On Purpleface and Black Pain

2016-02-15 20:08

On the 5th of February 2016 another racism storm erupted in Stellenbosch when two students allegedly painted their bodies with black paint and posted a picture of themselves onto Instagram. It was later revealed that their bodies were in fact painted purple for a space-themed fancy dress party. The confusion arose as a result of the filter that was used to post the image onto Instagram, which caused the purple to appear distinctly black.

In 2014 there were two unrelated incidents of blackface, one of them also took place at Stellenbosch University. Two male students dressed up as the stars of Championship Tennis, Venus and Serena Williams. At the University of Pretoria two female students dressed up as domestic workers, also for a fancy dress party. In both the aforementioned incidents the cases were undoubtedly blackface and the students were appropriately dealt with. This may explain, in part, why there was such quick and venomous response to the incident involving purpleface.

There has been an emotional social outcry after the most recent event, with many white South Africans joking that “purple is the new black”. Some may even argue that the purpleface incident verged on the ridiculous, because the true intentions behind the costumes were completely innocent. Open Stellenbosch, however, argued that even though the colour of the paint was purple, the two girls in question should have been sensitive enough to the current racial climate in South Africa, to know that the initial filtered image may cause offence. I agree with that notion. I don’t, however, agree with the threats of violence and intimidation that Poekie Briedenhann and her friend were showered with. Violence and intimidation is rarely an appropriate response. The fact that the girls were suspended pending an investigation is a matter of due course. The university has regulations and processes for dealing with these matters, and the management’s response was a clear indication that they were taking the incident seriously. This is appropriate. 

After the investigation was completed the two girls were acquitted and reinstated to all former positions at the University. There is no doubt that they suffered unnecessary humiliation and retaliation. I, for one, was one of the people that was loudly outspoken about the incident on social media. At this stage I do feel that I owe Poekie and her friend a public apology because I was wrong. I am sorry. Poekie’s pain is legitimate, but so is the pain of those who were offended.

This incident, and my reaction to it, moved me to further investigate why our reactions are so emotional and heavy handed. I maintain, as in previous articles, that we white people have to consider our roles in a post-Aparthied South Africa very seriously. We are living in the era of dealing with the pains and inequalities that linger after hundreds of years of cruel colonisation. The pain that black people feel is legitimate, and when we try to reduce or ridicule that pain we are enacting a gross distortion of white privilege. I am aware that at this point many of you will be pulling your hair out screaming, “Please, not colonialism and race and white privilege again!” But read on...

Living in South Africa nowadays we are all acutely aware of race. Our politicians use race against one another almost daily, as they try to exploit our vulnerabilities as citizens. The socially obvious economic inequality between the races thrusts the matter to the front of our consciences, as we navigate cities and towns where poverty and wealth sit side by side, in an absurd display of social imbalance. Race talk infiltrates our workplaces, our homes and social media. No matter where you are, you will be confronted with race in some way or another. This means that it’s nearly impossible to claim that you absentmindedly uttered a thought, or shared a link, or posted an image, which may be upsetting to someone else. 

If we claim to be truly patriotic, we simply must be sensitive to our fellow countrymen and the various unique realities. Racism is a sensitive matter and it won’t go away by avoiding important conversations about it. People often ask me not to talk about race because they feel it’s adding fuel to the fire. I vehemently disagree. Talking about it, in an open and receptive manner, is the only way we will move towards a better understanding of the complexities surrounding various people’s experiences and responses to it. This is why we have to talk about black pain and the white reaction to it.

I was introduced to a wonderful definition of discrimination by Elspeth Crawford (B.Sc. Ph.D), an expert in the philosophy of science and an educator in psychoanalysis. The definition reads: “Discrimination is identified by the outcome or effect – that a detriment has been suffered which cannot be justified.” This brings up a crucial point - who is the gatekeeper of that detriment? Surely the person who has suffered that detriment is in the best position to determine its full extent? Now I quote directly from Crawford’s writing, "Anyone who thinks they, and not the sufferer, can decide on the quality of “detriment” is not able to learn the nature of what was suffered. The sufferer, as well as experiencing damage, however tiny that damage may seem, also suffers ressentiment (spelt correctly, yes). Hence these storms, which may appear to be in a teacup, which may appear nonsensical, and which give rise to all sorts of other terms, like ‘chip on the shoulder’, ‘bloody plank’, ‘no sense of humour’, ‘must be a lesbian’… [the last two come from sexism storms when women object to calendars or jokes in the workplace]." 

Ressentiment is a broad philosophical term coined by Nietzsche to describe a deep-seated resentment, frustration, and hostility accompanied by a sense of being powerless to express these feelings directly. Paul Hoggett went on to explore this term using Max Scheler’s definition, summarised here by Crawford: “Ressentiment is a self poisoning of the mind [that] has quite definite causes and consequences…it arises when people react to a perceived injustice by repressing their feelings of resentment and revenge...ressentiment … becomes a pronounced dimension of social suffering … that is lived experience of domination and repression and the feelings of humiliation, despair, shame and resentment … that are hidden injuries internalised because they cannot be expressed …"

This relates locally to the systematic pain and suffering black people have endured at the hands of white people. The fact is that the initial image that was shared by Poekie was clearly black - the fault of the filter. The reactions of pain to that particular image were justified, because the damage has already been done. Blackface has deep and insulting historical roots. At the point when the first image is viewed, it is completely irrelevant that they were in fact painted purple, because the damage is done. 

There was an alarming backlash from white people, once the second image was shared, who seemed to delight in pure unadulterated schadenfreude, which I can only infer was due to the fact that white people took great pleasure in "not being in the wrong this time around". It felt like primary school children sticking out their tongues in spiteful joy. This is very concerning. It shows a deep immaturity, a complete disregard for the context of our history, and a total lack of understanding for the legitimate pain of black people. White people do not have a very good reputation when it comes to racial matters. If anything, it is up to current and future generations of white people to work towards regaining the trust of those whom our ancestors formerly oppressed. We have no leg to stand on when we ridicule black people for having felt pain as a response to an image that, in the first instance, represents hundreds of years of oppression.

We’re living in the era where gravitational waves are being heard for the first time, thus validating Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. It’s mind-blowing to consider the magnitude of the universe, and viewing ourselves in this context makes our human quarrels seem utterly trivial. Except, they’re not. We are humans, and we are doing the best we can to understand ourselves and our environment, within the fabric of the eternally expanding cosmos. Understanding ourselves, gives us insight. Understanding others gives us perspective. In the same way that we can literally view ourselves from above by means of a satellite image of Earth, we should always attempt to view our neighbours from an objective, and ideally empathetic, vantage point. Empathy is an essential human virtue, even for those whom we do not know. 

Remember that intellect and an advanced education doesn’t automatically make someone reasonable or mature. For the latter virtues, a constant process of self-evaluation and deep reflection is needed. It's IQ versus EQ. In some instances a high EQ vastly outweighs a high IQ. White people are at a point in history where we have no choice but to delve deeply into our collective, yet diverse, psyche. As I’ve mentioned numerous times before, it’s time for us to listen. Just listen, and spend time getting to know the pains and concerns of fellow South Africans. We can’t be so quick to dismiss black pain just because we haven’t personally felt it. We can’t avoid race. We can’t just get over our past and move on, without adequately dealing with it first.

We are all South Africans, living in one country, working towards a brighter future for all. Max Scheler maintained that sustained hatred hurts the hater far more than the object of our hate. Sustained hatred enslaves us by preventing emotional growth to progress beyond the sense of pain having been precipitated, in some way, by whom or what is hated. This goes for all of us. Be kind to each other. 

Follow Pieter on Twitter: @PieterHowes

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