“I choose to appropriate the term ‘coconut’ and self-identify as one, because I believe it offers an opportunity for refusal, and this very refusal allows for radical anti-racist politics to emerge,” said Panashe Chigumadzi at the Ruth First Lecture this year.
Validation, resonance and irony in her humour is what I walked away with that evening. That said, I don’t know if she’ll accept my subsequent notion.
Of course I identify as a ‘coconut’, my whole upbringing dictates that I should; Model C schooling, occasional white best friends, ‘creamy-crack’ hair (see Chris Rocks Good Hair), hell, even smugness in sporting braces in Grade 6. But I like that I can now decide and accept that I am a coconut but still be able to refuse the assumed notion that I too am a benefactor of white privilege. There’s a kind of freedom in that.
But have you ever met some young black girl or guy and thought, damn, “you really are a coconut of the coconuts? Perhaps even the queen of coconuts?” You know, those whose speech is consistently punctuated with unnerving amounts of, “laarks” and “reeeallys”, or that “yah bru”
There are levels in life, I think one should know theirs and be comfortable with it. But more, one shouldn’t have to get defensive when another black person not quite on their level mimics you and things get all emotional and personal.
It’s understandable, that kind of outrage, seeing oneself through someone else’s eyes has rarely been funny. “The truth is hard to swallow when the belly’s full of lies,” said Jamie Foxx in Ali. And it’s not just in the tone of language, it’s the ‘hi-how-are-you?’ as you quickly walk by, not waiting for any response (then why did you ask?) Some coconuts don’t even have any speech impediments but just a denial that they are in fact Black. Others walk around calling themselves black feminists but laugh at the black rural girl who’s English isn’t that great. It’s a constant conflict.
My fundamental concern with the ‘extreme coconut in denial’ is how it conducts itself with the older black security guard, domestic worker, gardener or ground staff in various environments, as if there’s a subliminal hierarchy at play. There’s a disrespect that has a likeness to when you’re discussing race with someone white; a not-listening, a defence mechanism, the kind of pose that says I’m just trying to get through my day, so I don’t have time to really acknowledge your presence.
The ‘extreme coconut in denial’ skates close to the very whiteness that black people are constantly battling against. I know that the black female waitress sometimes deliberately gives you bad service, but it’s nothing personal. She’s angry with a system that doesn’t recognize her as worthy and she hates her manager because she always has to pretend she’s busy even when she’s not. No, I’m not saying you deserve bad service, but tact and reverting to your mother tongue usually works.
Denying your coconutism is the very mechanism that allows some to perpetuate a free spirit, the candid race-doesn’t-matter-to-me attitude. Race matters and it’s an issue. Because being a coconut only means I’m Model-C schooled, black-taxed and sometimes free.