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Goldsmiths' Official Student Magazine

Palatable Exoticism

September 4, 2020
In a mesmerizing mix of creative writing, illuminating essay work and urgent call to action, Katrina Nzegwu's piece touches on many vital yet nuanced of the current moment, including the relation of collectivism and individuality to race, colonialism, and class.

The school of first-generation immigrants taught our parents and grandparents to stand down and remain silent. To be grateful for their acceptance in a country with greater purported opportunity. To assimilate; to weather discrimination in pursuit of the bigger picture – a better life for their children. We, the third-generation progeny perched on the Gen Z/Millennial cusp, learnt no such lesson. We are entitled, we are snowflakes, we expect instant gratification. We were weaned off the milk of universal capability, and so we raise the phones we spend too much time on to hold institutions to account. We say from our gleaming chests: “no more, enough, not now, it must stop.” We leap barefoot amongst the shards of the glass ceiling, dancing the dance of decolonization until our feet bleed.
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An appeal to non POCs: Do not defend yourself. Do not apologise for the absence/relative lack of oppression in your life. Do not supply personal anecdotes as a proof of your understanding. Do not compare your plight to that of a body whose experiential reality is governed by an association that goes deep beneath their skin and into the recesses of history. Having the surname Smith as opposed to Adebayo improves your chances of employment by almost 50%; of every 1,000 Britons Stopped and Searched from April 2019 to March 2020, 24 had skin the colour of sand, 193 the colour of cacao. With the recognition of your privilege, from your chest, let us hear: “I understand that I will never understand, but I stand.”
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Anglo/androcentric literature has deprioritised the oral tradition since the conception of colonialism, spoken truisms relegated in favour of written dogma. One reads this substitution as an admission of fear; an awareness of the power of the Black poet activist that threatens to usurp mundane White Patriarchy. A concept with roots in the advocates of Black Power, the role of poetry in the articulation of a uniquely Black vision is centralised. Audre Lorde corroborates this in her assertion that Poetry is Not a Luxury – for us it is not the parlour room pastime of accomplished ladies, or the torrential expression of hetero-male anguish, it is a means to liberation; a means of self-determination, a space for the construction of a Black poetics that reflects and expresses the specificity of experience in its very linguistic nuance.
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They did not understand my video. An iteration of the Yoruba Bata dance superimposed over clips of famous Black bodies in motion, challenged the canon of Art History. My body as obstacle to the music videos behind jarred them, my figure disrupting their enjoyment of the proverbial minstrel show. The camera, on a fixed tripod, captured single angle shots, isolating various body parts with a consistent exclusion of my face. I did not show my face because it was not about me, it was an investigation of dance as an alternative history, the echoes of the tribal ritual present in the dances of the diaspora across generations and continents. We did not talk much about the physical properties of the video. I received little constructive criticism, other than a comment on the mismatched audio levels. So often for the black artist, appreciation of their work is subsumed by cultural disjunct – work is needed for the White eye to comprehend what they are seeing, to the extent that the Blackness inherent in the work overpowers the work itself. If we are expected to know the creative history of White men from Rockwell to Shakespeare, why do you not know Bruce Onobrakpeya, or Wole Soyinka? Why do we name Hirst when speaking of notable Goldsmiths alumni, and not Ben Enwonwu?
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Regarding common conception, my upbringing and Blackness are antinomical. The Black middle-class exists in a supermarket vacuum, in the biscuit aisle with the Oreos. Insofar as we are labelled social anomalies, we further the “Yes, but…” justification of racial microaggression; the In the Heat of the Night, or Greenbook philosophy of “Not all Black people…” Terms like ‘coconut’ isolate university education, financial security, eloquence and an appreciation of alternative music as essentially ‘White’ traits. The damage goes both ways: a certain definition of Blackness is often perpetuated by Black and other POCs, cementing divisive constructs and hierarchies within our own race. There is no one way to be Black, just as there is no one way to be a man or woman. The four-leafed clover is still a clover.
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As a woman of colour, my existence is not personal but social, governed by a collective fiction I had no hand in curating. Images of our bodies are held hostage, labelled by our oppressors with a certain psychosexuality. Tonal variation brings with it degrees of concession – the caramel sister is more desirable than the ebony jezebel, her shade of exoticism deemed more palatable. To mine the positive without adopting the trauma is a privilege – to pay for our lips, breasts and behinds; to endorse our music and vernacular and know nothing of the pain from whence the note came. 70% of Hip-Hop’s consumers are White males; the majority of music distribution companies are governed by White-owned corporations. Even what is F.U.B.U is subject to a notion of ‘Blackness’ acceptable to White capitalism.
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The eradication of racism is a war, not a battle. For how many years must we fight? How many soldiers are we to lose? How many tyrants shall rise and fall, guns loaded with fallacy of a golden age past? The fight is not new, but the circumstances are. Here we stand in the Cool Zone, with nothing beyond capability, for better or worse. In the 80s, my parents marched Apartheid in South Africa. Last month, I marched with them in support of BLM; in opposition to police brutality and systemic oppression. May we work that my children need not march with me.

Words, Katrina Nzegwu

Featured Photo, Rene Matic’s ‘no more quick, quick, slow’, 2020 (Calico, acrylic, rope, aluminium)