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What if we redefined "Black"?

Photo by Life Matters from Pexels.

Okay, let’s play a little game, shall we? There are four statements below. Your job is to imagine what the man I’m talking about in each statement looks like. Ready?

1. He robbed a convenience store and spent a few months in prison

2. He is the CEO of a large tech company

3. He is the poorest guy on the list

4. He is the most educated guy on the list with 2 degrees, 2 masters and 1 PHD.

Done? Okay, now how many black men and how many white men did you imagine? Did you imagine the robber being a black guy and the well-educated bloke being white? Did you imagine the poor lad being black and the CEO being some white donny? Chances are you imagined it exactly that way. That’s okay. It doesn’t make you racist against your own kind. It just means that you have been taught and have internalized the notion that some things are for black people and others are not, which in itself is a problem. But it isn’t necessarily your fault. They call it Internalized Oppression.

I’ve talked about what being black means in Turkey. After a while, I stopped wondering what my being black meant to the people around me and started to wonder what it meant to me. I realized that for some reason, it meant to me what it meant to them: that I couldn’t go certain places, that I couldn’t do certain things, that subconsciously, I thought of myself the same way they thought of me, that I should almost be sorry that I am a black man. I started to realize that even I tied being black with the same things that it was stereotyped with. That I began to identify with those same stereotypes as though they were sewn into the fabric of my skin. I noticed in my language certain things I would say, things that insinuate that black meant bad and white meant good. I would say of some things, “That’s white people stuff,” and of others, “That’s black people stuff.” Which is okay because it is true that the two races have different cultures. Except I said “white” to good traits and “black” to relatively bad ones. Whenever I was late, I would say, “Oh, that’s Black/Zambian people time,” as if by virtue of being black, it is only normal that I am not punctual. “Look how organized these lot are. If it were black people here, it would have been chaos,” I once said to my friend when I noticed how orderly a long queue at school had been. “You are the most black black person I have ever met,” is what I said to my mate who refused to replace his iron even though it was clearly on its last legs because it “was still doing the job.” All these are seemingly trivial things. But they are things, bad things and traits, that I associated with black skin because I was taught that it’s that way. It’s as though being late, disorganized, and refusing to spend money on things are traits specific to black people while the opposites are found in white people.

I spoke that way because I thought that way before, because I had been taught that that’s how things are. But I had to learn to confront it, to think differently because that is not how it should be. And I am still learning. But I kept wondering how many people still think this way. How many of us still think lowly of ourselves and highly of other races? How many of us have been taught that white means good and black means bad? How many of us still, even subconsciously, still believe that white skin means superiority? It’s called Internalized oppression, a fancy way of saying we were fed so much crap we began to believe that it’s a part of us.

Okay fine, here’s the fancy definition: Internalized oppression,

I realize now how real this is for us who belong to marginalized groups of the global societal. I realize how it appears in the seemingly trivial things, but it ultimately affects our whole being and what we think of ourselves. I realize now how we are born and taught to look up to other races as though they now do and will continue to hold power and superiority over us. I realize now that we are taught, maybe not intentionally, maybe subconsciously, to expect the best things, things of the highest degree from other races and only expect very little, to expect the worst from ourselves. We are taught to be and think this way. The funny thing is it’s all subconscious. You don’t notice it till you notice it.

I was never told directly that white people, by virtue of being white, hold some sort of superiority over me. No one ever said to me, “Chipo, that is a white man. Respect him because he is white.” But I saw it, as I grew up, in the adults around me. I was ten or eleven years old when my grandma said to me in her deep Tonga tone about a farm next to ours, “Kamu tanjili mu farm ilya. Kukala mukuwa. Inga waku Dubula.” Don’t cross over into that farm. A white man stays there. He might shoot you. I didn’t wonder then, but I wonder now if the white man was ever afraid of crossing over into our farm. I wonder if he had ever shot someone for crossing into his. I wonder why he had that much power, to shoot a man, to own a gun, in a country that wasn’t his. I wonder why my grandma was afraid of him, the white man, and not the way round. I was fifteen years old when I noticed how the people working at my mother’s lodge treated white clients differently, almost specially, from the locals. I noticed how they would shrink into a shell immediately a white bloke walked in. They would speak softly, almost submissively. They would suddenly pretend to lose their Zambian accents when speaking English, barely enunciating the “T” and over-pronouncing the “R”: We don’ have rooms today. I noticed how almost subdued they became. They were different when it was a Zambian. Their tone was more imposing. It was the tone of one who was speaking with an equal. Sometimes they would speak dismissively to locals but never with the white donnies who came in. I also saw it when police officers would let white drivers pass through road blocks without ever checking their licenses but stopped locals to do so. And maybe I, too, subconsciously learnt to be submissive to white people as if the color of their skin held power over mine. Maybe that is where I learnt to be apologetic for being black. Maybe we all did.

See, we are born into a society that was once oppressed by and later on fed crumbs by the white man so that even though he was the oppressor, he, in their eyes, became someone who deserved to be worshipped, someone, who by virtue of their skin color, was to be inherently superior. We are born into a society that has been taught to be dissatisfied with itself and what it has, a society that was taught that it was never good enough, that it needed fixing so that it began to constantly wish for a better life, never to be satisfied with what it had. So it passes the sense of dissatisfaction down to the generations, and we are in turn born with an inherent discontentment with ourselves and the world around us, always looking for a better life somewhere else as though a better life were elsewhere, in another skin color, in another country, but never within ourselves. We are born into a society that has for so long looked up to other people that it now looks down on itself, and we are taught to do the same. We are born into a society that was oppressed for so long that they do not know how to live without oppression, so even when the oppressor left, they became their own oppressors, repeating to themselves the same lies they were told and taking them up truth. We are born into a society that has never learnt to define its own standards, but instead judges itself by the standards of others. We all inherit this. We all inherit internalized oppression, becoming our own oppressors.

And so we say, “That’s how Zambians are. White people would never do this,” when someone does something ludicrous as though such is what we have come to expect of ourselves, as though ludicrousness is an inherent Zambian trait, as though it is impossible to find that in a white person. So we say of billionaires in our country, “He is a Satanist. How can he be that rich?” as though wealth is not meant to be a Zambian thing. We say “Zambian time” to being late, “Ma Zambian product naive” when something isn’t of the quality we expected, “Nimu Zambia muno,” to anything that is downright ridiculous. Because we have come to expect very little of ourselves. We have been taught to set the bar low for ourselves, that ours are lower standards than others because we are “Zambian” or because we are “Black”. We all carry these versions and standards of our skin color until we begin to see and question them. Have you ever thought about it?

I learnt that there exists in society a hierarchy of races at whose summit white sits and black is at the bottom. And you are, by default, even lower on the hierarchy if you are black from Africa. The positions of the other races vary depending on where you are. What astonishes me is that this seems to be a globally agreed upon thing that black people are to be below everyone else. It’s as if there was a meeting, years and years ago, at which this was an agreed upon standard to be used for setting up stereotypes. At this point, it barely bothers me that it is this way. Everyone can think whatever they want about us. What bothers me is that we, as black people, have gladly assumed and accepted this position and the stereotypes that come with it. Worse off, we, the black people from Africa, bask in the “glory” of this position, take it up and make it our own so that we identify ourselves with all these prejudices. Our identity is intertwined with what was believed of us because it is now what we believe of ourselves. We have started to accept that what they have told us we are is what we are and we will always be. We now expect from ourselves what they expect from us. We have agreed that we are of low standards and only little comes from us. We have taken up the role of being the ones from whom not much is expected in society so that when one of us does something great, it is very surprising, or he is a white-black boy or he does "white people things." We not only let others look down on us, we look down on ourselves with them. We have become our own oppressors, our own hinderance, living in the illusion that we are free. But we have not been taught nor have we learnt what to do with the freedom we supposedly have.

I know one can say, “Oh, but these are trivial things.” Maybe. Maybe they are. They might seem that way. But what you think of yourself is all you will ever be. You live in a world of endless possibility only limited by what you perceive it to be. Your perception of reality is your reality. So if you think a white donny is superior to you just because he is white, you will spend your whole life feeling less than. But I don’t want to. Is racism real? Of course it is. But the real problem with racism is not what people think of us, it's what it makes us think of ourselves.

But what if we now started dealing with how it, racism, shapes the views we have of ourselves before we demanded that others to see us differently? What if we thought of ourselves differently? What if we started to question the entire premise? What if we redefined, for ourselves, what it means to be black, to be African, to be Zambian, to be whatever we are? What if we broke out of the shell that told us that white people deserve inherent respect and we don’t? What if we expected of ourselves, of our kind, what we expect from other races? What if we, for real this time, starting with how we think, freed ourselves? What if we decided for ourselves what we want being black, being African, being Zambian or whatever we are to mean? When will “Black” or “African” connotate excellence, innovation, brilliance, beauty, wealth? When will “Black” not mean crime and poverty? What if we didn’t wait and started now instead? I want that now! Let’s start now. What if we redefined "Black", African", Zambian"? What does being black mean to you? What does being whatever you are mean to you? You get to define it. You get to write your own story about it.

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