“When you are an object, you are incapable of your own actions, and you are vulnerable to anyone’s actions upon you.” – Audrey Wollen
If South Africa had a totem pole of cultural appropriators, Nicholas “Pule” Welch would be at the top of it. He’d be towering above Johnny Clegg, Maritjie ”Hlengiwe” Bothma the (pretty hilarious) white woman who appeared in the King Pie advert and other TV shows sounding like a Zulu person), David Jenkins aka Qadasi, the SAMA award winning 21st Century version of Johnny Clegg, Jay Something of Mi Casa (whose musical mediocrity is hidden by his typically “black” dance moves and theatrical utterances of township slang), Die Antwoord (the fantastically oily global pop sensations who appropriated elements of Cape Coloured culture and lived experiences of violence and addiction), and lastly the Pantsula-dancing Swedish girls whose video of impressive moves in front of a shack in Orange Farm is doing the social media rounds to dizzying applause.
But these are amateurs, swimming in the irresolute waters of cultural appropriation amongst entities like Spur (an entire brand built on appropriating Native American culture) and the word ubuntu (which officially lost its meaning when Chris Hani’s killer’s family used it to motivate the release of Clive Derby Lewis). They don’t hold a candle to White Pule – brilliant polyglot, compelling actor, competent comedian, great TV presenter, and our very own Rachel Dolezal. A white man who believes and tells people he is black.
He dresses like a skhothane, refers to white people as “them” and insists that he is a black man from a Mkhize clan, even though nobody fears his ‘black body’ when he is in the streets. To him, having spent a lot of time with black people in townships means he can appropriate a black accent when he speaks English, a language he criticises black South Africans for speaking. He has also publicly scolded black people for being “too white”, neglecting the fact that black people have been forced to assimilate or perish at the hands of people who look like him beneath his costume.
But unlike Rachel Dolezal, White Pule doesn’t submit to the reality that he is in fact white. This “black man trapped in a white man’s body” forces his way into a culture, communities and people’s consciousness because his white male power allows him to. And the black people who hire him for gigs, under the bewildering spell of an innovative form of white racism of the quarter-to-self-loathing variety, are yet to draw a line to say, “Thanks but no, you don’t get to be black just because you want to because no matter how hard we try, which we have, we will never be white.”
White bodies have historically ‘othered’ and oppressed African, Asian, South American, Caribbean, North American and Aboriginal Australian bodies, cultures and religions. While a lot of these cultures have assimilated to a globally powerful European way of being, they have managed to retain many aspects of their cultures and languages, code-switching their way to multifaceted existences. So it becomes a problem when white bodies also want to take what’s left of those cultures as a curiosity, to escape their whiteness in pursuit of “the other” or for attention and praise, which leads to money, money that a black person wearing a sporty and speaking in tsotsitaal won’t make for being that very thing.
All of this would be a harmless cultural exchange if we lived in a world where white South Africans spoke indigenous languages as well as black people speak English and Afrikaans. It would be cute if there had been true integration of cultures in our country, if there were as many white girls Pantsularing as there are black girls doing demi pliés.
But this is happening within a context of historical and present-day racism, founded on power, money and control of the black body as an object of the white gaze in science (Sara Baartman), art (Bretts Murray and Bailey), pop music (Miley Cyrus) and literature (Noddy). The black body has always been used in the service of whiteness and capitalism, from miners to domestic workers. When black people speak English, pray to a Christian God or make bacon and eggs, they are not appropriating British culture, they have assimilated because they were dominated and forced to.
I see this lucrative and unchecked form of cultural appropriation as another page in the same history book where white people have forcibly taken almost everything that black people have owned, from land to bodies. If I served on an imaginary court of cultural appropriation judgment, my sentence would not be a harsh one. It would be simple: Just Leave Us Alone Already. Stop studying us. Stop probing us. Stop touring our townships. Stop copying our hairstyles. Stop making millions from TV shows about us. Stop photographing us. Stop appropriating our languages, which you don’t speak, by naming your game lodges or fashion labels in them. Please, just leave us alone.
This article first appeared in City Press on Sunday 29 November 2015