Black face does not offend me and I am black

2014-09-29 14:35

Black face does not offend me. This is too small and expected an incident for me to be offended. For the sake of my sanity, health and spirit – I choose not to be offended. However, I do not deny the right for others to be offended. Yet, I remain opposed to those who want the discussion about black face to be solely left to black people without hearing what white people have got to say. If we block each other out in national discourse, we will never find solutions to the deep rooted problems in our society.

The reason why I am not offended is because there will be another black face incident and then another similar racist act. Can you imagine the cycle of trauma one would be subjected to? There is a bigger picture here. Let us rewind a bit. The black face students (Mark Burman, Ross Bartlett and Michael Weaver) from the University of Stellenbosch surely read the news not so long ago about the students from the University of Pretoria who received national outrage for their black face depiction. Furthermore, these students from Tukkies, surely at some point they had read about the University of Free State ‘Reitz 4’ that dehumanised black workers in that University.

Yet, there seems to be no end in sight. Who has forgotten that Mmusi Maimane once had to put on mediation gloves and bring about the reconciliation of two models, Jessica Leandra dos Santos and Tshidi Thamana, after a racial spat on Twitter? Thamana responded racially to a racist tweet in which Jessica described someone she had met in a Supermarket as an “arrogant and disrespectful kaffir”.

Surely, a University student today would not have missed all of the above (and many more other) incidents in our media and the subsequent outrage they tend to generate – threatening the nonexistent ‘rainbow nation’. Clearly, something inspires this continued defiance and it is well entrenched. The recent black face incident has a double tragedy that it communicates – the entrenchment of sexism within white privilege. Therefore, the incident is both racist and sexist.

The Reitz 4 incident involved five workers from the University, four of which were women. The elders were subjected to urine infested food, but above all they were given alcohol as their incentive to participate in this gruesome ordeal. Undoubtedly, the Afrikaner students had been taught that the blacks are drunkards, who can be incentivised with alcohol, as had been the case in some of the farms owned by their parents, relatives or friends.

The female students from Tukkies also intended to portray, in a Minstrel show style, black women. The disposition of the black person and in particular the female black in our society continues to find expression of inferiority and disgustful treatment in the institutions and structures of our societal life. This is entrenched because our redress in the past 20 years of democracy has not moved enough to dislodge white privilege of its domineering ability in our society.

Some people say that the University of Stellenbosch is a former Afrikaner University, I like calling it an Afrikaner University. So racist is this University, Jonathan Jansen, at the death of its first black rector wrote in his The Times column: “When the first black vice-chancellor of the University of Stellenbosch died suddenly last weekend, the question commonly asked by academics across the country was: "Who killed Russel Botman?" Others, including senior black colleagues at this century-old university, were more direct: "They [white people of Stellenbosch] killed him."”

Jansen went on to qualify this ‘more direct’ response asserted by some academics. He said, “Those who do not read the Afrikaans papers would be blissfully unaware of the role of gossip, rumour, insult, intimidation, side-lining and sheer slander this gentle theologian had to bear for the past few years.

“The more he pushed for transformation, the more he was mercilessly vilified by right-wing alumni, aided and abetted by the Afrikaans press, in blogger postings, in alumni associations, and in formal gatherings of the institution.” These actions compounded strain and stress on the rector. In the spirit of not wanting to give up even when adversity stared at him without possible end, Prof. Russel Botman pressed on but lost the battle.

Recently, the Minister of Higher Education, Training and Skills, Dr. Blade Nzimande lashed out in high temperature, saying, “The Potchefstroom campus of NWU [North West University] remains fundamentally an apartheid institution, if not an enclave, in urgent need of transformation”.

In light of all the above, I must say that black face does not anger me. I am sorry; most of the condemnation (towards racist incidents) to an extent loses the bigger picture. I am angrier about the many racist spaces we have allowed to exist in the form of communities, schools and Universities. I cannot live in a society with structural and institutional racism and then be angered by its product - black face.

Do you know what? There will be another black face incident, there will be a person called a Kaffir and another incident of an estate agency that does not lease out houses/flats to black people. There is an embedded culture of privilege and exclusion that continues to exist in South Africa amongst white people due to the snail pace and confusion that crowds our redress policies – leading to an implementation devoid of firmness and political will. This should be the core focus of our discussion.

How do you break the barriers and cultures introduced by white privilege? I see no reason why government has not taken a much more proactive approach to legislatively force some key indicators in public institutions that remain bastions of cultural and superiority complex preservation for white people.

All the anger is directed (partly rightfully so) to these young people who commit the acts of black face. I hear people saying they should know better because of the time in which they were born. How can you know better if all your life you went to an Afrikaner or dominantly white school, grew up in a farm (or gated suburb) that dehumanises black people every day and avoided contact (by virtue of privilege) with black people – only encountering them in sitcoms, sports and other distant media? Do you really think that these white young people would or should know better?

We need to dig a bit deeper and confront the genesis of this behaviour. It is about time we had a frank conversation about the way forward in building a functioning society. That society, in its economic structural make up, social spatial existence and its underpinning values and public morality should espouse our humanity centred constitutional values – which emphasise the need to redress past injustices.

The first point for me is to highlight that one of our current underpinning values such as tolerance is a problem. We need something beyond this – acceptance. In 2012 writing on tolerance I said,

“The problem with a society founded on tolerance of our kind is that there will be explosive outbursts. Tolerance asks people to suppress, bottle and conceal their anger, prejudice and resentment without dealing with these negative traits. Tolerance often promotes separation, the less contact the more chances of peace. Ours is clearly not a natural harmony but an engineered one, making it fake. We remain sensitive because we are still wounded and haunted by the demons of the past. We may be quick to dismiss these bigoted remarks as views of a few people who are extremists and represent a minority within our society. The contrary is true.”

Disclaimer: I am aware not all white people are the same, but let us not pretend that white privilege and its manifestations need not to be dealt with. If you are not part of the problem, be part of the solution.

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