I have been writing this letter for a couple of months. Only I, my laptop and my god know how many times I have started this letter without reaching a satisfactory conclusion- or any conclusion at all. Even now, I just want to get up and check on the clothes that I just put in the washing machine fifteen minutes ago, hoping that somewhere in my walking to the machine and the unnecessary checking of the clothes and the walk back to my laptop, I will convince myself that I have absolutely no logically sound reason to be writing this silly letter- which I would like to assume you will not have any interest in reading anyway. Yet, here I am unable to exit this document and clicking the “don’t save” option with mundane bravery. But, I panic at the idea of seeing you in the days to come without having brought what is in my heart to your attention. I grow dizzy at the thought of having missed out on seeing what this letter could potentially have invited into our realities. I guess this letter is not a matter of logic, but intuitive necessity. I am writing to you, because my intuition is begging to do so. The more I postpone the completion of this letter, the more ignore its complicated importance. If I do not write this letter to you, there is something sacred and urgent that will be erased. It will be erased from you and me. More relevantly, it will be erased from history.
”Silly of me… to think that I… could ever have you for my guy… how I love you… how I want you…”
Deniece Williams sings into my earphones as I sit on the floor of my porch on a surprisingly warm winter Thursday morning in Grahamstown. I have something to admit. To you and myself. I have been trying to avoid thinking about you. I have been trying to avoid making you significant. But, the odd truth is that I have developed a deep sense of affection for you. One which seems to compound every day without my permission. You are more than just a flimsy adolescent crush. You are more than just a replaceable subject of shallow curiosity and temporary lust. Perhaps, viewing you as a ‘crush’ does not do justice to the highest expression of my feelings towards you. Perhaps regarding you as a chest of experiences I am ready to genuinely invest myself in, puts more of a peculiarly comfortable smile on my face. Yet, my feelings for you have dealt me a batch serious questions I have not bothered myself to answer until now. Why have I never been in a committed romantic relationship with a White man? Why do I spend my time with you and I like you so much, but mistrust you just as greatly? Why does the colour of your skin trigger deep sensations of unconfronted agitation, resistance and fear in me? I would like to think that I have made somewhat of an impressive living off troubling the White universe in my writings in the past (To Be Young, Privileged & Black and The Miseducation of All-Boys’ Schools are examples). In my mind, troubling Whiteness in my writings meant that I could show off my ‘I-don’t-date-White-people’ membership card as one of the perks of my work- which I have done unapologetically. But, problematizing Whiteness and White people is no longer a satisfactory reason to exclude White men from my repertoire of romantic experiences. My feelings for you have definitely changed this. There is something I am willing to listen to, learn and understand about you. I am willing to make myself available to you. However, my willing to be your bae will require that I be honest about how I truly view and feel about White men as romantic companions.
I do not have psychological tapes of living in a politically violent past as my parents do. Yet, they have never taught me to hate, nor be suspicious of White people. I have come to understand that my upbringing is likely to be one which typifies the (Black) middle-upper class experience. It is also likely to be an upbringing that you share too. In hindsight, I realise that the work of raising a child in a newly dispensed democratic South Africa was an effort (on my/our parent’s part) to materialise the non-racialism/rainbow-nation ‘moment,’ because that ‘moment’ was a crucial part of South Africa’s social justice plan and collective narrative. So, you may wonder where this radical-race-conscious-me comes from. There is nothing radical about coming into the conscientisement of how the world around me operates, as well as, my position in that world. But, you need to understand that I have deep reservations about making you my bae, because there is something i am realising about this rainbow nation ‘moment’ that either did not feel real to me; became faulty over time; or perpetually did not happen at all.
I may not have lived a life within times of political blood-spilling, but I have well-stocked library of living experiences that demonstrate the diverse and devastatingly complicated ways in which the pursuit for non-racialism has harmed me.
My experiential understanding of non-racialism (put together with my rainbow nation experience) is characterised mostly (if not solely) of having to assimilate into the South African White universe. I live in an affluent White suburb; I attended an Anglo all-boys’ school, and I am currently studying an inherently/historically White institution of higher education. So, I possess a level of social capital that impresses people, including you. These are all prescribed markers of self-worth and material success. But, at some point in my time living on in this country as a human being who identifies as Black gay male (something that I have always accepted), I was made to feel insecure about my own existence. So, I (un)consciously performed Whiteness to fulfill the feelings of inadequacy I had about myself. Somewhere during my high school years, I developed an acute awareness and grasp of the complicated ways in which masculinity, heteronormative values and sexuality operate within the canon of contemporary (young) White (male) life. So, I used my knowledge of this canon of living to enhance my performance. Assimilating into and performing Whiteness injured my security as a young Black gay male, replacing it with me being proud of exemplifying a poorly imagined product of non-racialism/the rainbow nation dream. What many people are not yet willing to accept is that the process of assimilation is a parasitic and corrosive one. Assimilation requires that you hide or lose a part of yourself in order to be accommodated into a dominant idea of a preferred version of humanity. Most of all, assimilation of this kind is non-reciprocal. It is this kind of assimilation that continues to not be a burden for White people in this country, as it is for people who are not White (Black people in particular). This is why I do not necessarily expect White people to want me for reasons beyond advancing their hegemony. I understand the value of my Black body in this system of assimilation. I am able to have non-platonic relationships with White people, but I strategically ensure that I do not make emotional investments into these relationships in ways which might encourage my own regret. So, it surprises me and makes me suspicious when White men want to enter the realm of romance with me. Much of my self-worth as an individual today stands on this journey of assimilation and performance. In fact, I exercise autonomy in my romantic choices, because it is the last bit of dough I have in molding a solid identity for myself that is untouched by my affiliation with Whiteness. I use my romantic choices to defend the little of myself I think I have left. It is a realisation that has terrified me enough to send me into a series of anxiety attacks I have had recently.
Is this why I feel betrayed by my feelings for taking a deep liking towards you? Is this why I am suspicious of your reciprocal interest in me? Is this why I am choked by the fear that you might inevitably decide to find a fault in me and end up leaving me for the Becky with the good hair (or the Justin with the good comb-over in this case)? Do I want to have you for the sake of subconsciously conquering you? If it ever goes that far, what will you do with me if you parents and peers do not like me? What will I do with you if my world despises you? What will I do if you do not like this letter i am writing to you? Hell, what will I do if you do not like Beyoncé?
But, what if you do like Beyoncé? What if you like my writing and want to genuinely immerse yourself in the world which informs it? What if your parents and peers end up adoring me? What if loving you is not about conquering you, but conquering my attitude in viewing our potential love as a war I have to win? What if you don’t leave me for Justin with the good comb-over? Hell, what if you left Justin with the good comb-over just to be with me? What if there are things about your life experience that shake you into paralysing fear, just like me? What if loving each other ends up being the best decision of our lives because, we actively chose to live together and not passively coexist?
The questions that I ask are difficult because, they involve our intimate relationship (in and of itself), in relation to the worlds we come from and the societies in which we navigate our lives. During a lecture delivered by Sisonke Msimang called “An (Im)possible Situation: Contemporary South Africa and the Politics of Nostalgia”, Msimang mentioned something about South Africa needing an updated version of the rainbow nation as a part of South Africa’s work of staying true to its commitment to non-racialism. It got me thinking about how the original dispensation of non-racialism (contextualised, branded and sold as the rainbow nation dream) placed an imbalanced emphasis on the aesthetics of a non-racial society. South Africans have spent the last 21 years of democracy trying to look like a rainbow. But, our unresolved individual and collective turmoil could never hold the pose for the picture. We have neglected to do the work of getting to know what it feels like to be a rainbow. The rainbow nation failed because, we mimic unity in order to pass the days, just as I mimic Whiteness in order to survive. The more we continue to systematically live apart, the more my love for you mutates into fear, the more we (as a country) collectively mask our unresolved violent mistrust of one another as healthy and acceptable ways of coexistence.
While it is pivotal for the both of us to acknowledge our individualities as two people who could potentially be in a loving situation, it would be a careless and perilous mistake to treat our relationship as an exclusive and impermeable island. Our relationship could never be absolved from being contextualised to fit a broader social narrative or describe a broader social condition. In the same vein, it would be incredibly selfish of me to want to be in a romantic situation with a White guy for the sake of experiencing and achieving a different dispensation of social justice. After all, I just want you to be my best friend first. I want to know you what brand of wine you like. I want to know what your go-to sleeping position is. I want to know if moisturising under your feet is important to you. I want to be able to call you out in the times when you demonstrate problematic attitudes or poor unconscious judgment, without misinterpreting my intentions. I want us to be able to have serious arguments about history, hegemony and hierarchies without making enemies of one another. I want to be Black as fuck; queer as fuck; ratchet as fuck; woke as fuck and rest assured that you unapologetically still got my back. I want to love you without being fearful or polite, because it is important to the both of us that I do so.
The 1994 ‘moment’ did not put an end racialisation or initiate deracialisation, for that matter. If anything, 1994 ‘moment’ should have been the beginning of us doing our individual and collective work of knowing how to be rigorously honest and intelligent about the way we treat each other as racialized beings. I would love for my relationship with you to be one in which we make a habit of successfully navigating personal, racial, cultural and social dissonances whilst making best friends of one another. I would love for the story of our individual relationship to add the new story South Africa ought to tell itself and the world. I am not saying that our relationship should last for eternity to prove anything (although a lifetime partner and the esteem of being referred to with an Afro-Anglo double-barrel surname are some of the perks of I look forward to enjoying). What I am strongly advocating is for our relationship to be a sight in which we do the work of truly getting to know each other, if not grow into one another. To create a meaningful kinship that adds value to our individual lives and South Africa’s social justice narrative, even long after you and I have possibly parted ways.
Loving me will unsettle you, just as I am reluctantly sure that loving you will unsettle me too. I guess all is not fair in love and war because, love and war happen simultaneously in the same event. I just trust that I have tried my best to be serious and sincere in getting through to you, and creating the path for you to get through to me.
“Silly of me… to think that you… could ever know the things I do… are all done for you…”
Deniece Williams sings to me. I do feel silly dedicating hours at a time spanning a couple of months penning this letter. If there is anything you should know, it is that I did all of this all for me, just as much as I did all this for you.
“What could it be in you I see?
What could it be?
Oh love, oh love,
Stop making a fool of me”.
#ShoutOut: I would like to thank Sisonke Msimang and all who participated in her lecture. Parts of this paper have been re-nuanced ad re-articulated thanks to the insights provided during the session.