A Curious Case: The unbearable silence of whiteness

2014-05-25 15:00

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On a recent trip to Joburg, I rented a granny cottage for a few days for my partner and I.

Our host, a white man in his 30s, was delighted to welcome me, the first South African guest to book the cottage in the time it had been rented out.

Only Americans and Europeans had stayed there until our arrival. The cottage was sumptuously furnished and kitted out with luxuries for maximum comfort.

But I became distinctly uncomfortable when I entered the bathroom and saw a cover of the English-language translation of Belgian cartoonist Hergé’s children’s book, TinTin in the Congo, mounted above the toilet.

I find Hergé’s depiction of Congolese people – as dim-witted, backward and lazy – to be deeply racist. The cartoons drip with a white supremacist perspective to justify why Africans, innately simple and incapable of governing ourselves, ought to be brought under the control of Europeans.

There are people who say Hergé had no racist intentions. The cartoons, which first appeared in 1930 in a Belgian newspaper to peddle pro-colonial, religious and conservative views, were apparently not considered racist in Belgian society at the time.

This argument purports that Hergé was merely reflecting what were commonly held views in his society at the time.

As uncomfortable as I was, I said nothing to my host. I simply took it down for the time we were there and put it back when we left.

This because I’ve become averse to interacting with an especially intransigent form of whiteness in South Africa – the kind that is framed from a supposedly liberal perspective.

A well-travelled and educated man, my host was surely aware of the controversy, but chose to put up the cover anyway. The most likely possibility was that, like many, he has fond memories of TinTin books from his youth and was trying to recreate them for his guests. I just happened to be a guest who didn’t share his nostalgia.

If I had attempted a conversation about it, I expect it would have gone something like this: We’d rehash the arguments for and against the charge of racism.

He would have said Hergé was a product of his time. I’d say his time was steeped in racism. The only reason the cartoons weren’t called racist was because Belgian society chose not to see it that way.

It’s not as if Belgian media were not awash with reports of the Congolese people resisting subjugation and asserting their right to self-determination.

He’d argue ‘racism’ perhaps wasn’t the right word. ‘Paternalism’ had greater specificity. I’d say what enabled paternalism was the othering of the Congolese for the enrichment of Belgian society, an othering born of a belief that Europeans were innately superior.

Is that not racism? He’d concede and argue that this was still no reason to ban the book and hide images associated with it. We must bravely face up to our collective past.

I’d say that unlike our colonisers, Africans have no choice but to face up to the effects of colonialism daily.

TinTin in the Congo isn’t being read to and by children as a cautionary tale of a society that normalised racist colonial oppression, nor is its cover hanging on walls as a reminder of a painful history.

It exists mainly for many as a fun tale of a white reporter’s adventures in the “heart of darkness” with his dog Snowy.

The conversation would end with his agreeing to take the cover down while I was there with neither of us really being swayed by the other’s arguments. I’ve had these kinds of conversations before and, each time, I’ve been struck by how patently absurd they are.

In conversations about TinTin in the Congo, whiteness confers innocence, or ignorance at worst, to Hergé and 1930s Belgian society, and erases from existence the Congolese resistance to Belgian colonialism.

It also places the burden on those objecting to the cartoons to prove beyond doubt the charge of racism.

It holds freedom of expression as an inalienable right that represents attaining democratic, egalitarian ideals not merely a means to attain them.

By taking part in conversations on these terms, we are enforcing whiteness’ conceit as being the centre point from which all experiences are to be viewed and interpreted. Thus I opted out of this potential conversation.

But in the weeks since, I’ve been bothered by the thought that there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of similar nonstarter conversations in this country and that we’re all a little poorer for it.

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