Within a few days, Penny Sparrow has emerged from obscurity of the ordinary citizen to a position of public enemy du jour for her expression of racist views over social media, and her subsequent unrepentant stance, conveying a lack of comprehension of the offensiveness of her post. Only Cecil the Lion’s dentist comes to mind as a rival recipient of public indignation.
Among the expressions of outrage on social media, one post stood out as particularly thoughtful and moving, where the author expressed his heartache at the “dehumanisation, the lessening, the othering, and the diminishing of other human beings”. He gave voice to the incapacity of some to identify and share a common humanity with those of a different race, and to conceive of the glee of a child enjoying rare family time on the beach on a public holiday, sand in hair and ice cream in hand.
A round condemnation of Sparrow’s views seems important for the South African society of today, allowing people to markedly distance themselves from views which were oft heard and expressed in the South Africa of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and appropriately situating Sparrow’s perspective as a 1970s relic. Within a day, Penny Sparrow and Chris Hart received public disapprobation for their views expressed on social media, coupled with censure from their places of work. We are a society on high alert for expressions of racism, it seems.
I want to be clear that I join the chorus of condemnation, and I share in the sadness that the lack of racial integration and genuine encounter with the “other” in many quarters of our society allows these kinds of views to take lodging in people’s minds and hearts, and then to be openly expressed. At the same time, I suggest that we not limit our response to condemnation, but look inwardly and take an honest account of our own internalised racism. Perhaps it is subtler than Sparrow’s crass post, but I conjecture that it exists, and that to be aware of and interrogate our own stereotypes is much more germane than to suppress them or pretend they do not exist.
There is something relatively easy about condemnation. It is outward looking, and we get to avoid the much more uncomfortable business of looking inward. I would venture to say that, at times, the condemnation mounts to a point of scapegoating, where one individual is holding all the hatred and disapproval that we collectively try to disown. Projection, the unconscious mechanism involving disowning unwanted aspects of the self and attributing them to another, may be at work here. We can then punish someone else for the sentiments we are ashamed to acknowledge in ourselves.
So, I am not advocating for an #iampennysparrow hashtag, nor am I suggesting that we are all Penny Sparrow, or that we should not condemn public expressions of racism. Racism needs to be named and rooted out. I am suggesting that we not eschew the personal accounting of racist feelings and attitudes that may be fitting.
It is noteworthy that our society is on high alert for expressions of racism, especially in the wake of what I felt to be one of the most racially charged times in our recent history, following the Zuma-Nene-Myeni-van Rooyen debacle. It felt like two opposing trends were at work. A unifying trend, which acknowledged the impact of these events on all levels of society, and the need to come together for a common good, and a divisive trend, where there seemed to be a risk of degenerating into racial mudslinging. One post accused whites involved in the #zumamustfall campaign of being self-righteous and only concerned about events that affect their interests, an unfortunate accusation at a time of potential unity among South Africans of different backgrounds. I have heard some white people unapologetically name race as a salient feature in this debacle, and in corruption in general, suddenly seeming comfortable to express racist ideas in social spaces.
There is no more fertile ground for the simplistic and divisive thinking that characterises racism than situations of extreme stress and uncertainty. I believe that President Jacob Zuma’s actions between the 10th and 13th December 2015 dislodged many South Africans from what we thought we knew, and aroused intense uncertainty about the future and our standing in the global community. What followed was a partial eruption of racial tensions and blame attributions. It is pretty tempting to employ racial stereotypes, which simplify matters into black and white (pardon the pun), when making sense of complex and stressful situations.
Prior to and following Nelson Mandela’s death, many called on South Africans to keep his legacy of reconciliation alive. Twenty-one years from the dawn of democracy, some reconciliation exists, but racial tension hangs in the collective air. Hopefully, Sparrow’s sentiments can be banished to the bad old days, where they belong, but I fear that we cannot avoid reckoning with our own leaning towards divisive views. DM