Opinionista Sisonke Msimang 12 March 2014

Crossing the street to avoid white men: A conversation about violence

I admit it. I am afraid of white men who are strangers. This is especially the case when white men are in groups, but on occasions when I have seen a lone white man on a dark street at night, I have quickened my steps and crossed the road. I do not – of course – think that white men are by their nature evil or violent. Yet listening to the stories about the gunplay of Oscar Pistorius and his mates this week has reminded me of how little we speak about white male violence in this country. ? ?

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


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