Acts of “spectacular racism” such as that perpetrated by Stellenbosch law student Theuns du Toit last weekend when he urinated on a black student’s desk, inevitably lead to widespread condemnation of the incident by politicians, human rights bodies and any institution (such as a university) linked to the incident.
It inevitably also leads to an outpouring of anger and contempt from a large section of the public, and – more often than not – to attempts by some white South Africans to minimise the seriousness of the incident, or to deny that the incident was racist at all.
None of this is particularly surprising.
It is not as if the management of Stellenbosch University was ever going to issue a statement defending the actions of Theuns du Toit. Nor was the university management ever going to take responsibility for helping to create an environment in which it was possible to happen, or accuse the taalstryders from Gelyke Kans of promoting white supremacy at Stellenbosch.
Even the attempts by some white South Africans to minimise or deny the racist nature of such incidents make “sense” if one understands that such responses are often animated by feelings of white racial solidarity (felt by people who claim to not see race), or by anxiety that they themselves could be held accountable for the less spectacular expressions of racism that they lacked the knowledge or humanity to recognise, or the intelligence to hide.
And it goes without saying that outrage, disgust and contempt are entirely appropriate (if not quite adequate) responses to acts like that perpetrated by Theuns du Toit.
Such acts do not only aim to humiliate the targeted black victim, but also serve in a particularly primitive way as an assertion of white supremacy, something, as Steven Friedman recently reminded us, that is deeply embedded in the way society works.
But I worry that the obsessive focus on acts of “spectacular racism” by the media, politicians and the Twittering classes may make it easier for individuals and institutions to delay (or avoid) any reckoning with the deeper problems of which these acts are mere symptoms.
Because not many people are stupid enough to get caught on video performing acts of “spectacular racism”, it becomes easier for individuals and institutions to mischaracterise the problem as merely a case of a uniquely bad (or troubled) person doing something shocking and completely unexpected.
This allows the school, university or employer, and family members or friends of the perpetrator, to distance themselves from the perpetrator and his or her act. Because they may genuinely find the particular act of “spectacular racism” objectionable, they may genuinely believe it when they claim that “this is not who we are”.
I am reminded here of Jeanne Goosen’s 1990 novel Ons is nie almal so nie (translated into English by André P Brink as We are not all like that). In the novel, the child narrator, Gertie van Greunen, recounts episodes from her life with her mother Doris and other family members in a working-class neighbourhood of Cape Town in the period shortly after the National Party came to power and began implementing “grand apartheid”.
As a naive child narrator, Gertie often exposes or mimics the racism and bigotry of those around her without fully realising its implications, producing much of the painful and sometimes bitter humour in the book.
In the scene that gives the book its title, Gertie’s mother, Doris, offers a cake to her neighbours, the Williams family, on the day that they move out of the house from which they had been evicted in terms of the Group Areas Act. She runs after the neighbour’s car with the cake in her hand, protesting: “We are not all like that.” Instead of the expected gratitude, Mrs Williams rolls up the car window and the family drives away “without looking at us even once”.
Because of the spectacular brutality inflicted on the Williams family by the apartheid state, something that Doris seems genuinely to find objectionable, her claim that “we are not all like that” may not be untrue in the strictest sense. But Doris lives in a world of casual racism, sexism and bigotry, and largely goes along with (at times even seems to embrace) the basic tenets of apartheid.
There is no fundamental questioning of the “way society works”, or of the advantages the system bestows on her. When Doris therefore says that “we are not all like that”, she is also lying to herself, a lie that makes it possible for her (and for the reader?) to look away from the fundamental brutality of the world that she is a part of.
The focus on acts of “spectacular racism” may also reinforce wrongheaded ideas about what racism is and how it works. As Steven Friedman points out, it is a mistake to assume that racism is only about “the few who openly express contempt for Black people”.
Instead, racism is about “the way society operates, the way in which racism operates in the routines of life”. He also points out that:
“This racism operates even if no one calls Black people names or defiles their belongings or uses violence against them. It works even if the vast majority of white people, particularly those whose decisions affect others, genuinely believe that they harbour no prejudices against Black people.”
To understand the ways in which racism “operates in the routines of life”, we need to consider the ideologies, structures, systems, institutions, rules and attitudes that structure or guide those routines, and how these all operate in tandem to centre certain white ways of being in the world.
But I think it would be a mistake to ignore the fact that these “routines of life” that centre whiteness are often further reinforced and policed by other white people who may use subtle and not so subtle acts of “unspectacular racism” to co-opt other white people into acts of shared racism.
If you are white, you probably know that I am talking about those situations where another white person who does not know you from Adam will start talking to you as if you obviously share their racial prejudices.
The more “subtle” ones would do it in the form of “jokes”. Others will dress up their racism as political opinions.
Such interactions will often have a subtle hint of menace about them, as if the speaker is daring you to contradict them. In some cases, such speakers appear to be taken aback, even angry, when you object.
Last, the media’s sharp focus on acts of “spectacular racism” may also be a mistake because it fails to recognise the enormity of the harm caused by the “slow violence” caused over time by the relentless stream of “unspectacular” and systemic kinds of racism, sometimes caused, as Friedman argues, by white people who “genuinely believe that they harbour no prejudices against Black people”.
Rob Nixon uses the term in relation to environmental degradation, but I find the term helpful when thinking about racism.
He explains that “slow violence” is “a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive, its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales”, and cautions against the study of violence being led by the spectacle-hungry media, instead drawing attention to the “attritional lethality” of slow violence. DM