White guilt is an enigma, to a certain extent: it’s still widely misunderstood, and anyone who brings it up is immediately understood to be full of pathological self-hatred. The trouble is that in some instances, it’s truly warranted – as an advert in truly terrible taste has recently shown.
A few days ago I found myself embroiled in (yes, another) minor Twitter fracas, this time in response to an image of an ad for Vineyard Estates, a ‘boutique’ property agency in the Cape Town Southern Suburbs. One wonders what, in the Cape Town Southern Suburbs, does not count as boutique, other than perhaps Pollsmoor. Headlined by the word “Emigrating?”, it contained a photo of the agency’s staff (all white except one) dressed up in EFF-style red overalls and maids’ uniforms, and made a limping joke about people who “can’t see themselves embracing change” needing to sell their houses.
While the EFF blustered that it was a mark of cultural significance, most people who responded to this impotent attempt at humour seemed as irritated by it as I was, a reaction neatly summed up by the writer T.O. Molefe’s jaded comment: “Trading on the swart gevaar in 2014? Stay classy, South Africa.” A few, however, took umbrage in a particular, and interesting, way.
Melissa Steyn, an academic at Wits University, where I work, writes about what she calls “white talk”: the repetitive speech that some white South Africans use to defend, justify, protect and rehabilitate ourselves within our own and the public imagination. Like others who are critical of certain white South African behaviours – the Rhodes philosopher Samantha Weiss; even me, to a far lesser extent (hello, badly punctuated Red October death threats!) – Steyn has received a fair amount of viciousness for sticking her head out of the laager. I was reminded of her work, and of the notion of white talk, by some of the reactions to the Bad Taste Ad of the Week.
First there was the ‘get a sense of humour’ crowd. The GASOH folks (we do love an acronym in this country) waded in with cries of “chill out” and “it’s funny” and “you’re so uptight”, apparently without noticing that the only people defending the ad’s humour were white. I’m familiar with the GASOH defence: it gets tossed at women all the time. Don’t laugh at rape jokes? Don’t giggle when a stranger grabs your breast? Don’t find it hilarious when a politician calls you a tea girl? You are clearly a bitter and humourless feminist with armpits like the Amazon, and no one hot will ever shag you. But the thing is that rape jokes often aren’t funny if you’re aware of the possibility of it happening to you. The Vineyard Estates ad may not have been funny either, to people on the receiving end.
But wait, you cry! The people on the receiving end are paranoid suburban white folk! They aren’t, though. Not really. Rather than laughing at overblown white fear (which, to be fair, the EFF does play on very effectively), ‘jokes’ like this suggest that that fear is justified and that in a few years we’ll all be wearing mandatory berets and being nationalised. They suggest that there is something horrible to be afraid of, embodied in the corpulent figure of Juju, our current folk devil.
Added to this is the historical weight of the outfits themselves. I’m not an EFF supporter – a social encounter with the unapologetic racism of Comrade Andile Mngxitama made sure of that – but I respect the theatrical flourish of having miners’ overalls and maids’ uniforms descend on Parliament, making decades of invisible labour visible. Putting a white woman in a maid’s uniform to get a cheap laugh is the South African version of blackface.
Others responded with the accusation that, in re-posting the ad, I’d revealed that I suffer from the embarrassing social disease of white guilt. This is also familiar to me. Growing up in the close-knit and often conservative Jo’burg Jewish community, and having opinions that are critical of Israeli expansion, I’ve been called a ‘self-hating Jew’ more times than I care to recall. (Not, I hasten to add, by everyone; Jo’burg Jews, like all people, come in a lot of personal and political shades.) Guilty whites and self-hating Jews are the same sorts of people: both imagined to act out of angst rather than ethics.
Where ‘get a sense of humour’ is a defence – hey, it’s just funny, why are you making such a big deal? – ‘white guilt’, like ‘self-hating Jew’, is an attack. It insists that a person critiquing their own culture must be damaged, even traumatised. Voicing a political position outside the collective mainstream is equated to a personal crisis, as though it’s not possible to be critical of the group you come from without being pathological. This assumption does a disservice to white people (and, by the way, to Jews), who are perfectly capable of making judgements based on what they believe and experience rather than on herd membership.
The Vineyard Estates ad is very minor storm in a bone china teacup. It’s a cultural curio aimed largely at middle-class white people from a small firm staffed largely by middle-class white people. More important is the way in which reactions to the ad reveal the continued prevalence of familiar forms of white talk; and, concurrently, the continued inability of some people in this country to understand why other people in this country might not laugh at that particular joke. Some of us, it would seem, have still not worked out the importance of empathy. DM
Nicky Falkof is a senior lecturer in the Media Studies department at Wits. She's recently returned to South Africa after almost 14 years of living mostly in the UK, during which time she was, variously, a journalist, author, student, semi-professional feminist, radio pundit and singer in a Yiddish reggae band. She tweets (infrequently) as @barbrastrident.