#blackonblack is a feature in which black people discuss black culture/black experiences/black everything.
Steve Biko famously said, “Black man, you are on your own”. His words held a truth that spoke to me deeply as a black man. Racism seemed to make this dark truth stand out in all its stark, violent and repressive nature. Yet I never once questioned why Biko only saw the black man as being alone in the fight against racism. I automatically assumed the term “black man” was inclusive of black women. I assumed that my pain was the same as a black woman’s – that the black man’s struggle was equally shared by black women. I believed I could speak on behalf of black women because I thought we lived the same lives and shared similar experiences. To me, the racism black men suffered was the same black women suffered. I saw men and women as equals. I could only relate to women as a man and so I could only conceptualise racism through the eyes of a man. I could only conceive of the systems of power and oppression through my own experiences as a heterosexual black man. My social relations were informed by my social being and my social behaviour reflected this relationship and experience.
Our social bodies are different from our physical or meta-physical bodies. This difference is similar to the difference between gender and sex or race and skin colour. Our social bodies are the product of years of socialisation and are thus contextualised by our social order. So when Biko said “Black man, you are own your own”, I saw it through the lens of my socially constructed identity and body. I didn’t interrogate what it meant to be black or to be a man. I couldn’t see or place the ideas of being ‘black’ or a ‘man’ in their proper social constructs. It was only through reading a wide range of literature that I was forced to confront my ideas and views about society and the world in general.
Frantz Fanon wrote about the painful and stubborn nature of this process of consciousness:
Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.
Essentially what Fanon was telling us is that the process of making ourselves aware of this ideological and intellectual conflict was a tough one. Once we’d resolved that self-conflict, only then could we claim to be conscious, awake and aware. Cognitive dissonance is a part of that process and one that most of us are unfortunately “unconscious” of. Like Biko, Fanon seemed to be speaking to me about my views on women and black women in particular. The journey towards consciousness stripped away most of the “knowledge” that had informed my thinking and behaviour. I was now a black man embarrassed of the ideas and behaviour that once made up my social body, identity and relations.
While consciousness brought me to the realisation that racism was a system of institutionalised oppression and not a mere feeling of racial aversion, consciousness has brought me to the same realisation about patriarchy and heterosexual privilege. This realisation has come at the cost of my own confidence and shattered my delusions of intellectual grandeur. Whereas I could only see racism and its systematic effects, I’ve now awoken to find that racism is just a louder, more explicit relative of patriarchy. The two being systems of power whose effects are socially and physically consequential on every human being.
For men of colour, it’s almost impossible to detect the hideous effects of patriarchy. As black men especially, our racial identity relegates us to the bottom of the social order. We suffer the systematic consequences of racism and can describe it perfectly. Yet when it comes to patriarchy, we are mentally, socially and physically numb to it. Patriarchy, simply put, is a system that places social power in the hands of men while disempowering women. It does this in many ways, most of which are invisible to men precisely because we’re not women and as men, we exercise and transmit its power. Patriarchy has normalised, socialised and institutionalised the transmission and exercise of male power. It has woven ‘man’ into every inch of our social fabric such that the story of human existence has come to be known and accepted as ‘history’ – that is his story. What about her story?
I realised that I never truly heard or saw her story. Yes, I have “seen” my mother’s pain through her tears but I’ve never lived it. I would die for that woman and for my sister too. Yet I’ll never experience what it’s like to be a black woman, nor will I ever be able to understand a black woman’s struggle and pain. In this respect, I’ll never ever be able to voice, articulate or even represent her struggle and pain. In fact, I’ll indirectly be complicit in their subjugation. As soon as I indicate my sex on my CV, I’ll be accessing the privilege afforded to me by patriarchy which prioritises my economic independence over my mother and sister. I’ll never have to think about contraception beyond a condom because the penis’ sexual pleasure must come and prevail at all costs. I’ll never have to think about the socio-economic costs of being a woman because my male privilege and the institutions of patriarchy do not recognise and accommodate women. Precisely because it’s a system of power, patriarchy depends on asymmetric power relations between men and women in every social context. His story will forever be told as the only story.
Indeed, this is what I’ve said, not in those words exactly but my actions and behaviour have reflected that very sentiment. Not just my actions and behaviour but the actions of men in general. Black men have reproduced the effects of racism, capitalism and patriarchy without shame. Whether consciously or unconsciously, black men have been hammering the final nails into the social crucifixion of black women since Europe colonised and enslaved Africa. Hip-Hop has evolved into a global patriarchal and capitalist culture of exploitation that commodifies black women and then constructs them as “bitches” and “hoes” to be exported to the rest of the world as the property of a “gangster” or a “G”. Hip Hop-is just one of the many conveyor belts of patriarchy. Others include but aren’t limited to war and crimes against women. Wars have only documented the blood spilled by men, but never acknowledged the blood and broken bodies of women.
As a black man, I’ll only be able to conceive of crimes committed against black women in an incomplete and unconscious manner. What I saw when feminists spoke out against rape, murder, abduction, sexual slavery and other atrocities, were evil men acting alone in hurting individual women. Never did I question the systematic context that places and consigns women of colour to the dungeons of our social existence. And because I failed to listen and read, I continued to reproduce those effects of patriarchal power almost automatically and unashamedly. I came to painful realisations that when I called exes, girlfriends and wives “bitches” or “hoes”, I was concomitantly hammering those nails into the black woman’s heart.
Once we’ve become aware of these systems of power and their many shades and gradations, we become conscious of our own oppressive behaviour towards women and women of colour. As a black man raised by a black woman, it’s hard to confront the fact that you’ve been unconsciously or consciously complicit in the subjugation of your mothers and sisters. But consciousness dictates that we must swallow that pill. Pride is another pill that we are forced to swallow. I have to apologise for my behaviour towards women. I wish I could blame it on cognitive dissonance but I cannot because my actions are inexcusable. They’re inexcusable because feminist literature is easily accessible and available. I have to accept blame and assume responsibility for ignoring and dismissing women’s voices because I’ve heard them loud and clear for so many years but I never listened. Perhaps it’s too late to apologise after being called out as sexist, but I’ll apologise regardless, especially to black women for my part in promoting patriarchy and misogyny. When men are called out for misogyny or sexism, we recoil into defensive mode in order shield ourselves from perceived attacks on our individual character and self.
For black men raised by single mothers, the recoil is even more reflexive. However, we centre our existence by looking at women through our individual eyes as black men who’ve suffered racism. We fail to relate to women through systematic lenses that will reveal the systematic effects of our actions on women. We do not count ourselves as a part of that system when in fact, we are the system for the very reason that it requires men to transmit its effects. I guess as men of colour, we come up against racism and see race as the final frontier of our liberation. We are unaware of the many other social struggles women face. They’re invisible to us because we defend it as “culture” or “normal”. We’ve been socialised and institutionalised into a patriarchal system to the point where it has become a part of black (male) culture. You need only look at our own behaviour and the array of crimes committed against women to see just how far patriarchy is ingrained into our social bodies.
Even after one has become conscious of patriarchy and its oppressive consequences, it’s difficult to escape it because it’s automated in our social responses. How do we as men of colour escape it when we also derive benefits from it? How do we confront something hidden from our unconscious minds? I do not have all the answers. Suffice to say I know my first response should be to listen, observe and think before acting and reacting. We need to listen to women. We can no longer dismiss rape as a criminal offense in isolation of our social context. We can no longer ignore feminism as some ‘irritating’ thorn that can simply be crushed by pointing towards “equal rights” in liberal democratic institutions. Though we live as individuals, I’ve accepted my actions are part of and produce systematic ripples. And it is within these systematic ripples that our actions and behaviour as men must be evaluated and conceived.
Even if I die tomorrow, I know that my son will be born into a society that ensures he reproduces the same systematic ripples as his father and forefathers. A lack of consciousness has made me aware of how blind I am blind to the many frontiers of patriarchy, capitalism and racism. These struggles are being waged on multiple fronts. Black women fight on all fronts and perhaps they are the final frontier of the human war against itself. The ideal of human emancipation depends on the liberation and final victory of black women. Unfortunately, black women have fought their struggle alone. They’ve stood bare at a confluence of systems of power that have pummelled and withered their existence. It shames me as a black man that they’ve borne the full force of man’s fists alone, with the black man throwing the final punch. The black man, who is meant to partner the black woman in sharing, has fired the final bullet.
How long before we listen to the cries of black women? When will we take her accusations levelled against us seriously? How long will our attempts to articulate the pain and struggles of black women continue to drown and invalidate her voice and pain? The pattern of our existence has indicated that the black women’s call for freedom will forever fall on deaf ears. Black men have never been alone. He has had her beside him.
Black woman, it is you who is alone.
This piece is a part of Season V of PTL which is run in association with: All About Trans.
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(The image used to head this piece is sourced from: here)
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