Malcolm X told the parable of the ‘House Negro’, in which he highlights the powerful and insidious nature of white supremacy on the psyche of the black man.
“The house Negro usually lived close to his master. He dressed like his master. He wore his master’s second-hand clothes. He ate food that his master left on the table. And he lived in his master’s house–probably in the basement or the attic–but he still lived in the master’s house.
So whenever that house Negro identified himself, he always identified himself in the same sense that his master identified himself. When his master said, “We have good food,” the house Negro would say, “Yes, we have plenty of good food.” “We” have plenty of good food. When the master said that “we have a fine home here,” the house Negro said, “Yes, we have a fine home here.” When the master would be sick, the house Negro identified himself so much with his master he’d say, “What’s the matter boss, we sick?” His master’s pain was his pain. And it hurt him more for his master to be sick than for him to be sick himself. When the house started burning down, that type of Negro would fight harder to put the master’s house out than the master himself would.
If someone came to the house Negro and said, “Let’s go, let’s separate,” naturally that Uncle Tom would say, “Go where? What could I do without boss? Where would I live? How would I dress? Who would look out for me?” That’s the house Negro. But if you went to the field Negro and said, “Let’s go, let’s separate,” he wouldn’t even ask you where or how. He’d say, “Yes, let’s go.” And that one ended right there.
But there’s another kind of Black man on the scene. If you say you’re in trouble, he says, “Yes, you’re in trouble.” He doesn’t identify himself with your plight whatsoever.”
(SOURCE: X, Malcolm. “The Race Problem.” African Students Association and NAACP Campus Chapter. Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan. 23 January 1963)
The term ‘House Negro’ is one that is used commonly among the black community; however there is currently no official agreement around the term’s meaning. Interpretations are often limited to superficial measures based on behaviours deemed “acting white”, but the definition of the House Negro must be clarified, and his/her role beyond slavery understood, because the House Negro is a threat to progress.
In the book “Rooming in the Master’s House: Power and Privilege in the Rise of Black Conservatism”, psychological conditions that are an implicit product of white supremacy on the mind of a black individual are explored. White supremacy is an ideology that dominates most of our society – politically, socially and culturally. It is one that places white culture, values and behaviours above all others as the norm. Moreover, white supremacy produces a racial hierarchy, defining those in positions of power as ‘white’. For white people the system works to their advantage, for the black man however the consequence of non-conformity to whiteness is marginalisation.
The Field Negro vs the House Negro
Divide and conquer has been a central strategy in establishing and upholding white supremacy. During slavery whites would separate enslaved Africans as a means of control. While some slaves were assigned to labour on the plantation fields, others were invited into the master’s home to serve his and his family’s needs, thus drawing the distinction between the ‘Field Negro’ and the ‘House Negro’. Once the whites had secured their House Negroes by inviting them into the white space, the process of brainwashing them to become “servile, imitating, and obsequious humans” began. The master depended on the House Negro to control the rest of the Field Negro majority, which required that they intentionally separate themselves from the other Africans. The House Negro received better treatment from whites and often got to enjoy privileges that Field Negroes did not. “The house Negro’s greatest fear was the possibility that if he did not serve the master well, he could be removed from the house and sent to work in the field. Falling from the master’s grace was a peril too unthinkable for the house Negro, who would prefer to do anything to maintain favour.”1
The Modern Day House Negro
For the black person living in society saturated by whiteness, conformity to whiteness is almost inevitable. A black child that attends white dominated schools will most likely develop a white accent at an early age. They will later go onto acquire knowledge of European culture as well as learn white-specific habits. This process of adjustment by some blacks however has extreme psychological effects. The standard of whiteness for these individuals gives rise to an inferiority complex that infantilizes the mind and impacts on their sense of self. An obsessive need and pressure to conform to whiteness exists within the self to the extent that racial aspirations towards whiteness begin to form a strong part of their identity, propelling the individual down the road towards house Negro-ism.
In their need for proximity to whiteness, the individual loses touch with his/her blackness. Blackness in this context can be defined as the understanding and awareness of one’s racial identity as black, and its meaning in the broader social, cultural and historical sphere of society. Attached to black culture is the concept of community. In South Africa this is referred to as Ubuntu – a concept founded on values of togetherness which universally calls on us as black people to be communal in our outlook, in other words; to look out for one another. This philosophy is one that has formed a large part of the black struggle in the fight towards equality and the positive reframing of the denigrated black identity by white supremacy.
For this individual their interests lie rather in his/her own personal mission for individual upward mobility into white spaces, and this process largely involves trading off his/her blackness for entry into white society. In their quest for this ‘social status’, they can no longer identity themselves with the collective plight of the black man. The white man rather has become their central point of interest, subconsciously taking the form of the “master”, from whom acceptance and approval is greatly sought. The identity of the individual, also known as the House Negro, now lies at the mercy of white supremacy.
In the mind of the House Negro the white master is held on a pedestal, and the master’s view of him/her is very crucial to their identity and self-esteem. Hearing “You’re not like the other black people, you’re different”, “You speak so well” or “You’re the whitest black person I know” are praises in their ears, and they are too oblivious to comprehend the backhanded nature and racist undertones of such comments. Even if it were pointed out to them, it would mean nothing, since white people in their minds can do no wrong. White people instead must be defended. No wrong by white people will prevent the House Negro from casting his lots with whiteness; in fact their own oppression under white supremacy won’t change their affection and need for affiliation with white people. The House Negro is the white apologist.
Internally the House Negro believes that whiteness is superior, they also embrace white supremacy. They are so conditioned by whiteness they aren’t even aware of it. They will deliberately ignore, rationalize or deny the reality of systemic and institutional racism and use themselves as examples of the black that “worked hard” to get to their positions – a seat at the white table. In serving the needs and interests of whiteness, the House Negro seeks to distinguish him/herself from the rest of the black masses. They will not speak of the black struggle. They will not join in the fight for liberation of the black man’s mind and body. They are silent together with their white counterparts. They stand with the racist’s attack on the fight for racial equality. They have no compassion for their black brothers and sisters at the bottom of the social ladder. They are on the side of the oppressor; they are on the side of injustice. They are the “good blacks”, they are the sell-outs.
Samukelisiwe Mahlawe – Izwe Lethu
 Asante, M. K., & Hall, R. E. (2011). Rooming in the master’s house: Power and privilege in the rise of Black conservatism. Boulder, Colo: Paradigm Publishers.