“As a solidly built rugged tyre is for the road,
So are YOU divinely built for Life.
By default, YOU WILL SURVIVE.
Above are the words of our feature personality this week. An amazon of the African continent and one of the front-runners, negotiating neo-Pan-Africanism along the lines of ‘cultural integration’ – she calls it “hybrid”. Dr. Vanessa Iwowo is a London School of Economics Fellow and Scholar in the Department of Management. She is passionate about human resource development, leadership, gender equity and flexibility. This week, we are privileged to see through her mind’s eye, the many challenges of the rising black woman and the need for what we at LR call “cultural integration” in her quest to surmount.
ON BLACKNESS… AND THE BLACK WOMAN
The story of the black woman is one that I seem to be telling quite a bit these days. An added benefit of this – and indeed I count it a privilege – is the fact that I, like many other women of colour, have lived and continue to live that story. I think it is impossible to tell the black woman’s story, without first telling the story of the woman. For before she is black, she is first female. You could also argue that the reverse is the case, that is, before she is female, she is first of all black, but I would draw backing for my own position from what many consider the Book of Books, the Holy Bible itself – which states that ‘when God created man, – male and female created He them’; so she is indeed female, before she is black. Pardon me however, if you do not share the creationist view of the human story. The fact is that I myself have quite frankly struggled with seeing myself as having evolved from an ape!
The female story
Through history, the story of the woman is fraught with struggle. Women over the years have fought a long drawn out battle. It has been a long struggle not just for equality, but for recognition of women’s rights and respect of place in the global order. Overtime, we can argue that the gender battle is progressively being won. All over the world, women now have the right to vote and in many countries have won the right to a decent amount of paid time off work during maternity leave. Female genital mutilation has been outlawed in many countries and the global movement for the rights of the girl child to education is gaining strength. The movement against child marriage and forced marriage also continues to gather momentum. A not-too-recent example has come out of Africa, where a Malawian female Chief officially annulled 300 child marriages in order to give these young girls the opportunity of a decent education. While there have been many victories, there also have remained many more hurdles. – Examples abound in sexism in the workplace, gender-pay gap and the infamous glass ceiling, which has hindered the career progression and ascendancy of many women. Despite research findings from McKinsey, which show that organizations with greater female representation on the board are proven to make greater profitability, the statistics have remained rather disappointing. According to Bloomberg Sept 2015 reports, less than 20% of the leadership in top companies in the US are women. That of the UK is slightly higher with about 22% female representation on boards. Norway and Finland have the highest with 35% and 29% respectively, and Japan is lowest with less than 5% female representation on board. Nevertheless, the struggle continues.
The Black story
As in the gender case, it is also not possible to tell the story of the Black woman without a brief consideration of the black story. From my personal observation, two things seem to have continued to prevent black ascension in the global order. For those in diaspora (particularly for those whose ancestors were physically uprooted and culturally dislocated from their natural homeland and ferried across the world in slave ships during the darkest and most unfortunate part of Black History, who are today mainly referred to as African-Americans) and also for those who for one reason or the other, have been victims of political oppression in their homeland – take the case of Black South Africa and in general (for many people of color who have in one way or another been the victim of racial oppression – whether real or imagined) the bane of blackness has been the enduring mentality of persecution and the frame of victimhood and more crucially, the subsequent perennial sense of entitlement that has come with it. This has severely undermined the integrity of his God-given ability to notably impact the world. We see this in the case of Black South African post-apartheid; we also see it in the case of much of African-America.
For majority of the rest of the homeland who have remained on the continent, the struggle has been with three main issues. If I am to borrow from the respected clergyman and intellectual Mensah Otabil, I would class these in three clear categories – the Pre-colonial issues, Colonial adjustments and Postcolonial challenges.
A key feature that characterized many parts of pre-colonial Africa and which arguably has continued to haunt it and remains indirectly responsible for a lot of the problems we have today is a lack of value for human life. I have struggled mentally with why we found it necessary to bury dead Kings with living slaves who were meant to ‘accompany them’ on their journey to the great beyond and who were expected to serve them there. But whether we believe it or not, this was generally accepted thinking in those parts and it is whispered secretly that some societies have covertly struggled to preserve this aspect of their culture. A direct manifestation of this tendency is the seemingly disconnected attitude to the degree of human casualty recorded in bloody clashes in parts of the Continent. In many parts, the strife is disheartening and the human casualty is astonishing. Take the Rwandan genocide for example, or the bloodshed in the CAR or even the regrettable case of Congo, which given the richness of that region, is itself a rather unfortunate situation. There are just too many wars raging all at the same time. The picture of Africa has remained one of perennial conflict and whether or not we acknowledge it and regardless of how far removed from it we feel, this picture affects all people of color irrespective of where we are, for it has become increasingly difficult to dissociate ‘black’ from ‘Africa’ and unfortunately, ‘Africa’ from conflict and rather sadly we in diaspora, unwittingly bear the burden of the stereotype arising from this ugly picture. The lack of value for human life – among other things – is to some degree responsible for the rise of slavery. Or how else might we explain that a man would sell his brother for a mirror? We have blamed the merchandisers of slavery, but we also must confront the most unfortunate fact of the entire macabre episode – the complicity of Africans themselves in the obscene macabre dance of what is infamously cited as the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade.
A second demon that still haunts advancement as a Continent is directly traceable to the Colonial era and this is rooted simply in inferiority complex .
Perhaps with or without realizing it, a big part of Pan African nationalist rhetoric was geared towards addressing this complex. The popular slogan ‘black and proud’ is one of such examples. Political subjugation was not without its emotional and psychological baggage, for the language of colonialism was systematically geared to inferiorize and undermine the colonized; For how else would ‘civilization’ be possible if the people were not first of all classed as primitive, barbaric, and again, savage? The customs, the traditions, ways of being and socio-cultural development of a people were sweepingly categorized under just one word – uncivilized. Colonialism thus had one major burden, the task of ‘civilizing the African’ and of re-making him into a mediocre image of the European. It also attempted to re-write his history, but we will save that discussion for another day. In this way, one culture was substituted for another, but you must understand Ladies and Gentlemen, that the very act of substitution of one thing by another, implicitly casts aspersions on the integrity of that which was substituted.
Having observed the pre-colonial and colonial roots of the issues, the post-colonial challenges are no less diverse. Regrettably, the rhetoric of inferiorization has endured way past the fall of the Empire and Africa has continued to flounder in mediocrity. A mediocrity occasioned by mimicry; for one thing we must note about substitution is that it is not without a loss of value; substitution of the old by ‘the new’ has come at a loss of value of the original. What I am saying is that in trying to mimic ‘the west’, African society appears to have lost sight of what it really is or should be. Up until recently, many young Africans on the continent have been socialized to spurn anything African. There is little articulation or celebration of what it means to be Black or African. When one suffers from mediocrity, they lack the benefit of a true original identity, it is neither one nor the other and when there is no articulated sense of identity, there cannot be any clear direction for progress. To know where we are going, we must first of all know who we are. Also notable among the post-colonial challenges is one which as you will agree, has bedeviled the economic development and infrastructural advancement of many countries on the continent – the Big Bad Wolf – CORRUPTION. The fall of colonialism left a huge political gap and increased power distance in the social order of African society. With the exit of the colonialism came the rise of a new political elite. Indigenous leaders with unrestricted access to collective resources. The euphoria of new independence and the entrustment of national destinies in the hands of a few under the guise of ‘liberating my people’, came the lack of resource accountability. In this atmosphere, financial corruption and self-enrichment at the expense of the collective thrived uninhibited. Overtime, corruption has impoverished whole nations and resulted in the grim picture today.
The Black Woman’s Story
Ladies and Gentlemen, the story of the black woman is embedded in all of the foregoing. As I have noted in previous articles, the position of the black woman is a socially delicate one and you will do well to be aware of this fragility. Her narrative is fraught with struggle and the twin forces of gender and race shape her story predominantly. These two are also the frames with which she is viewed by the rest of the world. Both gender and race are loaded terms because they embody a lot of tensions and also carry a lot of stereotypical baggage. The woman of color bears the tensions and the stereotypical baggage of both. If we say that women are marginalized, the woman of color is doubly so, for in her case, she is twice ‘othered’. Although she is by reason of biology, part of the wider female gender community, but she suffers exclusion from the same by her racial ‘otherness’. On the other hand, by a twist of ethnicity, she is part and parcel of the black community, but she is often excluded from many of its inner circles on the basis of gender. Even though she may be the physically weaker sex, because men are biologically built stronger, nevertheless this ‘weakness’ is defined to encompass many other areas far outside the ambit of its original expression. Women are frequently seen as the weaker ‘other’, even within their own ethnic community, a situation which gave rise to the rather over-simplistic mantra of early feminist movements – ‘what a man can do, a woman can do better!’
Ladies and gentlemen, as we have seen, black history does indeed carry a lot of baggage, and this baggage has itself given birth to stereotypes and again, certain types of behavior that attempt to challenge these negative stereotypes; stereotypes of Africa and stereotypes of blackness; stereotypes with which we as black people and again as black women, have remained burdened. From my own lived experience as a woman of color, this burden is not always easy to bear. We ourselves must realize that these stereotypes have throughout the course of history often provided a lens, a gestalt through which the rest of the world has continued to view us. Some, in seeking to address these stereotypes, radically confront them. The anger that negative stereotyping often evokes is more often than not, channeled in behaviors of defensiveness and in some extreme cases, undue aggression. But I have found in my experience, that this is usually counterproductive and rather than resist them, these aggressive reactions go a long unintended way towards the reinforcement of these negative stereotypes that provoked the aggression in the first place. Add to this, the persecution mentality and the perennial sense of entitlement with which the black man appears to have been endowed by history, and you have a triple whammy!
But what must we do now? I believe that the answer lies in reform, rather than radicalism. In seeking to change the world, we must first change ourselves, one person at a time. True change they often say begins from within. Rather than continue to aggressively confront the outside; an approach that doesn’t appear to have yielded much fruit, we must turn the lens in and first radically challenge the deep-seated issues that lie on the inside and the behavioral proclivities that have prevented us from taking our rightful place in the global order. This is not a popular message, for it is socially comfortable to harbor a persecution mentality and much easier to continue to play the victim card, because this is really the only socially righteous way to justify a sense of entitlement. The only problem with this is that the victim remains perpetually in a state of disempowerment and in perennial need of aid and handouts, which again reinforces the cycle of disempowerment. President Obama of the United States was harshly criticized by prominent members of the African American community for daring to air his views on this matter. Nelson Mandela – one of the greatest black men to ever walk the face of this earth – was also judged by many of his own people for not ‘taking back what rightfully belongs to us’ but rather choosing instead to eliminate the oppressive systemic barriers of apartheid South Africa which had enabled & legitimized the intellectual marginalization, political subjugation and economic suppression of black South Africans, and in its place provide opportunities for ascension which would gradually institute a level playing field for all. But ladies and gentlemen, the truth is that the world owes you and I nothing but opportunity. It is our responsibility, particularly as women of color, to justify that opportunity and more importantly, to be aware of the systemic, historical and personal failures that have hindered us from maximizing those opportunities. In maximizing opportunity, we will no doubt earn our much-deserved respect. Therefore – it is my personal view – that the real legitimate battle is that which demands that there be equal opportunities for all.
Through personal experience, I have come to recognize that a lot of the time, the responsibility for my actions, rests first and foremost with me. This is not to say that everything that happens to me is my fault, it would be unforgivable to even think that, but the fact is that I owe it to me to first know myself and to own my actions; to master my demons and to conduct myself in a manner that is ‘above board’ with respect to what is reasonably expected of me. Same goes for us all, we must own our selves and take responsibility for our actions; that way, we can own our experiences and re-write our story. We therefore shape history and posterity in a manner that is beneficial to us and to the world at large. As such, in radically confronting the inside, we can progressively reform the outside. It begins with identifying the real devils. What demons must we seat on? What are those little foxes that have continued to spoil the vine?
Ladies and Gentlemen, you see the thing about history, is that it is indeed constructed. Written accounts of history as we see and hear them today are really narratives of actual events as told from the perspective of the teller. These accounts are really interpretations of actual events, which are more often than not subjective. Furthermore, these subjective narratives are also open to further interpretation, which cannot be done outside of the mental frames of the hearer. Our understanding of a thing is based fundamentally on our interpretation of it and the way in which we interpret that thing is subject to our mental programming – which is itself shaped by social interaction and experience. A good example is when you see a black and white child play, until these children are socialized into the current world order through the rhetoric and experience of racial difference with its skewed power dynamics, they have very little conceptualization of difference and simply interact – as one human with another.
If indeed history is constructed, then this is very good news; for what it means is that you can change the world for us. You can rewrite black history. You can re-inscribe the over-shadowing narratives of failure that have till now, mostly obscured the light of black success. You can refuse to conform to the negative images of black stereotypes. You can be committed, thorough, focused and dedicated to whatever duty life places before you; for ‘until the lions learn to write, the story will always glorify the hunter’.
You may not always be given due credit for your efforts, but if you stay consistent, nothing, and indeed nothing, will be able to hide your light. So today I say to you as it was once said to me, and in this very thing I diligently urge you, go on and change the world for us
At the LR Team, every one came together after reading this article, very very pensive. We were all in thought. “This is a powerful write up” said the first person who managed to find his voice. And then, all at once, all of us started to speak…it took repeated pounding on the table by one of us, to get us to stop.
It was clear Dr. Iwowo had struck at our very core. Every one of us could identify with something within her write up. The article held a message for each of us in different ways. Every one of us had decided and was eager to change something about us. We enjoin all of us on this space, to not only heed this call of us going on and changing the world for us, but to let us know what this article means to you in the comments section.
For those of us who wish to see Dr. Iwowo doing what she does best, click on the link below: Courtesy of the LSE Gearty Grillings Archive 2015.