When men say ‘F*** off whites!’

2015-08-23 17:55

A line was drawn atthe annual Ruth First Memorial Lecture this week, where three women took to the lectern to speak their truths. Panashe Chigumadzi tackled Rhodes Must Fall and why angry ‘coconuts’ are turning on white power, while Sisonke Msimang and Lebo Mashile tackled the disillusion around black-white friendships and relationships. They also raised other, more complex issues. The mood revealed that black South Africans feel they have played footsie with white power for too long. Three City Press writers came away energised. The fourth, not so much

Political analyst Eusebius McKaiser moderates a debate about race with Panashe Chigumadzi (centre) and Sisonke Msimang at this year’s Ruth First Memorial Lecture at Wits University. PHOTO: Samantha Camara

There is a genuine affirmation in seeing parts of your experience articulated, and even though I unequivocally reject the violence of the term “coconut”, the experiences articulated by Panashe Chigumadzi and Sisonke Msimang at the Ruth First lecture are important.

It was great to be in a space where they could be said without having to explain them, without the feeling of having whiteness over one’s shoulder.

However, as soon as the high wore off, I was kept awake by some very serious questions and issues.

Even though a dialogue like this is important in providing a counternarrative to both the rainbow nation story and whatever whiteness insists is the truth, we must be aware of how privileged these spaces are.

The middle class cannot lose sight of its place. Chigumadzi explained that “coconuts” were coming to grips with their own complicated and nuanced place in contemporary South Africa, but the working class had long understood, without fancy grammar, that the black middle class was hugely compromised.

We must be aware, even though the spaces we occupy are fraught with different challenges, that the black middle class experience is still the more palatable one because it uses white supremacy’s tools: its language, academia, universities, debates and discussions. And so we continue to look for particular experiences and conversations.

This was obvious in the response of one member of the audience, whose contribution included repeatedly shouting: “F*** off, white people!” He provided a snapshot of a real, guttural, lived experience and a conversation about black rage and hurt that we are still to have.

The room’s response was unsettling – general shock, embarrassed murmuring and some shouts voicing displeasure. In that moment, we abandoned him, quietly distancing ourselves from him and his palpable anger at both whiteness and the room, and this man’s voice was rejected as intrusive and inappropriate.

He was swiftly reprimanded and threatened with removal, which was tantamount to tone policing to me, whether intended or not.

South Africa is fast falling into the trap of only accepting certain forms of black anger as legitimate. Panels, discussions, debates (as if there is a thing to debate about the violence of white supremacy), negotiations with university officials, columns and opinion pieces such as this, round tables, endless talking, endless engagement on masters’ terms ... We run the risk of overselling the black middle class’ ability to reject white supremacy – because it is complicit in it too.

It is a pleasure to see young black voices being given prominence, but it continues to coddle white supremacy if we only hear from the twang, the right academic English words, the polished columns – and the people who have the luxury of more than just hurt, anger and sadness.

In this way, we continue to be the buffer between the poor majority of this country and the masters, whether we intend to be or not. We cannot, even as the conscious middle class, fully understand what the majority of this country is feeling or going through.

We must guard against being stuck in an unending moment of navel-gazing, and thinking that is enough.

And I realise fully that this is harsh, but living one’s politics is not meant to be easy.

In the same way we have been clear that white people have to actively seek out divestment from their privilege, so too does the black middle class have to (from what little, but still important-enough-to-be-of-consequence privilege that we have) if our consciousness is to mean anything at all in a country like ours. 


Simamkele Dlakavu @simamkeleD
This #RuthFirst lecture has reaffirmed once more that THE REVOLUTION WILL BE LED BY BLACK WOMEN!!! #BlackGirlMagic

Andile Mngxitama @Mngxitama
For me last night at wits [there were] two real black moments. When Panashe refused the unethical invitation to friendship amongst the unequal. 2nd moment was when a brother gave us a guttural cry of refusal that forced eusebius to show his well trained slave management skills

Marang Setshwaelo @marangdream
Wish this could’ve been packaged as a travelling tour. Everyone needs to hear it. We aren’t crazy; our dreams too are valid. #RuthFirst

Lynsey Chutel @lynseychutel
It’s important for all voices to be heard, even the twanged, but it’s dangerous if it becomes the single voice of the black experience.

Mbe Mbhele @MbeMbhele [Who shouted at white people at the lecture]
There is no grammar to articulate black suffering. It is a phenomenon that has transcended vocabulary. It cannot be named.

Janine @janine_j
Black women having public conversations about these things, about reconciliation, about our future. Life giving force right here #RuthFirst

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