Opinionista Mmusi Maimane 17 August 2014

The disservice of prima facie racism

In the media storm that followed two students dressing up as domestic workers, we as a society were incapable of asking the most important underlying questions because the debate was shut down. We missed a teaching and learning opportunity – and it’s a great pity.

For centuries, humankind has sought to organise its surroundings. Through definitions, categories and labels we have classified the world around us. Whether in the natural world of elements and species or the sociological world of philosophies and the arts, categorising helps us to understand the world we live in.

However, this manner of defining can also be problematic when it shuts down our understanding of the very phenomenon that we are trying to address. This usually happens when something transcends our usual categories. But when it comes to addressing offensive behaviour in South Africa, particularly racism, I do not believe that we can afford snap judgments based on our prima facie impressions. It is the disservice of prima facie racism that is keeping us from truly addressing racism in South Africa.

Chapter 9 institution the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) recently reported a spike in the number of racism-related incidents in South Africa, particularly at universities. According to the SAHRC, it received over 500 cases of racism-related incidents over the past year, amounting to 45% of the commission’s complaints for the 2013/14 financial year. This spate of racism-related incidents was affirmed by the blackface incident involving two female students at the University of Pretoria.

This incident was deplorable and highly offensive to black South African women. But I cannot help but wonder whether our response to this incident was correct. By condemning the incident and the two young women as racist, have we perhaps missed a teaching moment?

The response to this incident on social media was mixed. Some saw the conduct as racist, others as part and parcel of dressing up. Others still were undecided. This, of course, begs the broader question of when and how we label racist behaviour in South Africa.

Now let me ask: would their conduct still have been racist if they had left the blackface make-up? Even so, they still would have been mocking physical and class stereotypes of black domestic workers. Perhaps this would have been offensive, but not racist. If so, is dressing up or caricaturisation always offensive, or only when it is done in bad taste? Why do South Africans, black and white, seem to be okay when Leon Schuster or the Kaapse Klopse dress up in blackface but outraged when two university students do it?

The fact of the matter is that in the media storm that followed this event, we as a society were incapable of asking these underlying questions because the debate was shut down. We immediately defined them as racist and, in so doing, rendered ourselves incapable of understanding a much broader, transcendent and racially charged phenomenon in our country. I believe that we responded to prejudice with prejudice and effectively ostracised the offenders.

The acclaimed author and champion for Civil Rights in the United States, James Baldwin, once said: “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”

Perhaps this is what is happening in South Africa today. Our national psyche is still deeply wounded from centuries of racial division and oppression. This hurt manifests in different ways as we interact with one another on a daily basis – from the overt to the sublime. In the national sphere, once something has been labelled as racist, it’s as if we cling to hatred in order not to deal with the underlying pain. In this particular incident, I believe that we missed an opportunity to explain the cause of this hurt and sensitivity of blackface caricatures, not only to these students but also to the broader South African public who did not see anything wrong with it. By doing so, we have missed an opportunity to understand one another better.

In the case of the two Pretoria students, I wonder whether they will ever fully appreciate the reasons why their conduct was so offensive. I hope that they will use this opportunity to learn, understand and grow – as university students should do – so that one day, their respect for their fellow South Africans will be such that racial stereotypes will not be a source of entertainment.

Whether rightly or wrongly so, my concern is that when we make snap judgments of behaviour which appears to be racist, then we often do our nation a disservice. We have become so fearful that our conduct may be defined as racist that ‘racist’ is even successfully employed as a trump card in political debates, especially when there is no evidence to suggest racism.

Yet still, it is this sort of binary thinking that prevents us from creating a non-racial society where racism is still used to hurt and divide. And the fact that it is particularly prevalent in our universities – amongst students who should all have been born into a free South Africa. It would seem that merely labelling behaviour as racist is not effective to turn the tide of racism in South Africa. So my final question is: how do we change the hearts and minds of people who have been taught to hate one another?

Well, as uTata taught us, perhaps we should respond to prejudice with love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart. If we are to beat racism in South Africa, if we are to truly overcome our racially divided history, then we must do something that has never been done. We cannot allow the prima facie label of racism to shut down the debate of issues in South Africa and only create further divisions.

We must continue to strive towards non-racism in South Africa. As Nelson Mandela further said on his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize:

Let it never be said by future generations that indifference, cynicism or selfishness made us fail to live up to the ideals of humanism which the Nobel Peace Prize encapsulates. Let the strivings of us all prove Martin Luther King Jr. to have been correct when he said that humanity can no longer be tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war.

We don’t all respond to incidents of racism the same way, but we need to talk to and with each other, rather than at each other.

The aim is not to trivialise incidents of racism, but the conversation which we have long avoided around racism needs to happen. DM


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