I told you so: The return of Angry White Men
- Sisonke Msimang
- 10 Nov 2014 (South Africa)
‘You literally can’t make this stuff up.’ I find myself muttering this phrase under my breath more and more often these days.
Yesterday’s Cape Town papers headlined with another appalling story, this one of a black man who works as a gardener in an upscale neighbourhood who was assaulted with a sjambok by a white man who first tried to run him over. The attack on came just weeks after Tim Osrin (who is due to appear in court on 27 November) attacked a domestic worker who was on his street because he thought she was a sex worker, which of course means that she was deserving of being beaten up simply for existing.
These incidents come at the end of an exhausting year in which the Pistorius trial has given the nation far too much insight into the aggro and silly world of Oscar and his friends. It was impossible to hear about their fast cars and their petty fights without wondering how someone didn’t end up dead sooner.
Increasingly, as these white male inspired dramas unfold on our pages, I find myself returning to a theme that has preoccupied me since I began writing regularly; the subject of violent, white masculinities. I write fairly frequently about the violent conduct of white men; it is such an under-scrutinised topic. I am also fascinated by the extent to which perverse behaviour – when it is enacted by white male bodies – is quickly explained away.
In a racist society, one of the privileges of whiteness is empathy. We are constantly exposed to white men as full and complex subjects. They are doctors and lawyers, husbands and fathers. They are capable of immense greed and exploitation, but just as capable of heart-warming displays of vulnerability and need. They are as richly layered in fiction as they are in magazine profiles and in everyday media coverage. They can be monsters, but they can also be sweet little boys.
In other words, white men – because they own the resources in the societies in which we live - are almost always given the benefit of the doubt when they mess up. Their transgressions are seen as idiosyncratic and are seldom attributed to them on the basis of race. In other words, while black people are almost always seen through the prism of ‘racial’ characteristics, white men are rarely seen in this light. When they are, it is usually in positive terms.
This is precisely why studying the patterns of white male entitlement is so important. When white men act in violent ways it is often because they have been led to believe that they can get away with it. They act with impunity because they often do not think that there is anything wrong with their behaviour. Time and again, violent and sociopathic behaviour by white men is either ignored, explained away or commended by other the whites and/or by the institutions that mete out justice.
Those who were angered by it will recall what my first column for this publication was called. In it, I suggested that “We all know an Angry White Dude. We see him in the bank, losing it because the queue is too long. We see him blasting a taxi driver as though the hooter is a lifeline pumping oxygen directly through his palm. We see him nose-to-nose with some other Angry White Dude in a bar on Friday night, and we give him wide berth.”
When I wrote the column, some people suggested that I was trying to be deliberately provocative and controversial. Sadly, I didn’t understand enough about social media and the online world for that to have been the case. I naively thought I was putting forward a point of view that would meet with widespread nodding and agreement. The fact that it inspired anger and vitriol shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did.
It was interesting that it was mainly white people – friends and strangers alike – who suggested that I wrote that first AWD column to stir the pot. In part, I now understand that this was an attempt to dismiss my observations. Dismissing black people’s experiences of racism is only possible because of white privilege. Not having had to endure the full brunt of racism means that some white people cannot accept that the experiences of black people are valid and as painfully real as we say that they are.
So, suggesting that I wrote that piece to get attention was easier for some than accepting that white masculinities are often experienced by black people as violent and threatening. It relegated my analysis to the trash heap of ‘hysteria’, which is a common tactic that women and black people must often contend with when they put difficult topics on the table. We are told that we are so affected by racism and sexism that we tend to get emotional, which hampers our ability to the rational about these matters.
The premise of this argument is so nonsensical that it isn’t worth picking apart.
Suffice to say that I never write anything for the sake of provocation. I have neither the time nor the inclination for race-baiting. Quite the opposite; I have found that ideas shared in order to stoke the fires and cause outrage seldom have a long shelf life. On the other hand, over and over again, I have seen that ideas shared – no matter how clumsily – in order to build understanding and challenge convention, are ideas that stand the test of time.
There can be no question about it; South Africans of all races (particularly men) are far too quick to settle disputes through violence. Yet for too many in the broader public, when these matters are raised, denial is more appealing than discussion. The bottom line remains this: the contours of male rage aren’t particularly different across the colour lines and so all male violence (not only the transgressions of black men) deserves careful scrutiny.
Thankfully, the days of exempting white men from the rules that bind everyone else are done and dusted. DM
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