I was on Twitter a couple of weeks ago when I saw someone go on a rant about how black Africans on social media platforms should be wary of complaining about our society too much because the wider world was watching. The tirade was premised on the idea that we are “letting the (black) side down” when we present our lived realities as anything other than perfect. Apparently, we should instead be the noble, amiable ambassadors of our race and our countries at all times, then deal with our own issues away from public scrutiny. But I think we need to shake off the burden of black ambassadorship and allow each other to critique and complain in order for us to work to achieve the society we want.
The Burden of Black ‘ambassadorship’ is White Supremacy in Action
By the time we reach adulthood, black people have probably heard the ‘ambassadorship’ speech about a thousand times. It’s the speech we get when we’re going to other (wealthier) schools. We give it when we’re going to enter international spaces. We get it when we’re going to interact with white people. Every single black person is constantly deemed to be acting as a representative of every single other black person. We are made to be the ambassadors of blackness in a white supremacist world that has deemed that everything negative is black.
Further, white supremacist propaganda posits that black people are best regarded in a negative light and should always be thought of as a group: we are loud, dirty, stupid, incapable, dishonest and violent. We are assumed to be, and portrayed as, singular in our inability to accede to decent humanity. Thus, in the minds of many black Africans, each and every one of us is supposed to do our part in changing up this mind-set.
The argument is rooted in respectability politics – the idea that if you show those who belittle and oppress you that you can be just as upright and prosperous as they are, they will accord you respect and humanity because you have proven yourself worthy. The trouble is, respectability politics DO NOT WORK.
When we consider the portrayal of Africa – the land of black people- in the media, we are often presented one way. If we are not considered utterly corrupt and incapable of running anything (which is in line with perceptions of blackness) then we are noble savages – shown to be pure of intention but too intellectually stunted to be capable of running anything. Blackness/things run by black people/a continent full of black people, are shown to be doomed to fail because somehow blackness taints everything and cannot be converted into any tangible success. So all across the continent we have to put in the effort to provide alternative narratives to the way that we have been constructed as hopeless for the sake of the consumption of others.
This is all well and good. The ‘Africa rising’ narrative (although problematic), has done its bit in showing another side of Africa, at least hinting at the possibility of peoples with the complexity assumed of [white] humanity. But the negative narratives still persist, and so we black Africans continue to police each other’s behaviours and use of social media platforms in the hopes of changing how the rest of the world perceives us. Unfortunately, I think we’re missing the point.
We Don’t All Have the Same Access to the Public Sphere
An extension of the ‘ambassadorship ideal’ is the idea that we all have other means of airing out our dirty laundry away from public spaces, such as the internet. That there are other mechanisms in place that we can use in order to ensure that our voices are heard and that to take to the internet is a form of acting out. But this isn’t quite true is it? We don’t all have the same access to the public sphere. Like all countries on Earth, there are privileges and power dynamics in play that will privilege and centre specific voices over others. Often the people who take to platforms such as Twitter or utilise blogs, are using the only space they have access to, to articulate the need for reform or change in order to improve the lives of the marginalised.
It’s all well and good to ask those with critiques to be silent, for the sake of the unity of our Black African movement. But in order for that approach to hold any water, we have to know that an effort is being made to address the struggles of our various ‘minorities’. Minorities so-called because often they are not numerical minorities, rather hordes of people who collectively hold very little power.
I think it is unfair to ask all Africans to chime in with the state-sanctioned narrative of our lives if you’re not at least actively doing the work to improve the lives of women, the youth, the urban and rural poor and the LGBTQIA community who all fall under the banner of blackness and African-ness.
It is not competent to ask your people to be silent if you are not then routinely speaking their concerns to power, and improving their lived experience.
Social media platforms, websites and blogs, allow people to articulate their oppressions and to act as a feedback loop to those who do hold power and privilege. We need this feedback loop or else we risk a situation in which those with power continuously congratulate each other on a job well done or at least effort made, with very little changing for most of us. We need the accountability, it’s not personal it’s efficient.
Critique Can Come from a Good Place
Not all critique is criticism of an identity. This might be a novel idea to some of us, given that every time any black person makes any kind of mistake or error, that character flaw is then adduced to be a flaw of blackness. But that need not be the case. We need to actively decolonise our minds, and reject everything that white supremacy has taught us about ourselves. We need to begin to accord ourselves humanity, which includes acknowledging that we all have individual characters, and various competencies and therefore cannot be expected to be good at everything all the time. We need to open ourselves up to accountability, and critique.
Critique is an indicator that somebody thinks that you can do better. They think that even though you are currently doing a lacklustre job, there is room for growth and improvement. Critique, is a detailed assessment and analysis that will point to an area of weakness and point to a way in which an improvement can be made. It’s designed to strengthen – to make better.
When Africans on social media call out issues of governance or service delivery, this indicates that we know that we have the capacity to do better but also that we are committed to seeing the better happen. We must allow this critique to take place in order to create a society in which we all want to live in. We must make the focus of development us again, the African people not just as a means of defiance but as a means of ensuring that we are building countries that we actually want to live in.
We Need to Listen to Our People
We need to begin to centre the voices of the people within our communities in our countries. The white supremacist global order is always going to find ways to accuse us of being inherently faulty and act as though the entire African continent is some experiment gone horribly wrong. Respectability politics will not save us. What will save us, is listening to each other when we say that the communities we are creating are harming certain segments of society. Our development has to be about us and our needs, how will we know these needs when we continuously expect others to be silent about what it is they need?
People are absolutely the experts on their own lives. We need to consult with them as opposed to creating policies that are out of touch with the people they’re supposed to help, fuelled by a sense of paternalism. There are more Zimbabweans than those whose voices are permitted to enter through the gateways of the public sphere. Let those of us who do not have access to those centres of power, make use of the platforms that we do have access to, to point out and contribute to the discussions about the Africa and the Zimbabwe we want. We don’t want to be ambassadors, we want better. Let us complain.
Main image from mycolumbusmagic.hellobeautiful.com