaslighted into believing that racism was no longer present in this country, we are met with denial and defensiveness when we speak out.
This tone policing from white people who want to talk about race in a way that doesn’t make them uncomfortable is why it makes it so hard to talk about race with them. My anger, and the anger of black people in this country, is justified and valid. My anger does not negate their responsibility, just like their guilt is not an excuse to try harder and challenge their own internalised racism. My anger should not be tempered by stories of the things white people in this country have done, because that’s their duty if they claim to care about marginalised people.
The world has changed, and with it, the ways that privilege manifests. Liberal white people during apartheid may have given assistance to black people in limited ways. Maybe they paid domestic help more than the legally mandated wage, or helped political activists, or documented the very real effects of racism on black communities in this country. Maybe they risked their own privileges. Those people were, for many, considered very progressive at the time, even radical.
But the progressiveness of the previous generation of white people just isn’t good enough anymore. The threshold for actions that make a tangible difference has been raised, and to claim that you care about black people because you occasionally donate to charities or give time off to the people who manage your home or read books about racism means very little. Privilege comes with the burden (if you are an ally) of constantly working and learning and reflecting and doing better. The work isn’t done until your privilege is gone.
And this burden does not compare to the burden of racism that black people face, the burden of assimilation at the expense of your own wellbeing, and the burden of constantly justifying your humanity.
When white people who claim allyship complain about black anger, they are shifting the responsibility to change on to black people, further adding to their burden by demanding that the process of dismantling racism happen on their terms. It implies that when I demand that they address the ways they perpetuate racism, what I’m really doing is forcing them to go above and beyond what they are ‘already doing’, which should be enough. It tells me that they do not truly believe that the eradication of racism is objectively beneficial.
It tells me that you are not really able to imagine a world where human beings are treated as such. And I can’t really help white people to do that. That’s not my job. All I can do is acknowledge and validate my anger and the anger of black people, and remind white ‘allies’ of the following fact:
The work is done when your privilege is gone. Get ready to be uncomfortable.