By Panashe Chigumadzi (@panashechig)
Super virtues are not empowering because they strip me of my agency and instead of imbuing a deepened sense of humanity, really undermines what it is for me to be a full human. We might be well-intentioned when we dole them out, but it still remains condescending and we are doing no favours to minoritised cultures and groups.
“Western paradigm brands this criminal,” read President Jacob Zuma’s written submission to the National Prosecuting Authority in 2009 to have charges relating to the arms deal against him dropped, according to a City Press report published on Sunday.
Many on social media took this further to mean that what he meant was that ‘Africans cannot be corrupt’.
Whether he meant that, or whether he believes that is another story.
What that interpretation got me thinking about was a pet hate of mine – presenting idealized versions of people in minoritised cultures as a way to justify their fair treatment.
What do I mean by this? Statements such as the following:
- “Poor people in this country have an amazing resilience about them.”
- “What black people really have over other races is their sense of ubuntu.”
- “Black people have a wonderful capacity to forgive.”
- “When you empower a woman, you empower a nation.”
- “Women should be in the boardroom because women are ‘intuitive’, ‘consensus-seeking’, ‘good listeners’, and they are ‘care-givers’”
While many of these statements may be true and should be celebrated, to this I often ask, what if they didn’t have those characteristics? Would we then not see any reason for them to be treated equally? Is their humanity not enough?
The projection of these super virtuous characteristics are not surprising given the histories of oppression go hand in hand with peddling negative stereotypes. However, while many of these characteristics may be true and positive affirmations are important as a counterbalance, the way in which they are s often ‘administered’ can be problematic.
The super virtues are problematic because we run the risk of presenting the case that it is only once people embody these idealized versions of their social groupings that they deserve a seat at the table. That is unfair and doesn’t help the agenda of any oppressed group.
On one hand, as oppressed people, we begin to believe that the only way we can justify equal treatment is to be super virtuous and unflawed. On the other hand, those of us in dominant groups also begin to believe that we should treat those who we dominate equally only once they have proven themselves to be super virtuous and unflawed.
Some examples of ways seemingly positive empowerment campaigns that can have dangerous consequences:
- The strain of black excellence presented by the likes of Khaya Dlanga: This is the idea that black people must go to the moon and back in their careers so that they can have a seat in the boardroom.
- Female respectability politics: An example is when women should ideally have a ‘zero body count’ when they meet their partners in order for them to be deserving of respect and be shielded from being called a ho.
Running in a similar vein of harmful good intentions, very often, the oppressed is idealized for the purpose of their use as a prop or facilitator of the dominant group’s success.
We love talking about the need to empower women because that will mean, unlike with men, that her entire family will be uplifted. What if it was the case that when you empowered women they were worse or only just as good at men at empowering their families? Would we then not find it important to mount these gender equality campaigns?
Many of the best justifications for the fair treatment of women are hauled out during Women’s Month, when we hear of a women’s virtue derived from her relationships with other people. Just picture a packed stadium in Upington on the 9th August, our President, flanked by Angie Motshekga on one side and sermonizing on a podium, “We must respect women because they are our mothers, our wives, our daughters, our sisters!”
Nice gesture in the #HeForShe vein, but, no thanks.
As it pertains to the representation of black people in Hollywood movies, a ‘favourite’ trope of mine that presents an idealized (and very condescending) version of blackness is that of the ‘noble savage’ or ‘magical spiritual negro’ variety. Think Morgan Freeman in almost every movie he’s played. He’s either God or a wise old man there to help the white protagonist in his (would say her, but it usually is his) journey to self actualization.
I push back at all of this, because, while my relationships to other human beings are important, they are not the reason I deserve to be treated equally. My humanity is. I do not need to be selfless or serving the ends of others to be treated fairly.
Similarly, I can be just as bad, incompetent, and still deserve a seat at the table.
No human is all good or all bad. Why should you have to make me out to be that? I have the ability to choose to be whatever it is that I want to be. When I am good, it is not because that is an inherent characteristic of my blackness or my womahood. It is because, I chose, as all fully-able minded person can, to be good.
Super virtues are not empowering because they strip me of my agency and instead of imbuing a deepened sense of humanity, really undermines what it is for me to be a full human.
We might be well-intentioned when we dole them out, but it still remains condescending and we are doing no favours to minoritised cultures and groups.
You can miss me with imbuing undue virtues on me. I’m bad just like everybody else, thank you.
Panashe Chigumadzi is the editor of Vanguard Magazine.