Reclaiming Blackness in a White World
Kevin Kapenda // Columnist
The first person who called me black did not look like me. As a child, my identity derived from my Central and Southern African heritage rather than skin colour. In many ways, I was forced to identify as “black” in a society dominated by whiteness. However, as I grew older, I realized people had little interest in knowing where I was from or who I was. They only saw my skin.
In western and postcolonial societies, there is a widely held belief that the use of black and white to distinguish races developed organically. While we glumly accept the abuses of colonialism and racism, we rarely acknowledge the role terms like black and Indian played in supporting those institutions.
Exploring the origin of these terms, both in isolation and relation to whiteness, has been on my mind for some time. My impasse with the term black is that it’s embedded with connotations that aren’t influenced by the people it defines. By constructing whiteness as the most desirable human quality, blackness and indigeneity are thereby defined as least favourable traits.
Implicit racism and stereotyping are more identifiable than ever, but we still resist discussing the power structures that persistently devalue non-white populations. As a black man, I must accept that I will be viewed as a threat, nuisance or outsider in a number of environments. I also know that my skin is viewed as inferior to both whites, as well as other visible minority groups.
In many ways, I was forced to identify as ‘black’ in a society dominated by whiteness.
This construction of the black body as errant, undesirable and violent was coined in the works of 20th-century Black scholars James Baldwin, W.E.B. DuBois, Frantz Fanon, Camara Laye and Aime Cesaire, among many others. All five spoke different languages and lived in different parts of the world. However, during their lives in America and France, each of them arrived at the identical conclusion that the most important feature of their identity to whites was not their background or nationality, but the color of their skin. Fanon described the construction of the black body as an epidermal schema of how white society viewed blackness, epitomized in his quote “Mama, see the Negro! I’m frightened!”
It is important to note that constructions of blackness are fluid and change over time, like virtually all other concepts and symbols. However, since much of our identity is often dictated by colonialism and racism, many assumptions about the capacities and limitations of black people continue to hinder our progress. When Barack Obama was running for president, all of the qualities that fueled his rise, such as his eloquence, were attributed to his American mother and grandmother by white observers. Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that Obama was successful because his skin was “light” and he had “no negro dialect.”
Much of my childhood in the late 90s and 2000s was spent watching basketball, football and soccer. By this time, it was not unusual for entire lineups and teams to be predominantly or entirely black. However, there were few black coaches, something that has not changed as we near the 2020s. This is primarily due to the persistent belief that black players are not smart enough to coach professionally, nor play positions that emphasize intelligence over athleticism. Brazil’s national team has been dominated by players of colour for the last half-century, yet none of their managers in the last 60 years have been “mulatto” or “negro”.
Furthermore, it’s important to note the characterization of blacks as undisciplined, unintelligent and unable to lead transcends sports. We are least likely to attain leadership positions in a variety of fields – academia, business, entertainment, government, journalism and science – because we don’t fit the mould of what a good leader looks like.
Reclaiming blackness is, therefore, one of the biggest challenges of our time. Race continues to be a superficial measure of one’s character, intelligence and worth. This problem won’t be solved quickly, but if societies can bring themselves to recognize it, we can begin to address implicit racism in our institutions, media, communities and households.