Friday, 9 September 2011

On cultural oppression

by H. Nanjala Nyabola, Pambazuka

‘The Object of racism is no longer the individual but a certain form of existing’ – Frantz Fanon

Where does oppression begin? The above quote is taken from the essay ‘Racism and Culture’ from the collection ‘Towards the African Revolution’ by Frantz Fanon. Fanon was genius at spotting the many smaller battles that prevent people from realising their full potential, weaving together brilliant meta-narratives that demonstrated that oppression began long before the individual situated himself in the formal political arena. Fanon rightly argues that oppression is about structures of power that influence or impact on individual and communal self-worth, and in this breath I’d like to bring something up that is decidedly beyond the realm of formal politics.

Over the last few weeks, the question of the woman of colour and her body has been a recurring theme in my personal conversations. On one hand, the question of sexuality reared its head as the global (read North American and European) ‘Slut Walks’ ostensibly designed to insist that the style of a women’s dress was no invitation for sexual assault. The question levelled at this movement however is to what extent women outside Europe and North America view this as an integral part of their day-to-day life. Which is not to say that sexual assault doesn’t happen in the global south – that would be a laughable assertion. However, the vast scale of sexual assault in the DRC for instance emphasises that rape in many similar communities is an act of political rather than personal violence – not any more or less grave, just different. I wonder what the women of Eastern Congo would say to the ‘Slut Walkers’ if they had a chance?

On the other hand, the question of hair keeps recurring as well. For the uninitiated, since the era of slavery, when African American women were forced to cover their hair because it was ‘filthy, or disgusting’, women in the African community have been debating the social and political dimensions of relaxers, dreadlocks and natural hair. This is no trivial matter – for many women the politics of hairstyle is completely integrated to their self -perception and their status within their communities. Whether we like it or not, our choice of hairstyle is almost always interpreted as some kind of political statement, and almost always intractably linked with the notion of race. Relaxers, it is argued, are emblematic of the self-loathing internalised by women of African descent over years of oppression, and indeed Malcolm X has a wonderful speech available on You Tube on the question of ‘who taught you to hate yourself?’ dealing explicitly with this idea.

These two issues are linked firstly because you see the continuing tension between race and gender in women of colour. During the independence/civil rights era, women were often compelled to subjugate their gender-based rights struggles for the greater good – it was almost as if being black was harder than being a woman. When you get the resurgence of the feminist movement in the late 1960s and 1970s, you find many women stuck between rights issues that emerge from a rather Western framework (the debate on the public-private divide) and rights issues that pay no attention to the struggles which women of colour face against their own men. Postcolonial feminism continues to argue for the right of women of colour to have their struggles articulated in their own terms, but modern women of colour are still sensing that they have to wear different hats to fight each battle, or that they cannot be fought concurrently.

Secondly, the issues are linked because they emphasise the continuing struggle over the black woman’s body. The notion of rape as linked to dressing sexy would seem alien to many women of the global south because majority of women who are raped in the global south dress no differently than any other women in their community. By labelling their movement ‘global’, the Slut Walks – with all their good intentions – inherently lay claim to the oppression of women’s body in a manner that many black women may find ahistorical. In the same breath, the politics of women’s hair is often defined by others – Ngugi wa Thiong’o has written about women’s hair, Chris Rock has produced a hit movie about the politics of ‘Good Hair’. A feminist may argue that a black woman has the right to wear her hair however she wants, while those who stress racial oppression more may argue that the political dimensions run far too deep for the decision to be taken lightly.

Fanon talks about how the ‘social constellation, the cultural whole’ is deeply intertwined with the nature of racism; that as overt racism even then became less of an acceptable practice, it evolved into cultural racism. ‘The daily affirmation of superiority’ becomes an implied act through cultural forms – think of representations of people of colour as criminals, sexually deviant or generally exotic in popular culture. Racism is socialised and the process of teaching a people that they are inherently lesser than a mainstream culture is therefore a process of oppression. I would argue that the same analysis extends towards women’s bodies; that as women’s rights issues have gained prominence, the oppression of women has changed form and become a more cultural oppression. The sexualisation of women in popular culture as ‘liberation’ should thus be taken with a generous dash of scepticism.

All of which leads to a question that I’m still searching for answers to: Can African women or women of African descent ever be truly liberated if they never learn to love their hair as it grows out of their head?