‘All these white folks chanting when I asked ’em where my niggas at? Goin’ crazy, got me goin’ crazy, I can’t get wit’ that. Wonder if they know, I know they won’t go where we kick it at’ – Vince Staples
This year has been a remarkable year for race relations. In particular movements like Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall in conjunction with many other civil society groups did something that shook the white community (liberal and conservative) to its core – they caused black issues to (also) be white problems.
White protected spaces which had the privilege of being insulated from black issues were physically and psychologically disrupted by students who rejected the status quo of having to negotiate spaces not designed for people of colour.
One very prominent effect of these movements is that it exposed how uncomfortable white people are with people of colour in their spaces.
The context of this piece is the recent criticism of clubs such as Tiger Tiger by ‘white progressive people’. Most recently there has been a social media uproar brought on by Tiger Tiger’s decision to call one if its parties #drinksmustfall, a clear play on the #feesmustfall and #rhodesmustfall movements. (NB: After some pressure Tiger Tiger changed the name.)
While undoubtedly this name was insensitive and in bad taste (as is to be expected from Tiger Tiger), I find it disturbing that a lot of criticism of Tiger Tiger and related establishments, especially this year, has come from white people who are guilty of perpetuating white dominance in these club spaces. For example, the criticism comes from white people who eschew the Claremont scene for the trendier City Bowl scene. People who party in places in the City Bowl.
The general sentiment being that Tiger Tiger is racist, sexist, ablist, homophobic and transphobic, but seemingly most importantly ‘uncool’, whereas clubs in the City Bowl are uniformly inclusive and most importantly ‘cool’.
While Tiger Tiger is undoubtedly more crude in its approach, places like the Assembly and Fiction are not immune from criticism as they reproduce the same types of spaces as Tiger Tiger. The only difference being that they do it under the banner of ‘cool,’ providing an alternative party scene where on any given night the musical menu can vary from Tame Impala and Beach House to Kanye West and Okmalumkoolkat. This scene thrives on cool. It lives for it.
Expressions of black pain on white terms…
Ironically, with the proliferation of black-led movements on social media and critically acclaimed mainstream ‘black pain’ music such as Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To pimp a butterfly’ and D’Angelo’s ‘Black Messiah’, black pain anthems and blackness in general has become cooler than ever. And, as a part of that, nothing says cool in 2015 more than being a WWP (Woke White Person).
Being in a club and listening to Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’ – a song about black people maintaining hope in a sea of violence – while hundreds of white people chanted along to the lyrics has to be the most surreal experience I had ever had whilst out.
For people of colour (and allies) fighting the war against racism, Kendrick’s words are a reflection of the seemingly irrational but necessary hope people of colour must keep in a world that has been unrelenting in its discrimination and violence to darker-hued people, and the song as a whole, an anthem for this.
In some ways it’s the hood’s expletive ‘I have a dream’ by Martin Luther King in a post-non-violent world. Knowing what the song represents it becomes abundantly clear that if you aren’t a person of colour or ally, should signal that it’s not for you, because you are already ‘alright’.
That moment personified everything wrong with people’s refusal to leave white dominated spaces, and for many white fans of the song it’s unfortunately a song devoid of meaning in a country where it should mean everything. Partying in these spaces isn’t problematic per se, but when the people who frequent these places refuse to leave white safe spaces, it perpetuates the belief that black voices/bodies are only acceptable in white spaces when reduced to mp3’s that can be stopped, looped and ultimately controlled.
Yes, there are people of colour who also party in these clubs, but for white people – who seem to love hip hop and know the words to the latest Drake song – the question remains ‘where were you when black-run parties were having hip hop nights?’
‘Where were you when we were running through the 6?’
To be clear, this is not just about where white people party or what music is played at these parties. The much larger issue here is that (even vocally anti-racist) white people typically avoid predominantly black spaces, whereas black people are required to navigate white spaces as a condition of their existence.
White people are still only willing to tackle race from a place of dominance and protection and it’s this hypocrisy that raises questions over the genuineness of their support.
How can you be an ally, or proponent of change, when you hide within protected spaces? How can you be an ally when people of colour continue to be a theoretical construct whose spaces you are too afraid to enter? What legitimacy do your words have if you’re only willing to shout them from safely white spaces?
This is a question I’ve posed to a few white friends and the response was almost always ‘I know lots of black people; this doesn’t apply to me.’ However, the following probing questions revealed a more accurate truth:
- How many people of colour where at your last birthday party?
- How many of your housemates are/were people of colour?
- How many times do you socialize in spaces that aren’t predominantly white spaces?
- Have you ever dated a person of colour?
- How many people of colour’s homes have you ever visited?
The point of these questions, which are by no means exhaustive, is to ask if there continues to be a protective barrier shielding white experiences from black realities in the most intimate and personal spaces.
Undoubtedly there continues to be a divide, which again, isn’t breaking news, but there are now white people in white spaces preaching the progressive cause while never having taken the time to leave their protected spaces. As an ally it should be clear that you cannot ‘UNISA’ black people. The aversion to entering black spaces to truly become part of a progressive community inhibits allyship, and any support shown is effectively compromising to the overall movement.
That being said, being an ally isn’t just about knowing people of colour or socialising in black spaces, or “having black friends.” It is undoubtedly also about believing in the transformative justice which many black-led movements hope to achieve, and this movement requires a sense of community.
You cannot be part of the movement if you are not part of the community, and you cannot be part of the community if you hide within protected spaces.
So what’s the solution?
In dealing with these spaces that have failed to transform I suggest the following:
Firstly, white persons need to explore – and figure out how to manoeuvre within – spaces where they aren’t dominant.
Secondly, simply opening up white-dominant spaces and encouraging people of colour to attend won’t work, as this approach would fail to address the living power dynamics that still exist in these spaces.
White-dominant spaces can only be transformed in material terms if there is a collaboration on equal terms between people of colour and white people. This requires the organisers of these events to open up a dialogue with black party goers and find out what makes them feel comfortable. In other words, these places need to share ownership and curatorship of these spaces to create a truly progressive environment.
Apartheid legislation created white dominated and dominating spaces. The goal of racially progressive movements is to dismantle these spaces that divide people – not simply to be critical of them as a means of legitimising them.