Are the DA’s core tenets an unintentional camouflage for racism?
Is the DA a substitute for the inner work the white part of its constituency left undone in 1994?
Does Penny Sparrow embody this philosophical misfiring at its ultimate logical conclusion?
The social media battle around racism is about words. Words are verbal carriers of universally negotiated meaning, connotation and shock-value. Unless you are a brilliant copywriter, you cannot think of a new way to use the word “yellow” and expect people to instantly get or let you get away with it. Unless the context obviously shows it, yellow almost always refers to a particular colour.
This basic logic flies out the window when we discuss racism in general and skin colour in particular. An instance of this is with the use of the word “kaffir” below. A Marleen Theunissen commented on Facebook, “Can I come in with a side-thing here? The word ‘kaffir’ is definitely offensive. But I use it to refer to a mentality, not a race. If you are a person who is lazy, doesn’t give a f**k about what you do or what your actions do to those around you, you expect everything to be given to you, etc.. then I refer to that person as a kaffir. It’s a mindset, a mentality. And to be quite honest, I personally know more white kaffirs (in said context) than black ones.”
Someone curtly replied, “You’re a racist.”
She negotiated the meaning of the word kaffir by and for herself, (not arbitrarily) kept its historic offensiveness and cluster of stereotyped associations, while distancing herself from the risk of the word being about the race group it is traditionally meant to offend.
But her choice neglected to take account of or deal with the broad, societal racism the word arose from, from which she has unfairly benefited. Unable to read her mind, some child will hear her say kaffir and think that racism is okay.
Theunissen would probably not do this with the word yellow.
This is why Sparrow’s, “Monkeys are cute and they’re naughty, but they [black people] don’t see it that way, but I do because I love animals” is problematic.
By deliberate consensus on the part of those who had the power to make it so, the word kaffir became a slur intended to degrade and demean black people. Disjoin words from how they are commonly understood and you might defeat the purpose of language itself: the only thing left is to let fists do the talking.
The DA often shrinks from using racial terminology, seeing much of it has been found scientifically and morally questionable. One result of this is its flip-flopping on BEE. Correspondingly, white people’s narratives concerning past injustices and present inequalities have fragmented into a thousand sanitised stories that remain above the fray of black people’s lived experiences. Once it was decided that racism was wrong and intellectually untenable, it was also implicitly decided that what had been happening all along had not happened.
Far from helping the person take personal responsibility for the issue, personalising the discussion on racism privatises and sanitises it as though one could overturn centuries of systemic injustice by deciding its vocabulary can be christened into conformity with the non-racialism that denies the causes and patterns of inequality. I could sooner cool the current heatwave down by describing the temperature of the room I am in now as “cold” because it happens to have a fan I can switch on and off at will. How are you liking the relief? Have I not improved things for you?
Knowledge is understanding that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is using the tomato in a vegetable salad rather than a fruit salad. People like Theunissen and Gareth Cliff may be formidably agile in the knowledge realm (even more in some instances than the people they are debating with) but they are often inflexible when it comes to the wise application of their knowledge. That wisdom is developed through balancing one’s views with keen sensitivity to the perspectives of others. And this is something we do not largely experience white people coming to the table with. Many fear the backlash of their peers and end up being bystanders in a pageant of experimental avant-garde racisms parading as “open-mindedness.” This shielding of racists from the consequences of their prejudice may be worse than racism itself.
If one would combat racism, one must acknowledge that the prevailing discourse on racism and white privilege has been sufficiently shaped and is stable enough to allow meaningful discourse for a growing number of participants; questioning it is questioning the intellects and experiences of those who have participated in its shaping up until now. That, or it is jerking off to one’s command of language and rhetoric when the appropriate thing would be to mourn one’s complete irrelevance to the lived experiences of South Africans in ashes and sackcloth.
Alphabetic words add up to stories and narratives. Just as words are most wisely used the way others understand them, telling apartheid history in a way divorced from the shared reality of the other storytellers and experiencers may be a sign that your narrative is conveniently shaped to serve your interests. If your understanding (or denial) of “white privilege” has not been sufficiently exposed to or challenged by the people who report its impact, you will be crucified on social media.
If your definition of “racism” isn’t sufficiently rooted in the history of racial injustices, it’s purely academic – and self-preservingly so. By that token, I have noticed many black people root their definition of “racism” so deeply in historical stories that they neglect to call out black-on-white racism in the present. A regrettable pattern. Nevertheless, it is urgent that we talk about white-on-black racism now.
This apparent prioritisation of black victimisation knocks the wind out of many white people’s sails. @afriforum tweeted, “@MlebukaS All forms of racism must be condemned equally and with the same amount of disapproval.” But could this not be read as the insistence that responses to racism should be equalised so as to preserve the status quo? Alternatively, could it not be the tone-policing of black people’s anger at the systemic racism and inequality many white people deny exists in the first place? Bigotry is always ugly but it is 300 years too late to speak about all racists being equal. Some racists are clearly more equal than others.
The urgency with which we confront a racial slur is mitigated by factors other than raw principle unmoored from history and circumstance. Do we always respond to instances of violence the same way? No: we distinguish gratuitous violence from premeditated, self-defensive, retaliative, retributive and provoked expressions of violent force. If we did not bother with these nuances, Barry Roux would not be a household name today.
We can hate racism in general but have our response to its occasion modified by our insight into context at the same time. Equal-opportunity policing of racism is laughable to those who have not benefitted from former large-scale institutionalisations of racism, and serves those who have. And this is where the DA’s non-racialism monotone gets some black audiences chuckling as much as the ANC’s insistence that it fights corruption tooth-and-nail: we all know that due to historical reasons, many white DA members often live in suburbs while black DA members often live in townships. We cannot wish current reality away by looking forward any more than I can cool my room down by daydreaming about how cool it will be in six months. So with both the ANC and the DA, the Emperor is naked even as he waxes lyrical about the cut and quality of his robes.
If you think I’m just saying this because I’m black, I promise there are plenty of white, Indian and Coloured people who apportion their battle efforts the same way. If I did not think like this I would not be blogging about systemic racism but about topics that resonate with many privileged South African readers: rhino poaching, or animals being traumatised by fireworks. Important topics both, but not as high up on my list of priorities as the often brutal injustices faced by human beings at the hands of man-made social systems.
This is where the DA and its constituency have often been accused of being tone-deaf despite their insistence that they acknowledge the injustices of the past. How often have they challenged their whiter members to take responsibility for and do something about the injustices of the past, and not just acknowledge them?
The point is that most black people look not to the DA but to its voters for an idea of what sort of party it is. It appears to grow two racist members for every one it cuts down.
We have seen with the ANC’s refusal to recall Zuma that when someone is tone-deaf to what the crowd is yelling, it means he does not think the crowd is worth taking seriously.
Then again, even God whispers before he shouts.
Siya Khumalo blogs about religion, politics and sex; he has also written a book (#TheUnveiledFacesProject coming soon).
Please follow and share @SKhumalo1987