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[OPINION] Abantu Book Festival and 'let whites in' argument

I was honoured and humbled to be invited to the Abantu Book Festival this year. On account of my book Sorry, Not Sorry – a book of essays dealing with the brown person's experience in a white world - I was asked to participate in a panel titled: Breaking the Rainbow. The theme speaks for itself and I was enthused to share my thoughts and questions but also to be challenged and walk away with a few seeds planted that might sprout new questions and force me to think.

My support of the festival runs deep, its blood the same that flows through my veins of belief: Black only spaces are an important and sacred opportunity that should be harnessed in a time where we’re allowed to use our agency to create forums where we can share. Where we can heal. Where we can learn. Where we can breathe freely and inhale an oxygen free of the patterns of white dominance, supremacy and everyday racism. Where we can be with one another and offer understanding and support and define ourselves in our own terms.

And so, flying the flag of hope and ideology high, I attended.

Then, yesterday, I read a piece in the Daily Vox title: Why Abantu Book Fest Needs to Reconsider its White People Stance by Mishka Wazar. Obviously, my initial, hardline reaction was: "Excuse me?"

The piece interrogated the notion of “progressive political spaces” and how they have taken a stance against white participation. To this end, Wazar defines that stance as one that is “strongly associated with populist identity politics, which denounce white involvement in Black radical movements”. This irked me. Why do black only spaces have to be associated with negativity and radicalism when in fact black people are forced to move in white spaces all the time. It seemed to me that Wazar fell into the trap of social conditioning.

Wazar then goes on to say that "Excluding white people is a useless political move most of the time, as it mostly occurs as a form of self-aggrandising 'fake wokeness' with no desire to change society". She recovers quickly by offering up an example of exception to this "useless political move" and that is: "UCT’s Black-only dinner meeting. The difference is that a dinner, an event which was described as a safe space for Black emotive expressions, as part of an explicitly political Decolonial Winter School, has a different objective to the book festival".

Abantu, she says is seen as a "social event and educational exploration of Black literature and discussions, excluding white people who read books by African authors and want to listen to these discussions seems counter-intuitive”. She explains this by stating that the exclusion of white people from the festival does not allow them to be exposed to black writers and literature and does not allow them to access 'reading', "one of the strongest methods to educate people into politics of democracy and justice" and something that white people should be hyper-exposed to.

Is it really the job of black-only spaces to once again carry the responsibility of educating white people on whiteness? And more so, offering them a space where they can be forced to hyper expose themselves to the stories of the black experience? Do we not already exist in a white experience by default? Every day a battle? Every day a vindication to be in those spaces? Do white people really need to infiltrate occasional black only events to be able to "read" and learn the world they too live in? My immediate answer: no. And so Wazar’s theory, so to speak, seemed to be, in itself quite counter-intuitive.

But then, I sat with it for a while. And I thought the thoughts. And I thought the thinks, and I found that perhaps what Wazar was trying to question is whether caucusing is a necessary tool in building inclusive communities? But doesn’t this very caucusing of marginalised groups and the opportunity to hold their own spaces on occasion tend to strengthen broader movements of inclusivity out there in the real, white world?

Still, I have to admit, that there is a point to be considered in that cooperation can be a possibility through norms of inclusivity. And this includes identifiers of experience, race, culture and social stigma and the difference of representation and what those stereotypes are. It is perhaps possible to create a space that holds intersectionality by facilitating a group of say, white people, or an organisation of them and creating a new norm. Where black people hold the power of building solidarity between each other while at the same time addressing the differences and conflicts on their own terms through a display of empowerment and expression within a collective that allows the inclusion of white people as observers and challengers. Are organic integrated spaces even possible without this? Is our own emancipation possible without this? And is Wazar right? Are these situations ones that are filled with self-aggrandising and little else?

Still, this notion does not steal away from the fact that it is definitely white people who with fastidiousness must work at tearing apart their delusions of superiority and social conditioning in a way that does not happen at the expense of anyone else. It is simple - if you're still asking whether we can be together, then no, we can’t.

But then again, my experience at the festival left me feeling poorer and not richer and this, it begs saying, was through no fault of the organisers, and also, not because there were no white people. It is because even though this was a blacks only space, the conversation was pillaged by thematically white conversation. You see, whiteness still managed to occupy mental and conversational space in a room full of intelligent black people who fell into the trap of the presence of white privilege even without their very physical existence.

The panel turned into somewhat of a yardstick for measuring whiteness up against blackness. When will we move past this archaic norm and realise that comparative studies are useless and unnecessary and we are the ruler of our own minds and hearts? When will we crown ourselves?

One of the foremost reasons – and the most important in my opinion – for not letting white people into black spaces is because they come with an inherent, biological entitlement to dominance. It is inevitable. And when this happens, scapegoating happens, white tears happens, a sense of urgency surrounds them where they become the focus and take prescendence over anything else.

It hurt my heart that during this panel, this infestation occurred without whiteness even being there.

We don’t have to avoid discourse about the serrated edges of our realities but we also must not treat those very realities, the realities of those antiquated measuring sticks, the stereotypes and the application of them as cocoons. Or else we will fall asleep.

Instead of actively dismantling constructs in a space where we could, in a space with this purpose, we operated by their very rules in that room. We fell into society's old roles of expectation. We swam upstream in a river of our own making and to what end? There is no reason to survive in a body of water where we can thrive, belong and forget the need to assimilate into a cultural conditioning so heavily bred into our identities. But instead, we shackled ourselves and to these norms through a conversation which could have taken a more enlightening direction.

So if this is the case, why not let white people in?

We allow them in anyway right? Let us at least then have the audacity, nay, the courage to challenge and engage them.

As Steve Biko said: "Blackness is a state of mind". Sit with that for a bit and really investigate what it means.

We are implicit in shifting power back to whiteness and reinforcing the status quo when we fail to take full advantage of these occasions.

Are we even listening to ourselves?

Let us not avoid the sharp edges of reality or the thorough application of our teachings for a cosier cocoon of sleepiness.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.

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