insights from the rachel dolezal debacle

dolezalFor me, the most surprising part of the Rachel Dolezal debacle is how many people, both black and white, see faking black identity as selflessly forsaking one’s privilege.

On the contrary, in places of privilege that are inaccessible to most black people, particularly in contemporary humanities departments steeped in postcolonial critique, blackness has credibility that whites crave. Being able to claim that one has “been there” and experienced marginality trumps white voices who can only speak from second hand information. I’ve met American students at UCT who are as white as I am (and decidedly more privileged), but use the one drop of black or hispanic blood in their veins to reap the special bursaries, grants, opportunities and legitimacy reserved for black voices in humanities departments desperate to prove they are transforming.

Likewise, in South Africa, I can’t even count the number of white friends who lay claim to being African, to move themselves out of the uncomfortable status of hated, oppressive “settler” always on the wrong side of history. That’s not even counting those who confer on themselves “ancient African knowledge” as sangomas, or emphasise that they see themselves not as “white” but as “human” and they don’t “see colour.”

While being black is a cause of suffering for black people, cherrypicked “blackness” is a decided advantage for whites. We’d love nothing more than to deny the past ever happened, and claim that the system isn’t rigged to our advantage but that we deserve this. And we ogle at the rewards we could gain if we could lay our mitts on the credibility, cachet and funding our whiteness disqualifies us from. We’ve all dreamed of being able to have our cake and eat it, like Rachel Dolezal did. That she caved in to this temptation doesn’t make her a hero of non-racism.

lizza littlewort on the nature of “art”

lizzaI think it’s an imperialist idea with massive blind spots.

I think creativity, and the making of artefacts, is a product of cultures in general, and the Western sense of “Art” is a product of massive surplus over and above the meeting of needs for artefacts.

The idea of it as a “high” expression of culture has spread with imperialism, as did the idea of a “national culture” being expressed through literature. It is as Western as the English language, and carries with it the same kinds of embedded privilege, in terms of it being a “text” which privileges European concerns. It is impossible to “speak” art without its European history being part of the discussion.

I think that much like European history has been selectively “rewritten” to seem to be a continuous, meaningful story from prehistory to Modern America, so has art history.

It’s great to have it around. Certainly I like it. But to engage in it without confronting its lies and limitations is like living inside the bubble of white privilege without standing back to look at its impact on the world in general, and see who gets favoured by its discourses of “natural” “genius” and “talent” (as opposed to “first-language” familiarity), compared with who gets punished and dumped outside its magic circle like so much human trash.

still life with white hyperbole

Lizza Littlewort - "Still Life with White Hyperbole". 2015.

Lizza Littlewort – “Still Life with White Hyperbole”. 2015.

This is an adaptation from a still life by someone I’m actually descended from, whose son (or grandson, not sure) came out here as a PA to Simon van der Stel and apparently was the most corrupt, heinous motherfucker you could imagine. It’s very hard to get a straight answer from anyone in my family, but one distant uncle who I chatted to on the phone told me that because he could prove his direct descent he was allowed into the basement of the Rijks Museum where they kept all the family info. He said this guy was so corrupt that he was, individually, the reason for the first slave rebellion at the Cape. So it’s like an actual time warp of history. Except of course when I research when the slave rebellions were, none of the dates tie up. But of course there must be so many of these hideous occurrences which we no longer even know about.

Here’s the painting, by Jacob Jacobsz. De Wet (Jacob de Wet II):


Jacob de Wet II (Haarlem 1640/2-1697 Amsterdam).  An Italianate river landscape with a swan, a Eurasian bittern, a peacock, a pheasant and other birds before a stone vase on a pedestal. Oil on canvas, 153.6 x 217.5 cm.