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1 October 2016 06:51 (South Africa)
South Africa

Letter to the Editor: “F**k White People”? Seriously?

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Zama Mthunzi, a Wits 3rd-year Mathematical Sciences student, wore a shirt sprayed, “Fuck White People” to Campus. What follows is a layman’s opinion. By Siya Khumalo.

Section 16(2)(c) of the Constitution says the freedom of expression given in 16(1) is not to be used for “the advocacy of hatred that is based on race.” The Bill of Rights (Chapter 2) maintains that everyone “has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected.”

Once the human right to dignity is negotiable, there is nothing to relativize apartheid and this shirt against. There is subsequently no justification for saying apartheid was a worse violation of black people’s dignity than the shirt is against white people’s because human dignity – the unchanging basis on which we compare acts of violence in the first place – would have been, in principle, zeroed out of the discussion.

This would undermine my argument that black people are owed restitution for apartheid.

Many say, “Black people cannot be racist because of historical power systems,” but Chapter 9 institutions would still treat the distinction between racism (a structural reality) and bigoted hate speech (a violation of the right to dignity) as semantic. To most people, historical debts are prior to legal deliberations on essential rights. But from a Constitutional perspective the legal deliberations come first.

The structural-historical perspective needs for the alleged racist to have had considerable power. The Constitutional-legal perspective doesn’t.

This contrast is why many on Twitter took offense when Thuli Madonsela tweeted, “The classical understanding of racism posits that black people can’t be racist. Contemporary reality is that they can.”

The law isn’t a hindrance to many of the black people who feel the time has come for payback, but it is weird to find people on the internet who think their belief that black-on-white bigotry is inconsequential (because power structures) should be the Human Rights Commission’s view as well. That the shirt will be condemned should be a given. The real mystery is whether the Constitution can speak to the inequalities brought about by apartheid without destabilising its own premise for condemning apartheid.

Whenever I critique whiteness, I go to pains to distinguish the actions of systems from the reactions of white people to those actions.  The structures we live in historically spent more time and resources giving preferential treatment to white people than they have to black people.

But next to that discussion is another on the depth to which white individuals absorbed, endorsed and benefitted from the white privilege that was given to every white person. Some resist and work for the dismantling of systemic white privilege. To say, “F**k white people” and not “Fuck white supremacy” is to absolutize not only the actions of structures and systems, but also the reactions of all white people. It’s imputing the same guilt to instigators, beneficiaries and dissenters alike.

It pushes the discussion from the already-alarming declaration that the white individual can never do enough to atone for the privilege conferred to him from birth, to saying, “F**k you” to white people along with their every effort to achieve justice. This undercuts justice itself by encroaching on the inviolable human rights that necessitate justice in the first place.

When describing the participation of white people in racist structures, I use qualifiers like, “many,” and reserve words like “all” for discussing what was originated by political structures on white people’s behalf. White individuals’ response to white privilege is often (but not always) willful ignorance, coyness and veiled participation.

But if all white people are permanently as racist as the system that privileges them, then we ought to petition parliamentarians to prohibit the gathering of white people on the grounds that their assembling reinforces the ongoing structural oppression of black people. That would be the first of many measures to quarantine white racism. If “F**k White People” can pass through the HRC because black people’s dignity is unsalvageable apart from sacrificing white people’s, then such measures would not be incompatible with our democracy: assuming the other assumptions, it could be argued that they would strengthen it.

Neglecting this necessary conclusion and all it implies would incriminate the rest of us in our own oppression, no?

Some Wits students have “whitewashed” the incident by campaigning against various forms of structural oppression. Some are spraying, “F**k homophobia” and “F**k sexism” on their shirts. But Nzama didn’t limit his condemnation to systems that benefit white people at black people’s expense, or to some white people within whiteness as a social reality.

If the other students’ shirts are to be consistent with his expression of black anger, they should read, “F**k Men,” “F**k Straight people” and “F**k able-bodied people.”

That few have remained true to his trajectory isn’t purely a matter of artistic license or the depth of their internalization of their oppressors’ view that they’re too weak to break free of their chains and tell them where to shove it: it’s because on some level they know the words to be unconscionable.

Some have argued that expressions of black pain should not be policed because this is sometimes oppressive.

Granted, with a but: if the constitution can’t limit behavior and speech, then on what legally-recognized basis can anything be policed, including anti-black racism?

On what foundation would I be censured if, in the middle of a conversation about white privilege with a white person, I gouged out his eyes? His right to bodily integrity?

We can’t pick and choose from the constitution and expect the State or Chapter 9 institutions to rubber-stamp our inconsistent choices.

Thinking we can have it both ways should cause us to wonder whether we have the stomach for the anti-Constitutionalism it would take to shout to the inequality brought about by apartheid.

The alternative to the Constitution is lawlessness, and that’s a one-way trip. DM

Siya Khumalo writes about religion, politics and sex. Follow him on Twitter @SKhumalo1987

Photo by Herbstrose via Flickr.

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