It’s happening. Slowly, but and undeniably.
The rainbow nation ideology is progressively losing its ability to convince. The ‘1994 moment’ did not miraculously wash away South Africa’s sins- 1994 did not free us from our painful and complex history, after all. “Democracy” is no longer fit to describe a condition in which all members of South Africa’s society live freely and equally in ways that guarantee the well-being of their political/economic/social/moral lives, as promised.
Young people are being forced to acquaint themselves with a jarring reality that has always been present. As a young person myself, I must earnestly admit that living in South Africa is becoming complex. More strange.
The virtual world has helped [us young] South Africans (a certain caliber of them, at least) to create spaces and vocabularies that enable us to navigate our own existences in this strange time of ours. Thanks to the interglobality of social media, the vocabulary of ‘wokeness’ ensure that we are able to identify and articulate what it means when white people tamper with Black culture, Black people and Black life. Because of this interglobal influence, South Africans have been able to fully (re)introduce the topic cultural appropriation into discourses about race and identity.
Cultural appropriation is a concept that has existed for as long as racism has and it deeply affects the economy of race relations. However, it is important to acknowledge that contemporary epistemologies of cultural appropriation across racial boundaries have been led by superior conceptions of race from the global North (i.e. America and its racial politics and popular culture). Hence, we all know why the likes of Iggy Azalea, Rachel Dombolo (oops, I meant, Rachel Dolezal, lol!) and unbothered white fraternities do not have moral feet on which stand on to justify their exploitation of Black culture, people and life.
Our local conceptions of racial constructs are not vastly different from the global North. Because of this, we are able to exchange ideas and understandings about race-based injustices as South Africans belonging to an interglobal community. In this sense, our race politics are relational.
But, there are nuances within our race politics that cannot be ignored or overshadowed by the direct importation of foreign ideas and understandings about cultural appropriation. Kasi Mlungu should mean more to South Africans than just a racially privileged body that exploits the culture(s) of other (marginalised) bodies. The emergence of “Kasi Mlungu” in the domain of popular national conversation is an opportunity to assess the condition of our social justice project, as well as, the general state of democracy itself. But, I will get more into that argument in Part II of this post.
Given South Africa’s unique context, we need to probe Kasi Mlungu rigorously. What is the actual problem with Kasi Mlungu? Is this really about cultural appropriation vs. appreciation? Is it possible for white people to assimilate into black life? Can the offense of Black people be justified? Do transracial identities exist, especially in a racially and culturally complex society like South Africa?
Let’s dissect this.
Anita Ronge: A dichotomic biography
Her objective life is as follows:
Kasi Mlungu’s real name is Anita Ronge. Her Dj name is “The DuchAz”. She spent most of her life growing up in Kempton Park, attending white Afrikaans-speaking schools for the entirety of her formative schooling career. She modeled in the latter years of her adolescence before deciding to become a DJ (specialising in local house music) at the age of 24.
Her subjective life, on the other hand:
The name “Kasi Mlungu” was given to Anita by a group of young black men from Hammanskraal that had been training her as a DJ. The name flattered her, and so, she decided to keep it and endorse. She (over)zealously loves black culture and finds black spaces to be accommodating. Anita self-identities as a “black women trapped in a white woman’s body”, wearing aesthetically diluted representations of the traditional (South) African (Black) woman, and boasts about how safe she feels when pacing the streets of Johannesburg’s townships “at night”. Furthermore, she struggles to understand the controversy surrounding her image as she feels that it has become normal for Black people to “embrace” Western ways of life.
Problematicising Anita, Whiteness and the Rainbow Nation Narrative
If South Africa existed in a vacuum or had been hypothetically deracialised, then white women embracing Black people, culture and life would not raise eyebrows of suspicion. But, this not the case. Anita Ronge’s embrace of blackness is suspicious and there grounds to justify these suspicions Anita invests herself in blackness in three ways that indicate bad faith. Her realisation or awareness of this is not the point).
- Anita’s claim to Blackness erases Black womanhood
Her self-identification as a Black woman is offensive and problematic because, she embraces Blackness by scapegoating Black women who (she thinks) are not proud to be Black. If a Black woman does not express her pride in her own skin in ways that are obvious to Anita, she places a value on them that is inferior to hers. Anita is bitterly surprised because, nobody makes a noise about a Black woman that wears a weave or embraces Western life, especially on a materialistic level. It is clear that Anita does not know of and understand the complicated impact various conquests (colonisation, Apartheid, class stratification, globalisation etc.) that run deeply in the lives of Black people, particularly Black women. Anita does not understand that the words “embrace” and “assimilate” are loaded with contention when it comes to Black women and so-called Western values. Anita does not understand that “embrace” is not always willful and “assimilation” is not always odious. Anita does not understand the economics of racialisation. Anita does not understand the multidimensionality and the deep effervescence of Blackness. Anita’s obsession with (material) aesthetic as a compulsory marker of racial identity obscures and limits her understanding of how black people, especially Black women truly exist in this country- especially in relation to her own existence as a White woman.
2. The Romanticisation of (Black) Working Class Life
Anita foregrounds her self-assumed Black identity by boasting about how safe and accommodating township spaces are. What Anita fails to realise is that her privilege as a White woman allows her to exist in these very spaces in ways that are denied to Black women. The hard truth is that White people (especially white women) are given superior treatment in working class spaces such as townships- the intentions and activities of the White woman within this particular space are irrelevant to this point. This makes me question the relationships she has with working class Black women in the spaces she may share with them. Is Anita capable of empathetically relating to them? If so, to what extent? Does Anita understand the various struggles/violences exerted on working class black women? Is Anita able to comprehend the complex ways which historical social and spatial geographies of working class spaces impacts the people that live in them? As a White woman that deliberately ignores/misunderstands her unearned privileges, Anita’s claim of such a marginalised space is an offensive romanticisation.
3. Invisibility: A myth come true
Anita endorses the rainbow nation ideology only because it serves her ability to exercise her privilege of not being able to see herself. To see oneself as colourless (therefore, invisible and exempt from racial classification of any kind) is a privilege only White people truly have. Anita is under the impression that her (false) neutrality/defaultness gives her licence to embody other identities without critically thinking about the implications of her attitudes or actions. This is ironic, considering that fact that she denounces the legitimacy of Black woman’s claim to Blackness on the basis of them embracing Western values. Anita would rather hold on to her place of operative invisibility, because that means she does not have to think about the vexing realities of living a racialized life. Her inability to see herself is a privilege she exercises in order to ignore racial differences, because acknowledging those differences will require her to inherit the burden of moral self-surveillance and implicate herself in some way into the complex story of our national narrative.
So no. Anita cannot (in good faith) assimilate into Black life- no matter how much she is loved/admired by Black people. No, Anita is not appreciating Black culture. She wearing Blackness like a garment and making incorrect alterations that end up making her look ideologically disfigured and awkward. Yes, Black people’s offence is completely justified! And yes, Anita is a great example of a transracial identity trying to validate its existence.
If she wishes, Anita can display an appreciation of Black culture, life and its people. She may also occupy Black working class spaces. However, her claim to be being Black simply because her privilege allows her to do “Black things” is void. Anita’s embrace of Blackness is a gravely imperious and recklessly ambivalent one. Her claim of Blackness is an imaginary accomplishment.
Anita’s embrace of Blackness is a gravely imperious and recklessly ambivalent one. Her claim of Blackness is an imaginary accomplishment.
In Part II, I engage why the agitation caused by Anita’s emergence requires more of our attention that goes beyond pointing out obvious racism and offence.