Ubuntu, White People and Cultural Appropriation.

I’ve been invited to be part of the “Us dialogue: Conversations in pursuit of Ubuntu in South Africa”, hosted by Authoric this Saturday. Which got me thinking more about the concept of Ubuntu. How does this philosophy physically show up in my life and parenting? What is the significance surrounding it and what is my responsibility as a mama to my two Xhosa daughters? 

Is the concept of Ubuntu a cultural one, belonging only to certain people groups, or is it a South African concept that we all have a right and responsibility towards? Do I, as a white woman, even have a “right” to be a part of this conversation at all? My whiteness came up because I can't think about Ubuntu without thinking of its origins, origins I am not a part of. So it quickly became apparent that, before I could even answer any of these questions, there was a huge elephant in the room that I first needed to address: Cultural Appropriation.

Ubuntu is a Nguni term that prioritizes a life lived with compassion and humanity. It is the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. It basically boils down to the idea that “I am because we are”.

If Ubuntu is all about connectedness and openness, how do we reconcile this with the fact that the concept and term did not originate with white people and could be considered a cultural heritage of a specific people group, and thus in danger of being misused by other groups?

Cultural appropriation is a huge thing in the United States at the moment and it has been for a minute. To be honest I don’t even know if it is really that big of a deal here in South Africa? Since so much of our lives are lived online, other people’s difficulties and concerns easily get absorbed as our own, whether or not it is appropriate in our context, so it's worth at least thinking about.

Just a quick disclaimer: These are complicated topics loaded with triggers and comprised of many layers. I am by no means an expert, nor do I have any idea how it feels to have one’s culture or identity appropriated by a privileged group for monetary gain or as an exotic fetish. But as I journey towards better understanding my own privilege and my role in building this nation, I want to ask these difficult questions.

My take away from the cultural appropriation debates I see online is that for centuries the various African tribes in South Africa and abroad were made to believe that their culture was “less than”. I get that there is, therefore, a HUGE need for African representation and reclamation in the media and commercial spaces so that Africans can regain rightful ownership of their narrative, traditions, and heritage in a proud and authentic way.

My question though is: alongside the authentic sharing and commercializing of certain aspects of African culture by Africans, can white South Africans share in it/use it too?

"But", you may ask, "Ubuntu is a word -a concept or a lifestyle- not a commercial product; so can it even be appropriated?" That’s what I thought too but then I came across a group who is finding issue with Disney’s trademark rights to the Swahili phrase, “Hakuna Matata” which was popularized by the Lion King movie. This got me wondering about Ubuntu and the deep cultural connection it has with many.

I think that a lot of this has to do with individual perception, but on a whole, I think we can agree that the spirit of Ubuntu is one of basic goodness and compassion to all humans – an ideology that should be spread far and wide and not owned and protected, because that in itself dishonours and is not representative of Ubuntu.

I guess we have to ask ourselves if Ubuntu is a permeating value we intentionally live our lives by or is it a nice to have cultural catchphrase? What do we DO with Ubuntu? 

To those who do take issue with white people embracing Ubuntu I just have one thought: Apartheid forced people to only be with and celebrate their own heritage, culture, and traditions. It closed all of us off to rich and wonderful opportunities for learning and sharing together. It would be sad if we still didn’t embrace each other and ALLOW ourselves to educate and be educated by each other.

Being the matriarch of an interracial family, “culture” has no borders for me. I don’t see any problem with an open ecosystem as long as there is no malice or deliberate maligning. The reality is that ultimately, every culture, tradition, or religion borrows slightly from those that surround it. Sharing and adapting adds to our cultures and make them more resilient, not more fragile.

In this journey, I have discovered that my white privilege does affect my perspective on cultural appropriation.

From this position of white privilege, it is tempting to brush off cultural appropriation in the general sense as something silly that people just need to “get over”, after all, it’s just a word, right? But words are connected to people and people are connected to their culture.

I’ve found that there is a common misperception among some white South Africans that because we’ve had 25 years of democracy, BEE initiatives, and black leadership, that we are all equal and have been so for a long time. What this view fails to recognize though is that equality under the law does not always translate to equality of life. It does not take into account the longstanding and far-reaching effects of systemic and institutionalized racism which is having a real physical, financial and emotional impact on people’s lives –even today.

So in summary, although cultural appropriation is a real issue I don't think it applies to the concept of Ubuntu. I do however need to keep educating and checking myself on these issues, keeping in mind that my perspective is influenced by my privilege.

How does Ubuntu physically show up in my life and parenting then?

  • I foster connectedness to all South Africans, but especially those in different racial and/or social economic situations.
  • We are intentional about maintaining a diverse circle of friends. We choose to learn from people who are different from us and live a life of respectfulness.
  • I exercise my humility in accepting that contrary to how I was raised, being white does not automatically make my opinion right, superior or more worthy to be heard.
  • Also, I make sure to check my sources before coming to any kind of conclusions.

What is my responsibility as a mama to my Xhosa daughters?

The reality is that we are white. My girls are Xhosa. We are their parents and it is our honour and responsibility to raise them to the best of our abilities. We need to be intentional. Same race families often don’t think as much about the different races nor are they intentional about exposing their children to different races in a positive way, but that needs to change. If we are to live an Ubuntu life, shouldn’t we be intentional about our humanitarian response to others and be committed to that universal bond of sharing with others that connects all humanity?

 

In a country and a world where division and hatred threatens us daily, where 1 out of 4 women are being raped, children abused, mamas suffering from depression and mental health problems and the increasing cost of living, we can’t afford to get precious about what belongs to "my" group and what belongs to "yours". We are each one of us uniquely equipped and resourced to bring solutions to the problems our country face. We must use this to connect us all to humanity and to educate and facilitate conversations to bring us together and connect us.

As a white South African I inherited a messy and complicated situation from my ancestors, it is however still my country and those who live here are my people. Yes, there is a lot of baggage that comes with the amount of melatonin we carry around with us, prejudices and assumptions, BUT as for me and my house, we will prioritize a life lived with compassion and humanity. I will continue to teach my girls and intentionally live in such a way that honours, builds and deepen the bond of sharing that connects us to every human we share time and space with. 

“I am because we are”, for better or for worse.


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