Black is the New Black

Michael Onsando
5 November ,2013

Last week I went for a protest march. At the Inspector General’s office, everybody was scrambling to hear the response. Eager to listen, I made my way to the front as well. At some point I felt an arm on my shoulder – trying to shove me aside. Amidst standing my ground I turned and was face to face with this white man who demanded I move. He had a camera and worked for some press agency. This, by his logic, gave him more right to the space than I had. I refused to move and asked him to take his white privilege to someone who cares. There was a gasp and one lady said, “That’s so racist!” I was the racist she was talking about.

I went home.

Not because I agreed with what she said, but because I was too angry to hang around – and everyone around was trying to get me to ‘calm down.’ As I write this, I think about the number of discussions I have found myself where I have to explain privilege, how it works, and how it is applicable in our everyday lives. More often than I should I meet people who think that we are living in a post oppression world – as if somehow everything is level now. Living within this umbrella of false equality creates a situation where not only are people who speak up against that umbrella ignored, they are actively shunned.

Ngugi Wa Thiongo wrote a book on decolonising the mind. He addresses how language is used to keep people in their place. Keeping people in their place is what creates a situation that people from certain backgrounds end up having privilege. The people who are allowed to roam through places without having to sit within any certain paradigm are privileged persons. Explains why, for example, it’s easy for a white lady to come here, become a Maasai warrior and feel like she is liberating the locals. Privilege allows for imposition and appropriation of culture. Privilege is the reason why any lady walking around with a man will be assumed to be on his bill. The idea that somehow privilege exists is one of the hardest things to deal with. Especially since, in accepting that forms of privilege exist, the odds are that one will find a certain privilege that works in their favour.

Once this privilege is found it is very hard to deal with it. Audre Lorde writes:

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

The work of unpacking one’s privilege does not simply happen with accepting the status quo and saying that ‘these things happen.’ It has often been said that people who work towards creating a better world must always work against the grain. In some circles this is called being a killjoy – being ready to be the person who will pipe up in the middle of that joke and say “this is not right.” This act of being a killjoy does, what I believe, is unlearning. It slowly unravels the ways we have learned to think and gives us new ways – new ideas. These new ways will often be for the better of society as a whole.

In the field of technology, there is this thing known as disruptive technology – where a business model is built purely for the purpose of destabilising traditional business models to catch up with innovation, meet customer demand and, of course, change everything.

These disruptions – in flow of profit, in how markets work, in shifting of market values – are doing horrible things for businesses and practices that have existed for hundreds of years. However, to the consumer, they are great. Online marketing and information has forced prices of a large number of goods down and created access to goods – and services — in areas that wouldn’t otherwise have them.

In line with the same model of disruptive business, I propose disruptive thinking.

Thinking that will go against the common and unchallenged schools of thought. Thinking that will ask questions like “Who decided that women nag? And who declared this person an expert on women, or nagging, to make them suitable to make this decision?” Thinking that will completely go against a large number of things that you have been learned. I use learned because being taught connotes some sort of consciousness to the process of absorbing this knowledge. What you have been learned slowly seeped in undetected. And, in being undetected, wrapped itself around the core of your being.

When this kind of disruptive thinking happens, we begin to see the things that those lessons we were learned tried so hard to hide from us. Then, in seeing them, we point them out forcing the people around us to join in disrupting traditional institutionalised forms of thinking. Sara Ahmed (who I have been trying not to quote until now) writes:

When racism recedes from social consciousness, it appears as if the ones who “bring it up” are bringing it into existence. To recede is to go back or withdraw.  To concede is to give way, yield. People of colour are often asked to concede to the recession of racism: we are asked to “give way” by letting it “go back.” Not only that: more than that. We are often asked to embody a commitment to diversity. We are asked to smile in their brochures.  We are asked to put racism behind us as if racism is behind us.

Many people would like the suggestion to be made that we are living within a post – colonial/racial/classist/ tribal/sexist Kenya. This utopia in our minds is what has been created to keep us within this cocoon of self-assuredness where we think everything is okay. This is how we have been learned to think. No, women are not oppressed. No, the army is definitely doing good. Yes, money is everything. No, there is no such thing as rape culture. No, racism died years ago. No, these things are not happening. It is for this reason that we have created the phrase “______ is the new black.” Because the idea of black oppression is of the past. We are being led to believe that somehow, being a person of colour does not affect anything. That privilege, in its many forms, does not exist.

Black is the new black.

Same as the old black – only darker.

At the protest march a friend said “I’m not much of a good protester. I don’t jump and dance and all but I come because I’m another body.” The simple truth is – the work of disruptive thought needs bodies. The work of insistence needs bodies. Every individual knows of Martin Luther and his dream – few people talk about the 250,000 people who were doing the work of being bodies that refused to be moved.

This is the work of disruptive thinking. In our accept-and-move-on society the work of disruptive thinking is to refuse to accept – to refuse to move on. It is to unpack one’s privilege while being mindful of others. It is to believe that somehow things can get better – even as they seem insistent on getting worse. And yes, many times, it is the work of saying things that will be a complete killjoy in the room. It is to refuse to spend time looking for something to fit in the old black because black has somehow become outdated.

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