The spaces in between

2014-08-11 00:00

THE blackface furore that has flared through South Africa in the past week offers an insight into the state of the South African zeitgeist.

But it’s our response to it that speaks more loudly than the incident itself, as we tumbled yet again into the trap of misunderstanding who and what we are.

To summarise the latest moment of outrage: two University of Pretoria students dressed up as black, female domestic workers with padded bottoms and faces painted in the classic blackface representation of whites pretending to be blacks.

The pictures were published on social media and went viral, eliciting a maelstrom of anger and outrage. The university has taken steps to discipline the students, concerned about bringing the institution into disrepute, even though the event they attended had nothing to do with the institution.

Let’s stand back and consider this for a moment and reflect on the fall-out.

The students’ motivations are unknown, but on the face of it they were exceedingly foolish. The blackface depiction — a theatrical style which flourished in American and British theatre and film for well over a century — has long been seen to fuel the crassest racial stereotypes.

Astonishingly, Wikipedia records that the last broadcast shown in the UK featuring a blackface actor was as recent as 1978, but in the United States the blackface was all but obliterated by the Civil Rights Movement, which finally highlighted its gross insensitivity to African Americans. It is rarely used now, and uncomfortably, in a satirical form.

South Africans generally appear to have a common revulsion to such a depiction of black people, although are enigmatically unmoved by Leon Schuster’s use of it in his slapstick comedies.

So, it’s no surprise that, lacking any context and taken at face value, the Pretoria students’ blackface dress-up would elicit strong and immediate rage.

The Congress of South African Students said the patience of black people in South Africa is “quickly diminishing”. “This incident ridicules the situation of black women in our country,” said Sasco president Ntuthuko Makhombothi.

Columnist Khaya Dlanga, writing on M&G Online said: “I was shocked to find that we were still debating yesterday — yes, in the year of our Lord Jesus, 2014 — whether blackface is racist or not.

“I was shocked, and then I remembered that these things happen in South Africa. Why must we explain to people who insist on offending us why we are offended? I’m done explaining.”

Outrage, hurt and indignation are all understandable — and legitimate — responses to the Pretoria blackface pictures, but I think where we go wrong is representing them as some sort of defining character of our society.

Because, of course, they are not. They fuel such outrage because they are abominations, but our anger endows them with a disproportionate importance, partly exaggerated by the technology of our time. Social media allows us to be stupid, thoughtlessly insulting and loudly angry easily, all of which helps to amplify these nasty outliers.

But our reaction pushes us into a tragic trap — defining the moral frame of our society by the extremes of the periphery.

It works both ways. Whites doing insulting blackfaces are no more representative of mainstream society than the near-sainthood representation of Nelson Mandela, and yet our reaction to both would suggest that we think this is what we are.

The truth in our “social cohesion” debate lies in our unexplored middle ground, the place where everyday folk live. This space is less fractured than the outliers we obsess about would have us believe and here we are likely to find a shared belief in something approaching common values.

There’s plenty of evidence to support this: four conflict-free national elections in which a harmonious celebration of a democracy took centre stage, a shared national pride in the successful hosting of the Soccer World Cup, the national mourning with the death Mandela.

The other evidence surrounds us in our work places, neighbourhoods and schools where — while by no means perfect — the story of common ground is there to see.

To be sure, the middle ground can’t be viewed through rose-tinted glasses. It’s no rainbow paradise. Prejudice, racism, intolerance and all the other ugliness of human society stalk its fields.

But we would do well to remember that being flawed is different from being a saint or a sinner. We are not as evil or as good as our outliers suggest — and it’s better that way.

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• Twitter: @andrewtrench

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