Fanon and the ‘Indian Question’: Do people of Indian descent pick and choose blackness?

By Zinhle Manzini (@conflictedblackgirl)

Zinhle Manzini reflects on Frantz Fanon’s chapter “West Indians and Africans” in Toward the African Revolution as a means to deconstruct the numerous corridor disputes about the official post-apartheid definition of ‘Black’ where many ‘Black people of African descent often feel that those of Indian descent should not be included in this definition because, as one of the often-stated reasons go, under Apartheid they did not experience as much oppression as their ‘Black African’ counterparts.

The original version of this article first appeared here

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In the context of post-apartheid South Africa the term ‘Black’ generically includes ‘Black Africans’, ‘Indians’ and ‘Coloureds’, such that even when it comes to the policy of Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment, this definition for Black People remains roughly the same. Yet there seems to be some corridor disputes about this definition, some Black people often feel that those of Indian descent should not be included in this definition because, as one of the often-stated reasons go, under Apartheid, they did not experience as much oppression as their ‘Black African’ counterparts.

This dispute has been recently echoed by the JMPD female officer Ms Laurencia Shitlhelana who stopped Clive Naidoo at the Bram Fischer Drive and Jan Smuts Ave intersection in August 2015.  Towards the end of this viral video (shot by Naidoo), Shitlhelana states that “Indians and Blacks we are the same, so them [Indians] think they are White, and they are not. [They are as] Black as us! [Its’] because they speak English. That’s why they stay in Bloubosrand, because if he was White he would stay in Sandton.”

Shitlhelana’s commentary is further echoed by a fellow student, Ms Mavuso,  whom I asked whether she thinks that Indians are better than Blacks. Mavuso responded saying, “Yes, they do think they are better than us; look at how most of them treat their Black domestic workers, or workers in general. They [Indians] only consider themselves black when it suits them. That is when they are going to benefit from BEE but at other times on a daily basis, they think they are White. Furthermore, they also think that they are inherently better economically, which means that they may also end up thinking that they are socially superior.”

Another student I spoke to Ms Mopeli, felt that “Since the racial category system places Indians in a binary between Black and white, so Indians in this racial hierarchy are neither Black nor White but they think that being in this liminal space makes them better than Blacks”.

I then went on to ask a fellow Indian student what his thoughts are and he stated that:  “The obvious answer is yes. However, we mustn’t forget the hierarchy that was created by Apartheid, a lot of Indians came here as slaves but the way Apartheid structured itself, there is something to be said about how the system shaped their subjectivity, there has been an assimilation to whiteness rather than blackness, running towards whiteness. There is the risk of shaming of blackness.”

The above mentioned remarks allude to Frantz Fanon’s chapter “West Indians and Africans” in Toward the African Revolution.  In this chapter Fanon maps two periods in history of the West Indies: that being prior and after the war of 1939-1945. Prior to the war Fanon states that the West Indian was very happy, she had access to education, had the right to vote and if she was wealthy then she could speak about having been to Paris. Yet, without falsifying the problem Fanon writes that at every level of the “West Indian society an inescapable feeling of superiority over the African develops, becomes systematic, hardens. In every West Indian, before the war of 1939, there was not only the certainty of superiority over the African, but the certainty of a fundamental difference. The African was a Negro and the West Indian a European”, we note here that this feeling of superiority over the Black person is something that has been there since 1939.

Fanon further goes on to say that during this time period the West Indian did not view herself as Black, she only viewed herself as Black when she had relations with the a white man, that is a white man who would oblige her to assert her skin colour. It was only when the West Indian economy suffered a severe blow and nothing could be imported that the West Indian experienced her first metaphysical experience, that is she was now forced to view herself differently. This happened even after the war in 1945 where the West Indian now had to view herself differently, not only did she realise that she was Black but she was also classified as a Negro (which in South African terms the word would be synonymous to a Kaffir), Fanon makes us aware of the West Indians viewing of herself. In 1939 the West Indian always viewed herself as being better than the Black person, but from 1945 onwards she starts to see herself as one of them.

Furthermore, for fifteen years the West Indians had insisted to the European that “Don’t pay attention to my black skin, it’s the sun that has burned me, my soul is as white as yours” and from 1945 onwards she sang a different tune and said to the African’s “don’t pay attention to my white skin, my soul is as black as yours, and that is what matters”.

Dear reader, the point mentioned above leads us to the commentary made by Mopeli that Indians have always found themselves in this liminal space of being neither white nor Black and we can note that their history places them in a position where they were previously superior than  Blacks and when times change they are forced to accept a Black identity. Such an observation is nicely articulated by Fanon in the last pages of the chapter, as he states that “the West Indian identified himself with the white man, adopted a white man’s attitude, [and] ‘was a white man’. After the West Indian was obliged, under the pressure of European racists, to abandon positions which were essentially fragile, because they were absurd, because they were incorrect, because they were alienating, a new generation came into being. The West Indian of 1945 is a Negro”.

Bearing in mind that such a question should be approached intersectionally, it seems as though most responses seem to apply an additive approach towards oppression. Yet the responses are still largely valid. The follow up question would be whether or not Indians should fall within the classification of ‘Black’, and whether it is morally permissible for them to use the term seemingly only when it suits them.

39 Comments
    1. It is interesting to note that difference. However, it’s also important to note that the colonialists for both distinct groups came from a cognate metripole.

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