Blackface, white privilege in post-apartheid South Africa

If I am because you are, and we reflect each other’s true humanity, then we are obligated to protect one another’s dignity. When two white women, students at the University of Pretoria participated in blackface they infringed upon their own dignity while demonstrating the deep racism that is still present in our society. Without neglecting the dignity of the victims of racism, I still believe that what we all have in common is a desire to live in a country that affirms the humanity of all who live in it. In order to do this, we need to have conversations that seek to find common ground, speak truth and find ways to build beyond ourselves. I write this not to condemn the women as human beings, rather to condemn their actions and demonstrate how these actions are part of a larger white racial frame dominating institutions from the Cape to the Limpopo River. I aim to highlight the extent of white privilege in the country so as to foster a conversation about how we can uproot the inherent oppression that gives birth to these hurtful realities.

1. What is white privilege?

White privilege describes unearned advantages one gets in society because of the colour of their skin (Peggy McIntosh, pg.1, 1989). It manifests itself in a variety of ways and is often normalized beyond question, such that when racism blatantly occurs it is often deflected, diminished or denied by white people. These responses occur because the world they live in operates from a white racial frame in which the narrative supports their values, maintains their credibility and asserts their worldview on those around them.

Interpersonally, a white person is less likely to be followed around in a shop, have their abilities/credibility constantly questioned and more likely to be assumed innocent than people of colour, especially black South Africans. On a large scale, a white person is more likely to read, hear or watch media presented by people that look like them, or consume information in the “mainstream” that corresponds directly with their worldview. The death or kidnapping of white children, as well as the reporting on crime is more likely to cover the voices of white citizens than any other group. The white voice carries perceived greater weight in our country: our history has a strong white narrative, our media is biased towards white people (for example, when have we ever read a report questioning the credentials of a white politician?), and our distorted economy is in favor of white ownership. That these phenomena all operate with impunity too often is not a coincidence.

2. How does white privilege explain this event?

White privilege embodies the power to name and represent those with less power. When you name and represent something, you can control it as well as how people react to it. The women targeted the most vulnerable population in the most degrading way. There was thought and intention in the women’s depiction of blackface: they choose a domestic worker outfit instead of the stylish clothes worn by many black women in the country. Padding their buttocks, here the white women demonstrated not only their power to degrade women through objectification, but did it in a manner that revealed their racism. Similar to the way in which white people framed and controlled the image, body and life of Sarah Bartman, these women used their white privilege to perpetuate their bodies as the norm and the black body as something abnormal. This is a stark reminder of how these images are steeped in our racist history. History in this case has repeated itself. However, the painting of their faces and bodies in blackface was likely the most lucid example of control and power. That it was normal for these white women to assume the bodies of black women exemplifies their privilege. When you have power, you are able to represent the powerless as you please; a right those without power do not have. There is a reason black South Africans were referred to as boys and girls during apartheid, as well as made to wear shorts or designated outfits regardless of age. This diminished black people’s dignity and allowed white people greater ease of control. In the same way, using blackface reduces black people to objects of white entertainment and ridicule.

Whereas participating in blackface by these white women demonstrates their racist white privilege, the responses to the event exemplify additional features of the phenomena: diminishing the experience of the other and being unaccountable for their racist actions.

Accounts of raped women often describe how their experiences are diminished by those in society, especially men who blame them for the event. In this case, the power lies in a man’s ability to not only physically control a woman, but shape how society responds to his actions towards her. In the same way, white people diminish the experiences of people of colour. All too often we hear how over sensitive black people are, or how they should just get on with, or over it. It referring to over fifty years of white apartheid domination and three hundred years of colonization before that. Many of the responses across social networks suggested the event was a joke, or people were overreacting. When you have power, you are unable to recognize an alternate reality in which people can be hurt by your actions. As long as you are not the victim, everyone else is having a sense of humor failure and is just too sensitive.

Perhaps the most powerful example of privilege and the existence of the white racial frame, however, remains the fact that white people are hardly ever held accountable for their racism. Responses deflected the racism by appealing to the apparent goodness of the perpetrators. Despite the event being anything but good, commenters immediately assume they are good because they are white. That there was such a large voice in the media defending these women for their racism exemplifies how powerful the need to diminish the reality of black hatred is. Comment after comment praising the women while lambasting those who pointed out the obvious highlights some white people’s inability to recognize their own racial frame, and that of the media. The fact that these students should have been expelled but weren’t reiterates my point. Comments referring to this event destroying their futures, or the harsh nature of their residence expulsion, suggests that these punishments should only be reserved for those who are racist towards white people only. That white people are dealt with leniently in situations of racism only perpetuates their privilege further.

3. How does it explain reactions?

Many have compared the actions of these women (who many refer to as students, which would have been unlikely had they not been white) to the work of Leon Schuster and Wackhead Simpson who use blackface and derogatory accents in their work. The fact that these two actors are so successful exemplifies the point I’ve been trying to make: the white racial frame is so embedded in our society that their racism is unquestioned. In fact, people pay a lot of money to watch their movies or buy their CDs, sending the message that degrading people in the name of fun is profitable and a route to stardom.

Many argue that Trevor Noah should be accused of the same thing. But, his jokes cannot be placed on par with blackface because while he may have the power to ridicule white people during the show, he is still Coloured in a white world when the curtain closes. Although a mixed race person, his example is less of an exception than people make it out to be. First, having a white father advantaged him tremendously. Had he not had a white father, many of the educational privileges are unlikely to have been bestowed on him, which was necessary for his current career. But, assuming none of that was true, he still grew up in apartheid determined disadvantage. Being unable to live with both parents because they are not the same race is something white people have never had to endure. Even if this is not enough, he is still mixed race. He is more likely to be pulled over in Cape Town and have his car searched for drugs, more likely to be asked where he went to school or got his accent from than any white colleague with half his talent. He may have a white father but he cannot claim all the white privilege. His lack of white power however, does not abdicate him from racism.

What Trevor Noah also represents is the tightrope of identity many face in our country. Some marooned between western and African culture, the townships and the suburbs or the rural-urban divide. Buying into one can isolate you from another. Moreover, in the pursuit of advantage, some participate in their own oppression—they laugh or even participate in racist jokes about themselves, perpetuate the stereotypes apartheid masterminded as though they created them or substitute inner evaluation for external assessment of who they are. They have bought into the apartheid frame and require a paradigm shift.

4. Where to go from here?

All is not lost. It is easy to be cynical about the state of racism in South Africa but that would be neglecting the reality of people’s triumphs—the true relationships that exemplify the ideals of a non-racist, non-sexist and inclusive society. We are making progress; we are advancing and protecting those advances. Dismantling white privilege and racism begins with recognizing that it exists. It requires seeing the racist in all of us, finding the common ground and understanding the impact this toxin is having on people all around the world. Those unable to recognize it can’t see their privilege. The poison of racism not only diminishes the social fabric of our society but impedes the oppressor’s and the oppressed’s ability to live lives they have reason to truly value. If we are to accept that we are human then, while imperfect, we can begin by halting practices which deflect, diminish or deny the experiences of victims of racism or any oppression for that matter. When we stand up to racism, we increase the cost to racists for their behavior and force ourselves to ask larger questions about how we can uproot the institutions that perpetuate these events on a daily basis.

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