Crossing the street to avoid white men: A conversation about violence
- Sisonke Msimang
- 12 Mar 2014 12:46 (South Africa)
In part, admitting my fears sounds silly: almost satirical. This is because our society’s fixation on the idea of the black male assailant is so all-consuming that it distorts the feelings and experiences of the majority of South Africans. Most of the racialised fears of violence that are given expression in the mainstream media revolve around black people as the perpetrators of crimes. In our national psyche, whites (and of late middle-class people of all races) are almost always the victims of black male violence. Blacks, on the other hand, are rarely worthy of mention as victims at all. If they are, it is at the hands of other blacks.
Margie Orford’s thoughtful article a few weeks ago rightly points out that, “the figure of the threatening black stranger has driven many South Africans into fortress-like housing estates, surrounded by electric fences, armed guards and the relentless surveillance of security cameras.”
Yet where has the figure of the malevolent white stranger driven South Africans who are afraid of him? Is our silence on white male violence an indicator that there is no fear? Is there a white corollary to the threatening black stranger that Orford so ably invokes?
Given the history of this country, the very idea that black people aren’t afraid of white violence is absurd. In the same way that the threat of the “black intruder” is both real and imagined, the figure of the grinning rage-filled frat boy with murder in his heart (think Reitz Four at UFS, Waterkloof Four in Pretoria, and any number of racially motivated assaults on black people’s dignity) is also both real and imagined.
Just as the figure of the black man who rapes the daughter of the house is both real and imagined, so too is the figure of the white farmer who is so outraged that a worker has stolen/broken/forgotten something that he kills him. Just as the violent black drug fiend is both real and imagined, so too is the white father who beats his wife to punish her for being late from work.
Stories about white men who behave this way circulate at braais, and form core parts of the legends of many black families. Just as the dinner party in the affluent suburbs eventually touches on ‘crime,’ the black get-together also invariably turns to white impunity. Often the stories are of violent acts perpetrated by white men against black people who were simply minding their own business.
Somehow these conversations - which happen in informal black spaces - haven’t taken up as many column inches as the fears that pre-occupy white middle class social gatherings.
When white violence is referenced in the media it is usually contextualised in structural and historical terms. The narrative goes something like this: ‘A long time ago there were bad white people who colonised the country, killed some Africans, and instituted an evil capitalist system that exploited black labour. These acts were violent and this structural violence – best embodied by the migrant labour system for example – continues to this day.’
The problem with telling the story of white violence in this way is that it distances real, living white people from everyday acts of here-and-now violence. It allows violence by white people to be seen as a collective historical fact rather than as an active part of how whites and blacks in South Africa have learned to express themselves. It makes whites the present-day victims of crime, and makes blacks the present-day perpetrators of violent crime.
Unless we name the fears of black people with as much frequency and volume as we name the fears of whites, we will continue to be surprised and fascinated when white on white crime occurs. Unless we explore the ways in which white people act out violence, we will continue to tell the individual stories of white victims of crime in poignant detail even as we relegate black suffering to the back page.
A less stilted conversation about race, fear and violence might translate into more empathetic coverage of all victims. Because we see whites as victims and blacks as perpetrators, our collective sympathies are always with whites.
We are stuck in this ‘white innocence/black guilt’ binary and this means that the stories of the thousands of farm workers and domestic workers who are physically assaulted each year cannot be told. When we do tell them, it is as though they are purely about labour relations and not about white violence.
Ironically, given the complete absence of black people in the cast of characters involved in the Oscar Pistorius case, the trial has lead to a surge in conversations about our fear of black men. There hasn’t been a commensurate articulation of concern about white male violence as a threat to the fabric of our society.
We are long overdue for a national conversation about the fear of white male violence. I can't imagine a more fitting moment than now. DM
- Should we be mad at Mandela?
- I told you so: The return of Angry White Men
- Poor-bashing is the new slut-shaming: Zuma, Sisulu & the lazy nation
- Zuma’s number one iTune song: If loving you is wrong I don’t wanna be right
- Oops, I’m a racist! When perpetrators become victims
- South African politics: Big Brother meets the Kardashians
- What’s in a name: Is TolA$$Mo the boy who cried k***?
- Walking towards freedom: Thuli's journey
- How to write about the deaths of people who don’t matter
- Big butts and blackface: Why we need more naked women in Sandton
- Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea: A nation beholden to criminals
- Beauty & Grace: Mbeki, Hoffman and the power of stories
- A few good whites: Will civil society take Dr Ramphele back?
- There’s something about Mmusi: Black anger and white identity in Parliamentary politics
- The triumph of the technocrats: Boredom as a political strategy
- Limpho Hani, Clive Derby-Lewis and the power of refusing to forgive
- When the new repeats the old: Marikana haunts new Zuma Cabinet
- The trope of black incompetence: Are whites fit to run the DA?
- My mother the accountant-activist-farmer: Ntombi Msimang (1951 - 2014)
- In the public interest? Covering SMSes, sobs and shootings
- The rise of the sycophants
- Requiem for a dream: On loving and leaving the ANC
- Crossing the street to avoid white men: A conversation about violence
- Telling our own stories: beyond Oscar Pistorius
- Zille vs. Du Plessis: The utter and heart-breaking stupidity of words
- Sweet dreams: The speech I wish Zuma had given
- Jacob Zuma: The smartest guy in the room?
- Cast your vote, and do it wisely
- Minister Cwele, what are our spies doing with their R3 billion budget?
- Outing the liars: How to come out of an African closet
- The thinking woman’s guide to the 2014 elections
- On Truth & Reconciliation: Let's begin with the simple complicated truth
- It’s our party and we’ll boo if we want to
- Cry Freedom
- A long walk to Nkandla
- Fight the boxes tooth and nail: A letter to my daughter
- *Overheard: a conversation on Apartheid addiction and other liberal tenets
- McBride: Straddling South Africa’s fault lines
- Violence begets violence
- Cry me a river of crocodile tears
- Africa to pull out of AU and WTF to merge with Kung-Fu Fighters
- The Women's League is right: The ANC is not ready for a woman president
- Racist schools: Merely fulfilling their design
- Take the Unearned Male Privilege Quiz
- Tim Modise needs a breakfast shake: gay jokes aren’t funny
- Stan Sangweni: The most remarkable South African you've never heard of
- Viva the hecklers!
- The WTF Party meets Number One
- South Africa: No country for new unions
- Dear Corruption Watch, what about the victim?
- This is what you call 'an African solution'?
- Who killed Pinky Mosiane?
- Zimbabwe is not an ‘African’ problem – it’s just a headache
- Msimang launches WTF Party
- Cabinet reshuffle: A deal with the devil
- On being Mrs O: Michelle Obama fights back
- Corporate SA, the wolf in sheep’s clothing
- Is ridicule the best strategy?
- Our unfinished business: race and reconciliation
- Behind stone walls
- On being right
- Nine signs that it might be time to quit
- Fifty shades of affirmative action
- Fifty shades of affirmative action
- Will the real superpower please stand up?
- That infamous Madiba footage: was it really so bad?
- We are the ones we have been waiting for
- The Cardinal’s sins of reason and revelation
- On Excellence… and having a good hair day
- Five rules for deciding whether to get in a fight with another country
- Just because she’s saying nothing, doesn’t mean she is saying ‘yes’
- Revenge of the AWDs
- The road to the house of shame
- When will crime stop being a white thing?
- Advice to Minister Gordhan
- We don’t need another hero: Why I won’t be joining Agang
- Why women are asking for R10 billion - and why they must get it
- AWDs: Weapons of Misguided Frustration