‘’You dranked my juice’’, he said to me after I opened his juice and drank it.
‘’I know. I drank it because you were on the phone and I like that flavour’’, I explained, hoping he had heard me say drank instead of dranked. ‘’It’s okay’’ he said. ‘’I don’t mind that you dranked it first. How did it taste?’’ ‘‘Good’’, I said. I jump-started the conversation in a different direction and it was slow to move, then I stopped listening because I was fixated on the error of language in his speech. So the nerve to say something prompted itself in my mouth. ‘’It’s drank you know, not dranked’’, I said slightly, anticipating an acerbic response meted out by a mind bigger than my own. My mind knows more but isn’t necessarily wiser than his I realized as soon as I had said it. ‘’Did you understand what I was saying?’’ he asked. ‘’Yes I did’’. ‘’Then that’s all you need to consider’’.
And by the logic in those seven words, I was cut to size. It didn’t stop there. This black South African man has no ambitions to excel in the English language. He thought it interesting that I should correct him about a language that is not his own, in a language that is not my own. He said he wished I had done it to him attempting to speak my home language of isiXhosa, which he does not speak. ‘’Decolonizing is practice, you know”, he declared. ‘’We may communicate in the oppressor’s language but, I don’t respect it enough to want to be good at it’’. I kept guard of my words when I realized that I had just reenacted a scene I saw too many times and hated as a child but he externalized them. ‘’You just reminded me of my white school teachers who used to beat this language into us’’, he said with a smile that disarmed my defensive position so that this exchange unfolded like a conversation between a teacher and a student. I didn’t feel bad more than I felt misunderstood. In my mind, I wasn’t one of those judgmental Anglophile black people because I’m ‘’conscious’’, I’m ‘’woke’’, I understand how oppressive systems work.
His words lingered and landed in places that were longing for them. You have to question your proximity to whiteness and what that means for you if you have chosen to fight against whiteness. You have to betray the arrogance of thinking that the world beyond that proximity needs to be corrected to those (and your) standards. You can’t be the thing that you want to destroy. So what if you’ve read Biko? What are you doing with his teachings besides repeating them and wearing them to dinner parties? What are your own thoughts? You want to be free. You need to think about how to free yourself before you free other people.
I drank my own juice at this point and wondered whether I corrected him because I love the language or because I couldn’t help myself from exerting an unconsciously perceived better blackness over him because of its proximity to whiteness both in language and attitude.
How often is a wedge driven between the Black African person and his or her true essence, which is whole and perfect and should revolve around itself but in the world, is dismissed or judged according to an imported and oppressive pyramid scheme of a standard? Fix your hair. Your skin colour is an adjective. Where was your father? Don’t use the olive oil. Why are you late? The fees have fallen so everything must go back to normal. I didn’t recognize you without your blue overall William. I’ll never use another black agency. It’s pronounced Khaan not Cans.
We the privileged blacks, the colonized, the sufficiently inhabited by foreign ways of being, the comfortable ones, just like our handlers, like to make effigies of poor people everyday, paying lip service to their well being but we burn them in the perennial flames of our judgment, for not being like us, just like our white handlers did to us.
Despite my daily efforts to save the world from structural injustices, my unconscious thin line of a mistake was that I still chose judge a black man because he used an English word wrong instead of accept the fact that I understood what he was saying and let that be that, which is the bottom line of communication.
Have I become a benevolent elitist, trying to dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools?. Self-deprecating speech is unbecoming, but in this case I wonder about some of the nice things I’ve become used to, like filter coffee and using words like ”patriarchy” in everyday speak. I’m not sorry for my relationship to these things but I can’t pretend that I have divorced my class privilege just because I am aware of it. I know my privilege is a lazy, cheating parasite but perhaps I’ve been too concerned with the things outside of it to realize that I should be fighting the injustices that live quite comfortably in my own head.
This column first appeared in City Press on Sunday 15 November 2015