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Oops I’m a racist! When perpetrators become victims


Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

This week three young men – Mark Burman, Ross Bartlett and Michael Weaver – who were involved in yet another blackface incident at a historically Afrikaans university – issued an apology, of sorts, for their behaviour. The statement is worth reading on their Facebook page. Intended to convey contrition it achieves the opposite: it stands as a towering monument to the myth of white victimhood.

In this context, blacks were understood as more body than mind’ – Dr Delia Douglas

The Facebook apology is a seductive attempt by the young men to distance themselves from any racist intentions. They suggest that, even though they were painted head to toe in black shoe polish and made reference to the recent Tukkies blackface incident when they posted the pictures, “There was no racial undertone to the costume. This was not us dressing as a ‘blackface minstrel’, in the sense of theatrical makeup used to perpetuate racial stereotypes and caricatures, or to denigrate those who we were aiming to portray; this was simply us dressing up as two successful sporting siblings, as authentically as possible. As such, this incident is entirely distinct from the recent incident to which comparisons have been drawn in the media.”

Sadly, like too many whites that wear their privilege far too lightly, the men have taken enough responsibility to appear to be contrite, while essentially arguing that they have done nothing wrong. This is part of a long history of white non-apologies for racist behaviour.

This sort of sorry-ness wears a smile but has a dangerous bite. This kind of sorry-ness is self-serving and so it doesn’t learn from the ‘forgiveness’ it seeks. It simply mutates and becomes bolder over time. It is a fake, shallow sorry-ness that is beginning to make me feel nauseous.

Perhaps it is because I suspect these boys will emerge from this ordeal with scars that make them feel misunderstood. My guess is that in coming years they will lay claim to trauma. When they are grown up and have good jobs and pretty wives and happy kids, this may just become a story about how they were abused by unfeeling blacks.

Which leaves very little space for us to talk about the experiences of those of us who live as black women in a white hegemonic culture that disrespects our labour and our bodies; that laughs at our children and our families. It boggles the mind that we might become the villains as they tell and retell their story. Already hundreds of their Facebook friends have liked their sorry posting.

A generous reading of the trio is that they are naïve and unconsciously racist. Sure they made a mistake, but they are being persecuted because people don’t know the real personalities behind the silly acts. Tut tut, tsk tsk. There is a rhythm to this. I know this song and it hums a tune as old as the centuries: ‘Boys will be boys,’ it whispers. And with that absolution is granted.

I would like to think that they are just naïve, but experience tells me accepting their ‘apology’ at face value would be silly. This trio are the product of families, schools, religious institutions and a campus culture in which negative ideas about what it means to be black have primacy. Their actions emerge from this cauldron. They are not random actions. It is no accident that they chose to parody Venus and Serena Williams.

But let’s play along for a moment and accept that the furore is all a terrible (but understandable) mistake. It is worth imagining what might have happened when the young men appeared at the party in black polish, donning tennis uniforms and blonde wigs.

The largely white partygoers would have guffawed. There would have been amused astonishment, and then – at the announcement of who they ‘were’ – peals of laughter. The very notion of white men dressing as black women – and these particular black women – is hilarious in the extreme to a certain kind of mind. Ha ha.

Who better to caricature ‘ugly’, ‘manly’ black women than oafish fun-loving white boys? Unlike the Tukkies girls who needed the aid of the cushions to represent the disgustingly large bottoms and breasts of black women, these boys only needed to smear on dark paint. So un-woman-like are the Williams’ that the ‘twins’, needed no other props. That’s right; the bodies of Serena and Venus themselves served as the punch line to the joke. Ha ha.

As Dr Delia Douglas of University of Vancouver notes in a paper on the sisters and their cultural meaning, “descriptions of their bodies have emphasised how their hairstyles, size and shape are different from the other players. (b)oth women have been described as ‘masculine’ and ‘aggressive’, ‘rugby lock forwards’… and ‘predator one’ and ‘predator two.’

The physicality, success and confidence of the Williams sisters have been experienced as profoundly unsettling to the elite world of tennis. More importantly, as Douglas points out, “Historically, white supremacist racial logic has long relied on ‘the use of a dichotomous code that creates a chain of correspondences both between the physical and the cultural, and between intellectual and cognitive characteristics.’ In this context, blacks were understood as more body than mind.”

There is a direct line between the actions of the girls at Tukkies and those of the boys at Maties. It simply adds insult to injury when Mark Burman, Ross Bartlett and Michael Weaver deny that “dressing up” was a racially motivated act. The premise of the joke was the very femaleness and blackness of the women who were being parodied.

If these young men can’t own their actions then they are not sorry. I await a proper apology but on the basis of their conduct so far, I’m not holding my breath. DM


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