Rachel Dolezal, the American white woman claiming to be black, got everyone thinking about who has the right to claim ownership of a particular ‘race’ – even though the construction of race is contested.
Various people made the point that Dolezal’s ability to choose to be black was an intrinsically privileged position; the race we belong to is not a choice, but rather a matter of biology that affects power relations in society. While most people were deeply uncomfortable with Dolezal’s deception and the way she occupied spaces meant for people of colour, could the same discomfort be felt when white people claim to be African? Moreover, when white people living in Africa claim to belong to this land, are they culturally appropriating an aspect of African identity?
1. What is cultural appropriation?
Cultural appropriation is the adoption of aspects of a culture that are not one’s own. Cultural appropriation also has links to power dynamics. Cultural appropriation becomes problematic when people belonging to a dominant and oppressive culture cherry-pick facets of an oppressed or marginalised culture, usually for personal amusement or convenience. Cultural appropriation is wrong because it is grounded in entitlement, is one sided, and lacks respect.
Some white people who live in Africa have ancestors who have called Africa home for a few hundred years. Many of these people have no citizenship beyond the African country in which they were born. It’s important to identify the difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation. Forcing your culture, and presence, on a group of people and then claiming the right to encompass their identity is not an exchange. There is no respect or mutual sharing. Western culture has forced itself on many parts of the globe, choosing to have its norms and defaults adopted. Few other cultures have done this. Forced assimilation into a dominant culture is a form of political, economic and social survival. Choosing to adopt various aspects of someone’s identity as your own is a form of privilege.
2. But what does it mean to be ‘African’?
This is a hard point of departure. Are we thinking about Africa geographically, regionally, culturally or ethnically? In asking this question are we essentialising what it means to be an African, are we making Africa a homogenous entity? Should this question be asked and who has the right to ask this question? Whose answers matter? According to my passport, I’m a South African citizen. According to my photograph, I’m a white woman. Does the fact that I’m living in South Africa, that my parents are from here, and that I’ve lived here for most of my life qualify me to be African? If we just consider being African as being regionally connected to this land then I am most certainly African, but does this deny and reduce the history of what it means to encompass an African identity?
I think we need to be careful in reducing Africa to a geographical location. There’s a lot of tradition, culture and history that go into being African. Africa is not how the West has depicted it – the monolithic depiction of Africa as ‘safari,’ as ‘animal print,’ and as ‘hungry,’ is deeply problematic, harmful and incorrect. This representation has also been useful in propagating the oppression of African countries by the West. When we talk about African people, the question emerges: which African people? Africa is made up of over 1.1 billion people of various ethnicities speaking over 1000 different languages. When we claim to be African, are we thinking about one or all of these different manifestations of Africanness? These questions seem insurmountable; these questions are also fundamentally unhelpful and restrictive. Can we, however, identify something that all African people have? Perhaps something that all African people share is the ability to call themselves African: the ability to belong to this soil and the right to dictate and be a part of African discourse. Perhaps African people do not have a choice in their Africanness.
3. Let’s think about history, and let’s think about power.
Most white people living in Africa have familial, financial and social links to African soil. But that doesn’t mean there is necessarily a shared interest in the future of Africa. Moreover, there are perceptions of white people as unwelcomed visitors in Africa, uninvited guests who never left. When the white man came to Africa it was not because Africa (whoever that might be) opened its doors and welcomed him in. When we think about cultural exchange, white people living in Africa (specifically South Africa), are not living in a way that is different from white people living in Western countries. Most white people brought their language, education systems, political systems, standards of beauty and religions into societies that did not ask for any of this change. White settlers enslaved people, monopolised and claimed ownership of natural resources – and continue to do so. Most white people in Africa have not assimilated any aspect of a historically African culture. Deeply embedded, asymmetrical power and unjust cultural hierarchies are evident.
But what to do? No one is asking white people in Africa to bask themselves in guilt and constantly apologise for the sins of their forefathers – that helps no one. But white people must acknowledge the harm their ancestors caused, and the benefits they still reep because of this. If you look at South Africa, white people still monopolize property ownership and economic access: comprising about 10 per cent of the population and holding 41 per cent of total assets. When such asymmetrical power relations are present and unjust privilege is still in the hands of white South Africans, is it okay for white South Africans to also claim the right of belonging to Africa?
4. Should white people feel like they belong in Africa?
In thinking about this we need to remember why white people came to Africa in the first place, and why many white people find themselves in Africa today. If you crashed a dinner party and then wouldn’t leave, does the fact that it’s time for dessert and you’re still there mean you now belong? No. Of course, it becomes a lot less clear when we move beyond this analogy and incorporate notions of self-identification, citizenship and familial connections. When a white friend tells me he’s African, do I have the right to tell him that his conception of himself is incorrect? Of course I don’t, but perhaps I have a responsibility to ask him to think deeper and interrogate why it is that he feels entitled to help himself to African identity. Personally, I don’t understand why some white people feel comfortable asserting their claim to Africa, on Africa, when this is clearly contentious and some people find this assertion aggressive — even violent. When you take the legacy of whiteness in Africa into account, how could one not feel uneasy, how could one not feel that it is legitimate for others not to welcome them?
5. Can white people be African in a way that isn’t cultural appropriation?
If white people are to adopt a sense of belonging, or the right to belong in Africa, then this needs to be a communal decision based on respect for all. White people cannot assert their Africanness, white people need to earn their Africanness, perhaps even be invited to belong. This is a deeply complicated idea. Who then has the right to extend this invitation and how could it be done? I think the first step is for white people to take a few steps back and reflect on the legitimacy of their claims to Africa. Similarly to Dolezal’s case, self-identification does not seem like it’s enough to be able to be included into a culture, race, ethnicity or identity that is not your own. As long as there is asymmetrical power without cultural exchange, and it is predominantly white people in Africa who are asserting their own Africanness, we have a problem. While white people are cherry-picking which aspects of an African culture they want to adopt for their own convenience or to appease their own guilt by legitimizing their presence, we have a case of cultural appropriation on our hands.
6. “But what am I?”
Maybe, just maybe, you don’t have to be anything. It’s quite terrifying, this idea that you don’t belong. But do you really belong if there are some people who find your presence contentious, violent, harmful, traumatic? A white presence in Africa is still a reminder of an unjust past. White people are the ‘other’ here. I think white people could be a little more conscious of this in the spaces they occupy and navigate. We need to interrogate why there exists this desire to belong, we need to think about who this best serves. When white people call themselves African, this best serves their individual interests and puts them above the collective in a way that is fundamentally inconsistent with understandings of Ubuntu.
At the very least, when people claim to be African, they are claiming a right of belonging to the continent of Africa. And quite frankly, that is a right most white people living in African simply don’t have or deserve.