Why our anger at racism fizzles out

2018-01-21 05:43

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In the communication and marketing space much is made of the words by Amazon founder George Bezos: “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.”

And, in the wake of the sorry saga that is H&M’s racist depiction of black people as monkeys and the hubris that followed the Economic Freedom Fighters’ (EFF’s) response, you’d imagine the Swedish top dogs at H&M are spending sleepless nights worrying not just about the damage to their brand, but how clueless they are about appeasing angry blacks. Well, not quite, I’d argue.

While the violence perpetrated by the EFF is hitherto unseen against consumer brands in the country, it belies the fact that South Africans have no coherent, effective response against companies that insult black people with monotonous regularity.

Are black people angry with H&M because they are genuinely surprised at the racism? Did we expect better and therefore feel justifiably angry because we are so disappointed with the unexpected racism? Of course not.

Racism, which manifests itself in subliminal messaging, as is the case of H&M, but also in not-so-sophisticated terms from bigoted sorts who use the k-word, flows like a steady yet acidic current.

The history of colonialism and apartheid is the history of contempt and violence perpetrated against black people.

And black hate does not merely manifest in the violence – both physical and psychological – unleashed mostly by white men: black people are also manifestly anti themselves. Steve Biko, in We Blacks, writes about how not all black people are pro-black advancement. This is why being black is not a matter of pigmentation. But I digress.

The point is that blacks are also key enablers of the racist vitriol they face regularly. They are the enablers of racism because of their inaction. Blacks enable racism because of their high tolerance of the disrespect perpetrated against them. We get angry, but nothing much comes of the anger. It fizzles.

This is why H&M had the temerity to open its shops a day after they were shut down. They did not expect the anger not to fizzle. This is why nobody at H&M thought much of the very obvious racism in their advert in the first place. Because it fizzles without any real effect on the bottom line, this will not be the last racist gaffe by brands that should care about what people say about them.

And, because our anger at racism fizzles, even the mother of the child who claims to have been called a monkey herself, found, bizarrely, her own ways to justify the insult and accept the racism. How sad.

Even a certain president elsewhere in the world would not think much of the #s***hole Africa and Haiti are, because he knows there will be no consequences for him or the US.

Racism is enabled by black people because, to borrow from Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, our own actions offer a better reflection of our lives than the actions of all our enemies put together.

And therein lies the rub! Do black people still remember how Dove insulted them? It would be interesting to find out how many of those who were initially angry at Dove, as are the ones angry at H&M today, have quietly gone back to using Dove.

Others who run brands will manifest their racism in many different ways. Each year we hear how companies ignore employment equity legislation, knowing the black government voted for by the majority of black people will not do much to affirm black unemployed people.

Others simply declare themselves an Afrikaans school and thus use language to exclude blacks from their schools. The less sophisticated racists – from Baltimore in the US to Hoedspruit in Mpumalanga – will use violence and other simple violations of the law and suffer the consequences. But those whose racism is released with finesse, like H&M, will simply say: We are sorry.

And, because Nelson Mandela told us we are a forgiving rainbow nation, we will excuse the racists, clap hands when they apologise and set very low standards for how we expect to be treated. But the contempt, the racial abuse, the onslaught on black life will resume unabated.

When black people are angry at racist brands, they respond with profanities online. Politicians deliver speeches, promising bromides. Journalists report. We call radio stations and vent our frustrations. We write letters to editors. We weep. Yet weeks, if not days, later, it fizzles out. Our anger is short-lived and not channelled appropriately.

Aristotle said “anybody can become angry, that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy”.

Blacks must be angry at the right stores, hit their bottom lines consistently and brands will care more about how they come across – especially where there’s a possibility of association with racism. Are boycotts necessary or desirable against racist brands? Isn’t this the one thing that will force brands to care – if not for black people, at least for costly marketing mistakes?

Sefara is an award-wining former newspaper editor who works as head of communication and marketing at the City of Johannesburg.

Read more on:    eff  |  racism

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