I recently promised myself that I would stop trying to address the question of race and the rigmarole that is racism, to white people. There is an acute sense of futility that I have experienced in the past when trying to educate or explain the myriad ways that racism is deeply embedded in life as we know it, to white people. In the past, I have used all kinds of approaches to try to appeal to the white person next to me’s perception of themselves in the context of the new South Africa and the world. Sometimes, in very rare cases, a person might truly understand the depth of corner that whiteness is in in the world today, and we are able to engage sincerely from two ends of one human plank. Other times, it’s like trying to scratch the cataract from a reluctant and fearful blind person’s eyes. They want to be able to see but they can’t imagine life through another prism of seeing and being so the cataract, no matter how gently or violently I’ve tried to remove it, remains intact because it’s used to being there. But most of the time, it’s a pure, dry, unfiltered waste of time. And this, I have learned, is because of the assumption that this white person sees the world the way you, a black person sees the world – from outside of themselves. After one too many of my own white friends or acquaintances asking me questions such as ”but what do I do, what can I do?”, and me having to respond with ”it’s not for me to tell you what to do”, I gave up and decided to let sleeping beauties sleep. It causes too much anxiety and a destructive perennial anger, it scoops your humanity cup by cup every time my black mouth has to hold its tongue and every time my ears have to flap and flutter a bigoted sentence away so that it does not stick. It takes up too much time and energy in one’s being just being conscious of one’s black self in an anti-black world. Your consciousness contaminates every morsel of your being, one can’t watch television or listen to the radio, enjoy a restaurant meal or look at a basic human interaction without thinking about race. It’s a terribly taunting existence, one that I am still navigating. A black friend of mine, who read Biko in high school always dismissively says to me ”Hahaha oh you’re still in your angry phase, you’ll get over it”. I resent her for this a little. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m jealous of her seasoned immunity to bullshit or whether I find her blase attitude part of the problem. My desire for universal love for all beings is constantly threatened just by waking up and remembering what I know, by looking at my bookshelf or scrolling down my Facebook timeline. I don’t want to be so upset by every little thing. I won’t have a life if I’m constantly reacting to the way things are. But sometimes, just to be able to carry on with life knowing that I raised a flag, sometimes I am arrested by the need to say something , even when I know it will fall on deaf ears. What inspired my column last week was one of those moments where I looked at this situation and thought, but did nobody see the problem with this picture?
This was published in City Press newspaper on Sunday 20 Septmber 2015:
Did you hear the one about the young white couple who got married in the Women’s Jail section of Constitution Hill? I wish it weren’t something I discovered on my Instagram feed. I wish the bride wasn’t someone I had once shared a meal with, somebody I liked from afar. They got married in a prison that can be compared to Robben Island or, and at this point I have to conjure the comparison that black people have to conjure in order for the gravity of such insensitivity to be understood by whiteness, they got married in the equivalent of what Auschwitz was meant to be for Polish political prisoners.
What was theoretically the happiest moment of their apolitical love, was framed by photographs and placards that carry testimonies of how black women were denied sanitary towels during their periods there, so they bled onto themselves. If Constitution Hill is a cold dark place that houses a cold dark history that is not to be celebrated with sparkling wine but remembered with sobriety and seriousness, why did this couple and their party or why did the administrators of Constitution Hill’s think it appropriate to have a wedding inside this site of historical violence? Could they have been inspired by the Pinterest popularized trend of young white heterosexual American couples getting married on slave plantations lately? Or could it be because of this less grandiose fact: there are no consequences for causing black pain. For even the most well-meaning white liberals who think of themselves as good people, their goodness need not extend beyond their personal happiness, their happiness need not be disturbed by a little contextualization, because black pain, even when it glares at you from the inside an institution, is inconsequential.
It would be easy to vilify the person who signed this off at Constitution Hill, and even easier to vilify that room of smiling white faces, but it would not resolve the context that created the mentality on both sides, that this was a good idea.
For that to be seen as the inappropriate idea that it was, we would have to violently crack open our minds in order to create a different climate, one where the provocation of black pain would have meaning and consequences.
First it has to be unacceptable.
But nothing is ever unacceptable when it comes to black people. You can do whatever you want to black people. You can give them names such as natives, plurals, kaffirs, niggers and newer pejoratives like black diamonds. You can be Anton Kannemeyer and insist on an endless body of work where black people are depicted as golliwogs and white people as humans because you know you can get away with blaming it on fiction, especially in spaces that promote your bigotry, spaces such as art fairs.
You can be the aggressors that the University of Stellebosch’s black students describe in the documentary, Luister because you’re not about listening. You can be like the white man who interviewed me, Khaya Dlanga and Luvuyo Mandela during the ill-conceived Spike Lee Digital Edge Live conference last week. His response to Luvuyo Mandela, when the latter reblockquoted all of his Xhosa clan names during the interview, was ‘’Dumela, Sharp Sharp, that’s all I know what to say’’. You will not feel embarrassed because it’s no big deal that you call yourself an African yet you do not speak an African language.
Instead you will smile and wave because Dali Tambo gave you the right to take pride in your crimes when he introduced you as the honorable assassin, Dirk Coetzee in an episode of People of The South one day in 1994. Nothing is unacceptable even when it comes to how black people treat each other. 44 white bodies would have caused the world to stop spinning had they been mowed over Marikana style. They would have been lionized by millions of petitions. Because black people’s psychological oppression is yet to be treated, there is no difference between a Mmusi Maimaine’s attempt to reblockquote Biko’s words instead of living them, and a powerful black person’s hatred of a powerless blacker person. Because black power has a new meaning in what poet and activist Mbe Mbhele calls post apartheid apartheid, a sentiment echoed by Vanguard Editor Panashe Chigumadzi when she says, ‘’That’s who you have power over, your fellow blacks who are also pummeled by and deemed subhuman by our post apartheid apartheid, so you will exercise your agency and pummel them because there aren’t any consequences’’.
Institutions, be they physical or ideological, don’t build themselves – people build them. They can also be destroyed by people as curator Thembinkosi Goniwe reminded the audience during a talk at last weekend’s FNB Joburg Art Fair. But for that destruction to begin, the lines that can no longer be crossed must be drawn clean and clear for no feet to miss. First, we have to make black pain unacceptable.
Unfortunately, this is just one symptom of an incapacitating social disease in South Africa. On Monday 21 September, the bride’s father called 702 to share his exblockquotement at the venue of his daughter’s wedding, citing the hashtag so that listeners may go and see the pics on Instagram for themselves. And in went the nail in the hard wood of the truth of white obliviousness to black pain. It’s not enough, Steve Biko said, that a black person is kicked in the knees every day in this country, one still has to explain to the kicker that ”hey, you know it’s sore when you do that right?”.