We are ‘coconuts’, but there’s levels ‘bru’

Katleho“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”

“The truth is hard to swallow when the belly’s full of lies.”

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.

“The ‘extreme coconut in denial’ skates close to the very whiteness that black people are constantly battling against.”

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.

Ruth First remembered through race talk

The 14th annual Ruth First Memorial Lecture stirred up some heated discussion on racism in post-1994 South Africa.

OPEN PANEL: Eusebius McKaiser,  Panashe Chigumadzi and Sisonke Msimang discussing issues in their research with the audience.  Photo: Samantha Camara

RACE TALK: From left, Eusebius McKaiser moderates a debate about race with Panashe Chigumadzi, middle, and Sisonke Msimang at the 2015 Ruth First Memorial Lecture at Wits University tonight. Photo: Samantha Camara

Frank, and often hard-hitting, observations and commentary characterised the 2015 Ruth First Memorial Lecture as Panashe Chigumadzi and Sisonke Msimang tackled the issue of race in South Africa.

Speaking to an audience of close to a thousand in the Wits Great Hall earlier this evening, Chigumadzi and Msimang, the two Ruth First fellows, reflected on their research around the theme: “Race: Lived Experiences and Contemporary Conversations”.

Chigumadzi, 23, the founder and editor of Vanguard Magazine, presented her work which explored the concept of a “coconut”.

“Coconut experiences are not new,” added Chigumadzi, “Tiyo Soga (a South African journalist and minister from the 1800s), might have been the first black coconut.” In unpacking the term, Chigumadzi said a “coconut” is an “experience of socialisation which leads to a knowledge of white grammar.”

[READ Chigumadzi’s full address]

Despite the many negative connotations attached to the term, Chigumadzi believes “coconuts” can achieve black consciousness.

For Chigumadzi, also a Wits postgraduate student, the language of black consciousness and critical race theory helps to empower “coconuts” to speak back to racism.

“Coconuts” have not been coopted as a white buffer but are joining the Black working class in struggle against racism, she explained.

Presenting her research on “interracial friendships”, Msimang choose the mechanism of performance to deliver her findings. In collaboration with celebrated artist Lebo Mashile, Msimang reflected on the nuances of race relations in South Africa.

Incorporating racialised headline news stories such as Rian Malan’s admission to sex with a domestic worker to the incident of “black face”  at the University of Pretoria, the entertaining performance probed the serious topic of “interracial friendships.”

[READ Msimang’s full address]

Their piece ended on a less than promising note with the conclusion, “with friends like these, who needs enemies?”.

A discussion, moderated by political commentator and author, Eusebius McKaiser, saw a number of mixed responses and questions from the audience. One person questioned why the event was named after Ruth First and not Robert Sobukwe. Another criticised the speakers, asking how long were they planning to be “victims”. Several audience members recounted their own experiences of Blackness and their difficulties in negotiating the issue of race in South Africa.

The event, commemorating the life of journalist and activist Ruth First, who was killed by a letter bomb on this day in 1982, opened with an address by a scholar from Jeppe High School which First attended as a child. Susan Mahingaidze paid tribute to First and acknowledged her contribution to South Africa. “Words cannot describe what a remarkable woman she was,” said Mahingaidze.

[VIEW a Facebook album of photographs from the event]