David Moseley

Controlling the power of the White Stare

2014-05-30 12:53

David Moseley

Writer and beloved South African wit Darrel Bristow-Bovey wrote in The Times last week of the white grin.

Darrel himself was unaware of the white grin until it was brought to his attention by fellow wordsmith Don Makatile, who described the act as, "the fleeting 'smile' that disappears as soon as the mlungu turns his or her face away from the darkie favoured with this pretended show of emotion."

Darrel wrote that he was sceptical of the offending grin – "I replied suggesting that he might be racialising what is in fact an innocent example of standard Anglo-Saxon social dissembling. 'We do that to each other too', I protested" - until he found himself smiling at a black person in a traffic department to show that he was not uncomfortable with the presence of a darker South African, unlike a woman in the queue who was presumably expecting an armed robbery to break out at any moment.

Attempting to show a friendly face but with the words of Makatile rattling in his ears, Darrel did what any sane man would do, he carried on grinning like a mad hatter to show that in fact this was no fleeting white grin.

In his piece, he wrote, "As I smiled, I suddenly remembered the words of Don Makatile: the white grin! It's me! I'm a white grinner! But no - it's not too late. If I can prevent this grin fleeting or fading when I look away, then by Don's law I can surely still redeem it from its whiteness. So I froze my face in place mid-fade… I scanned the room with that desperate crazed grin as though I was Tony Blair or one of Batman's archenemies... If I could just hold that face till I made eye contact with someone white, I could let it fade with a clear conscience."

Not a single whitey came to his rescue, so I can only assume that when Darrel had his turn at the traffic department window he was immediately apprehended for looking like a crazed car licence thief and carted off to the nearest nuthouse, where they allow him 30 minutes a week to write his Times column.

Smiles are free

I was taught from a young age that a smile costs nothing, but on reading Darrel's account I realised that I've spent most of my post-isolation time wandering the streets of South Africa grinning at anything with a heartbeat. Oh the faces I've fixed with a grin, oh the South Africans I've insulted!

So I made a resolution. With Darrel and Don as my conscience, I pledged earlier this week to never smile at a black South African again.

On the streets, in the traffic, at the shops, while running or cycling, I have taken a vow that only grim-faced acknowledgment will do and will forever more reserve my placating grin for purple-rinsed grannies and dying relatives.

But this too is not without its dilemmas. Yesterday, in greeting a fellow CBD-walker, I barked loudly and without affection. "Morning!" I declared with confidence and no amount of sympathetic grinning. "Yes. Job well done," I thought to myself as the terrified young man ran across the street towards some smiling black South Africans.

Last night I was in the process of letting a woman join my lane in the traffic. I was waving her in and about to offer a "friendly driver smile" when I noticed she was an Indian lady. I froze behind the wheel.

"Don’t smile!" bellowed Don and Darrel in my mind. "Don’t smile." So instead I fixed her with a stony stare and pointed harshly at the space in front of my car.

She waved back politely, only to look on in horror when she spotted my stern countenance. Her lips pursed, her eyes narrowed and I could feel her thinking "bastard" as she reluctantly accepted.

I was stuck in no man's land. I couldn't smile, but I desperately wanted the lady in the traffic to like me. "It's not 'cause you're Indian, I promise," I said to myself. "I just can't smile at you. Don says."

But by now she was just staring at me with an incredulous look on her face, ignoring the narrowing gap ahead of us. I realised why. In my effort not to smile at all, I'd instead been holding her gaze with an implacable stare and eyes that were slowly bulging like I was in a staring contest with a chameleon. "This man belongs in a padded cell with Darrel Bristow-Bovey," she said to herself.

Deeply conflicted about imposing upon the poor women the paralysing Confused White Stare, I rushed ahead, cutting her off and racing home.

Running wildly from my parked car, whiteness shooting from my eyes like the powers of a poorly-conceived X-Man, I first White Stared at the complex gardener and then shunned the greeting of my non-white neighbour as I ran inside with my hands covering my eyes, protecting dark-skinned South Africans from my debilitating gaze ("Don’t’ smile!”, Don’t smile!").

"It’s all Darrel’s fault," I explained breathlessly to my wife. "It’s all his fault. I used to smile. And now I can't. That woman hates me. It's all Darrel’s fault."

Robyn turned slowly to face me. "Okay," she said calmly. "What’s for dinner?"



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