Opinionista Sisonke Msimang 7 September 2014

What’s in a name: Is TolA$$Mo the boy who cried k***?

Does being called a k*** produce such profound distress that a man can be forgiven for pulling a weapon on another for using the term? And what changes when we discover that the 'white' man was actually black?

Last week Marianne Thamm wrote a fascinating piece about comedian TolA$$Mo, whose real name is Mongezi Ngcobondwane, the comedian who has been charged with attempted murder for allegedly discharging a weapon at a ‘white’ man in an altercation. Ngcobondwane claims that the man was racially abusive and called him a k***.

The wrinkle in the story is that the man Ngcobondwane allegedly shot his weapon at, and whom he claims called him k*** – is black. And while it is theoretically plausible in an abstract sense, that a black person (even one from America where the South African term k*** is not in use) might call another black person by a racial epithet, the reality is that the particular person in question seems unlikely to have done that. I happen to know French (although he is a relatively new acquaintance) so I may be biased – but I would be surprised if someone who was raised by civil rights activists would use a word like k*** against another Black person.

In a country where name-calling on the basis of race remains both frequent and painful, the public messages that Ngcobondwane put out in the aftermath of the incident indicate that in his own mind at least, the use of the word k*** constitutes extreme provocation.

He is not alone in this regard. The Human Rights Commission has dealt with a spate of cases in recent months in which learners and their parents have had to take measures against racist white bullies for calling black children k***. The Commission has taken such a serious view of racist bullying that they have banned the use of the word, reiterating the fact that it constitutes hate speech.

If we go with Ngcobondwane’s version of events, and assume momentarily that French called him k***, the question is, does being called a k*** produce such profound distress that a man can be forgiven for pulling a weapon on another for using the term? In other words, if French did call him a k****, would he have ‘deserved’ to be shot at?

According to his published statements, in Ngcobondwane’s view, French’s alleged use of the word did in fact trigger a violent response. In his own words in the Daily Sun a few weeks after the event, “I rushed to the car to see if she was all right and as I was about to drive off, he called me the k-word. I hit the brakes, got out of the car and manhandled him.”

Ngcobondwane then goes on to suggest, “If one more white man calls me a k***, I’m going to moer him.”

This is a sentiment with which many black people in South Africa can identify. There is nothing quite like being called a k***. It takes the air out of your lungs, hits you in the solar plexus; stings your eyes and dries your mouth. You are at once ashamed and enraged – understanding that the word should have no power and yet feeling its force and weight in your pelvis and your knees and in the soles of your feet. K*** has the density of centuries; it is the color of blood and tastes like metal.

For many young and successful black people, there is a sense that no matter how successful we become, no matter how polite and urbane, no matter what we may be able to afford, we will continue to face the misplaced anger and condescension of whites. So the idea of a white assailant who ‘swears at his wife,’ and then spits the k-word at him is one that has currency.

Except in this case, given the racial identity of the ‘white’ man on the scene, there is a real possibility that the racism may have been a fiction. French may have been enraged. He may even have been arrogant; but he is unequivocal that he never said ‘k-word’. If we take his version of events, then the only conclusion one can reach is that Mo put those words into French’s mouth because he needed to seem like the victim rather than the aggressor.

And, of course, had James French not been descended from slaves, the case would have been black and white, so to speak. The comedian may well have been able to pull off that story without a hitch. But as an American, French doesn’t conform to South African racial expectations. Looking at him, and then discovering that he is black, reminds us that race is a social construct.

French owes his particular features to the historical reality of the institution of American slavery, in which ‘one drop’ of black blood meant that a person was not white. He may be fair-skinned, but his family worked fields and were owned by white folks, just like the ancestors of millions of his black compatriots. French – light as he is – reminds us that although race may not be real, it remains embedded in our skin and lodged in our bones. French owes both his ‘constructed’ and his ‘real’ blackness to a history that is long and painful.

Reading the online comments about French’s ostensible whiteness – and the complication that he is not in fact white – it is clear that he is both a perfect scapegoat for black anger and a sympathetic figure for white fear.

For whites, there is something primal about the idea of a young black man going ballistic on a rational, well-meaning white guy; the cocky native with a weapon who shoots at them on a dark street because they are white. For blacks, TolA$$Mo has our instinctive sympathy; even after we understand that French is black, we ‘get’ Mo’s mistake.

We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be seduced by this strategy. On the basis of the allegations, I can’t help but think that Mo seems deeply compromised even as he is eloquent in championing a popular cause. In this regard, he is not unlike some of the political leaders he so adroitly mimics in his comedy. Because racism abounds, and because white boys have been racist and arrogant on too many occasions to count, it is tempting to argue that even if he is not telling the truth, we can forgive him the small fib.

There are many problems with accepting this logic. The first is that French is black – and so being called one is that there are so many real acts of racist aggression against black people that occur on a daily basis, that the idea that one needs to be made up in defence of a project of self-preservation is slightly sick-making. The vast majority of black people who face daily discrimination do not have a platform to speak out. They cannot suggest, in a Tweet dripping with entitlement, that they hope that their vote for the ANC “works for them,” as they head “off to court to defend myself for being called the k-word”.

It is precisely because racism is so real that playing the race card is so egregious. It is rare that we are confronted with a black person playing the race card. But when that act happens in the manner in which it seems to be playing out here, it is worth pausing and asking what interests it serves. If we suggest (as some have) that its rarity makes it a non-issue, then we create a hierarchy of morals and we give one another permission to be less than we can be. In so doing, we undermine the long-term project of dismantling racism for all black people – French and Mo included. DM



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