One of the visionaries I look up to when discussing racial injustice in segregated societies like the United States is Steve Biko. I discovered him my final semester of my senior year at Vanderbilt, which was the point in my life where I was saying: if I’m arguing that white racists, liberals and in-betweens cannot save Black and Brown people, who can? And what’s the role of white people in social justice?
Biko answered this question for me in the most poetic way.
Biko is a South African Black man, born from Xhosa people and tradition. He was born during apartheid, which, similar to segregation in the United States, made sure that white people in South Africa owned the economy and the political means and the formation of the law. Black people, their ancestors originators of the land, were pushed out of cities into townships (what we would call “ghettoes” in the United States), and they were forced to accept extreme poverty and depravation of the self.
In other words, Black people lived in slums, had subpar education, and were made to suffer. They were not citizens of South Africa, for they had to carry something like a passport to enter cities in order to work; this book was called a passbook–every Black person in South Africa had to have one, while whites had full citizenship. The law hurt them; the law created an order to oppress Blacks and to uplift whites.
Now, if you ever hear white South African racist leaders explaining why they did this like Hendrick Verwoerd, they’ll say that Black people are different, that they have different destinies; therefore, Black people must live outside the city, have their own institutions. He modeled apartheid as empowerment; he modeled it as what Black people wanted: their own independence. Remember his rhetoric was common after World War II: people of color want their freedom, so white people will give it to them.
What Verwoerd and others didn’t clarify was that “freedom” for Black people meant a new form of subordination: segregation.
This happens anywhere white people claim they want to “free” a people. Whenever that word comes out of their mouths, it actually means segregation.
And segregation means that white people don’t mind people of color–they don’t mind if people of color are janitors in their city buildings, or cooks in their French restaurants, or maids in their penthouses. But they do mind when people of color want to move into their neighborhoods, buy the same cars, eat beside them in the same restaurant. This becomes a problem (and today, this is the problem white people are trying to find a new way to reshape).
In other words, the world, since white people have come onto the main stage, has seen three stages:
- Colonialism: in which white people conquer every means of production and extraction and wealth of a nation by saying “they’ll improve the country technologically”
- Segregation/Apartheid: in which white people separate themselves from people of color only through means of economic and political separation, but not through dependency (since white people are still dependent on labor of color to fuel their cities and lives) by saying “we’re providing them with their independence” (i.e. Reconstruction in the United States)
- Assimilationist: in which white people notice that people of color are becoming a majority or are too vocal a group to control directly through economic and political power, and, therefore, begin to say that people of color can join the ranks of government and administration and workforce in full only if they are willing to become white–all non-conformity is punished thereby. This is the era we are in now–people of color think they are free, as they always did in each of these large, broad eras, but it’s an illusion.
Anyway, although Biko was in the apartheid era, he spoke volumes to our present era.
It’s important to note before I recount his theory that Biko was a medical student, and his pamphlets, I Write What I Like, sparked a Black student revolt against the government. The revolt led to the government arresting him, seeing that his words had a power, and during his interrogation, the police managed to give him a concussion. His brain hemorrhaged; the white police decided that the fastest way to get Biko care was to drive 200 miles to Johannesburg (which was not the nearest hospital, but their argument was that they wanted the best care for their prisoner).
He died at the age of 31 in police custody.
Steve Biko argued that the effects of apartheid went beyond economic and political and legal suppression of Black peoples (that is, Black, Indian, and Colored peoples in South Africa who constituted the majority of people in South Africa, yet had the least amount of rights in South Africa). He argued that the true effects of apartheid were psychological. Thus, he began the Black Consciousness movement.
The Black Consciousness movement wanted to expose the damage colonialism and apartheid had done in making Black people (in South Africa, Black people means people of color–I will use this terminology) feel as though their hair, their tradition, their languages, their religions, their laughing, their structure, their culture were all wrong. Biko believed that the first way to colonize people is to make them believe they are inferior in all aspects, and the way to make them subjugated is to drill that myth to be a fact. And what this awful inferiority does psychologically to Black people is dehumanization.
Hence, we even hear people of color in the United States say that their own culture is stupid, or that their hair must look like white people’s hair and natural ain’t beautiful, or that their language is backward, or that their religion needs advancement. This is all part of white people’s subjugation of our mind.
The Black Consciousness movement fought against this. Biko gave riveting speeches exalting Black people. He showed how white individualism was actually destructive to a culture, and that Black interdependency and family structure were of the essence, important, logical. He did this because the revolution–the peeling off apartheid–couldn’t even start without Black people regaining the confidence that was stolen from them.
While Biko was ready giving speeches before congregations about Black beauty and essence, he also had another front to battle: white liberals.
The context to this is that when Biko entered college–an inter-racial college–he noticed that a lot of the liberation movements were led by white liberals. These white liberals commanded Black people on what to do: print flyers, demonstrate, etc. They were leaders, modeling the same thing white racists had done by directing Black people in what to do, and their movement for obvious reasons was going nowhere. They didn’t want Black folk to fight the government fiercely; they wanted Black people to be thankful for their help; they wanted to seem enlightened as rebels against their parents.
Biko wasn’t amused. He started his own liberation group on campus that was only open to Black people. Guess who was infuriated? White liberals–they denounced his work as meaningful. They called him the racist and segregationist for not allowing them to participate.
In response, Biko wrote a newsletter, stating that white liberals especially had a role in ending apartheid, but that role wasn’t commanding and leading and helping Black people. Their role–their white role–was in saving themselves.
You see, Biko also argued that if Black people needed to heal themselves from their inferiority complex, that white people needed to save themselves from their superiority complex. Biko believed that white people’s superiority led to the breaking of their family structure, led to their inability to accept others or participate with other people in a humanly fashion or even have empathy for the Other.
Thus, Biko urged white liberals to fix themselves–that before they dare fix Black people, assuming the same role as the white racist as Savior to Black folk, they fix their own communities. He wanted white liberals to speak to their parents and say, “Hey, Dad, what you said is racist for A, B, C.” He wanted them to befriend Black people and listen to their concerns and then go back into their own community to fix its own depravity.
And while white liberals are busy fixing themselves and their own, Black people are remolding themselves to be equal. It’s during this moment of healing-segregation that the groups can be made equal, and then move forward into a more inclusive society.
Biko further proved his point by stating that even when white liberals open soup kitchens in townships/ghettoes, their charities don’t help. The reason is that white charities don’t address racism–they address a symptom.
Imagine if I have cancer because of the power plant next to my house, and my neighbor else who has cancer approaches me (but ovarian, let’s say) and says that the treatment is that I get chemo, is this truly the treatment, though? Is the treatment to the power plant next to my house truly chemotherapy?
This is the same as giving Black children scholarships, or giving money to the poor, or opening up soup kitchens: they’re a band-aid. It’s not evil, but it’s not good and pure.
If the neighbor with the ovarian cancer only realizes that the problem is with her parents owning the factory which kills me, my family and our neighbors, even if it’s disadvantageous to her and her family, this can truly save me, since my offspring afterward would be safer.
But white people prefer giving us chemotherapy: letting us hold office and get elected, opening up charities, and visiting our motherlands to learn more. But rarely ever will they fight to shut down the factory that actually is killing us and our children, and this is because this is the harder and truer and more honest fight that they don’t want to look in the face–because when they do, they’ll realize that it isn’t just their parents who manage the factory who has the burden of sin, but also the children who profited from our assassinations.
Steve Biko’s essays, the ones he wrote before his assassination, can be bought on Amazon, if you’re interested in reading more from his own words about how actual liberation can occur–when we see ourselves, without makeup, without presumption, to see our sins.
His philosophy of change is one that I hold close when explaining what real social justice is.
And in actuality, Steve Biko’s ideas aren’t far from the Bible which calls us to clear the plank in our own eyes before we go to the speck in our brother’s eye. This is an important tenet to social justice work, if white people want to join the fight: examine yourselves, fix yourselves, save yourselves. And we’ll heal the wounds you made.
For the oppressor cannot be the savior, and the savior cannot be the oppressor.