(appeared in slightly-edited version in Chimurenga #1, 2002, pp.45-47)
ALLOW ME some biographical indulgence, editor and reader, black, white, ‘coloured’, or any of the other million identities for sale.
I spent 10 months in the USA, on a scholarship and just after I had voted in 1994. There were moments in that country where I longed for SA racism, more visible, less sinister. So I was happy to return to my own backyard of racism in 1995. Since then I have been following the buildup to our present, often hysterical discoursing on race and racism. And here I am: hysterical, tired of the even tones of reason, angry. An angry black man.
With regards to race, South Africa has changed: race and racism is no longer the preserve of National Party policy wonks, anti-apartheid activists and intellectuals, or dinner discussion and argument. It is public, mainstream, consciously in the national conscious; it is on everyone’s tongue, in the media, in our dreams, in our nightmares. Which means that South Africa has not changed, that racism remains ingrained, if not embedding itself deeper and deeper in our psyches. Here may follow the necessary, self-aware acknowledgement: no one expects such a founding aspect of our modern national history to disappear in the space of a decade or two.
But I have followed the public discoursing on race with a sense of exhaustion: a tug of war, accusation and counter-accusation, a white viewpoint, a black viewpoint. Or a rehearsal of old arguments.
Sometimes I have found an enlivening anger. But always, at the moment of committing to the page a response or my two cents, paralysis. Racism, like any area of human life, is complicated; and to acknowledge this complexity in the way one writes about it may lessen the anger, the motivation, the reason for wanting, in the first place, to write it out of the psyche.
It is also often too easy to shout ‘Racism!’ and exploit existing prejudices and habits of thought that are so visible in our lives and media. And no writer wants to be accused of cheap shots, of lazy habits of thought.
It is difficult to write about racism also because the dismissal or counter-argument follows easily. The racially significant encounter in the shop or cinema is easily dismissed as the fabrication of an ‘over-sensitive’ mind, of someone who has a chip on his or her shoulder. This is certainly the most powerful of dismissals — throughout history, anywhere — because it casts the writer who describes, complains, who accuses, who fingers this national sore, as abnormal, as someone with mental problems, as someone whose thought lacks adequate logic, that shibboleth that guarantees the voice its authority. And which writer wants to be accused of being disturbed? But here I am, completely fucking mental.
Among the many pieces that have accumulated in the print media around this issue was Njabulo Ndebele’s piece (M&G, 15 September 2000). Complaining about racism submits, he says, to ‘whiteness’ in that it grants the latter ‘power of relief’. The real analysis he leaves in the form of a question:
Is the fore-grounding of race and racism a veiled admission that perhaps there is as yet no material basis for the black majority to contain this scourge through the imposition of it (sic) own versions of the future? Does this speak to the black majority’s perception that perhaps they are not yet agents of history?
Certainly this is fundamental. Racism does not cause but exacerbates an economic problem. Racism is a powerful reminder that one remains a non-agent of history. In an individual sense, it also undermines one’s agency because it obliterates the individual’s self-description, perhaps the primal site of agency. Racism elevates a visible aspect of one’s being, and denies even the possibility of other aspects that may be, to the particular individual, more central to their identity.
Again, anecdote. I teach at the University of Cape Town. Like any institution that has a colonial history, it will, not surprisingly, have its implicit, institutionalised, age-old and persistent legacy that demands a generous amount of deracination. Deracination: the other side of the race coin, but not yet in our national conversation. I leave the complexities of this for another occasion.
Since I believe that the process of my own more interesting education and empowerment started with the shock of alienation and disempowerment that went along with enrollment at that university in the 1980s, I think a dose of deracination is always healthy (a pity, though, that it does not allow deracination away from whiteness for those who subscribe to that epithet). Almost certainly without fail, on walking home, I am, have been, will be, re-racinated, so to speak. I will encounter someone who will – excuse my over-sensitivity – privilege the visible aspect of my body, my skin, and behave accordingly. Most hurtful and angering, the clutch at a bag or the wide berth that white women will give me.
For most of my day, I am a decently educated person who teaches 18 year-olds and older about literature, English literature. It is not entirely preposterous to think that I may have the son or daughter of the white woman I encounter on the sidewalk in my class. When she clutches her bag though, I am no longer a teacher to her son or daughter. With the aid of that powerful tool we call national crime statistics, she has been able to reduce me to a cipher of criminality: the black man. I am no longer an agent in how the world sees me.
I do not expect, nor want, to be greeted with a vigorous nod and smile by strangers. I understand the caution of women in a society which is riddled by crime, a society which, by measure of its rape statistics, is terrifyingly close to losing its humanity. But this understanding, this attempt to grant my encountered white woman some measure of sympathy, this little step of the imagination – what is it like for her? – this attempt to humanise her rests on my dehumanisation, and I am complicit with her.
How does one respond? Remain silent and so allow the hurt and anger to fester? Is it any surprise that an ordinary little burglary turns instantaneously into brutality? How can we not see the connection between, not crime per se, but between the often brutal turns it takes, and racism in South Africa. Yes, crime too is complex, and I do not intend to explain it away and blame it on racism. But it seems that ‘ordinary’ crime – the crime that poor individuals commit in order to survive, like housebreaking (in South Africa, yes, mainly by black people) may contain in the surprise encounter with the homeowner (yes, often white) a moment of recognition, a moment which South Africa at large still needs to experience.
I am sure that to the white homeowner the suspicion of black criminality is confirmed. But the black criminal? What goes through his mind? What triggers the swift move from housebreaker to murderer? Is that not perhaps the catharsis Fanon speaks about?
Since I am educated, I may be less prone to criminality and will not lash out at my fellow citizen. And, since I have intellectual pretensions, I hurry home to husband the anger and write it out of me. But then, the demons of paralysis: everyone’s writing about it, what new things can I add? And, am I oversensitive? Will I, in Ndebele’s words, ‘reduce [myself] to the status of complainant’? Will I be admitting to a psychological weakness? And what about making public an almost physical hurt that goes to the very core of one’s sense of self? Is that the weakness? That I, often described as confident to the point of arrogance, can in the instant it takes someone to clutch at a bag, feel like I have been bludgeoned? Is there indeed not something wrong with me? And so doubt creeps in, and the moment of writing paralyses. But here I am, writing.
I admire writers who remain calm: Njabulo Ndebele, Xolela Mangcu, John Matshikiza. I marvel (or am puzzled?) by my friends who shrug their shoulders at these little encounters they also experience. One of my friends even has the perfect counter to the ‘chip on the shoulder’ remark: ‘I make sure I have a chip on both shoulders, so I remain well-balanced.’ How, in short, do they maintain power, agency, sanity? Is there, indeed, something wrong with me?
By its frequency and by its nature, my encounters with white women are emblematic of a central aspect in racism. It is race that allows it: the construction and continuing use of race as an explanatory concept prevents us from understanding our world in other ways; prevents us from allowing even the possibility of explaining the world differently and, possibly, more accurately.
If I am walking briskly, in Rondebosch, with a bag of groceries in each hand and what is clearly a bag of books on my back, one can make certain assumptions about me. Rondebosch – UCT; books – student or teacher; groceries – can satisfy basic needs; together with brisk walk – in a hurry to get home and eat after a day at university. Rondebosch is full of such figures. There goes a student. There goes a university teacher.
In his basic activities and needs, how is a black student or teacher different from this figure? (The male pronoun is deliberate since I am concerned with the black man read as criminal threat.) Certainly there can be no difference: both are in a hurry to get home and eat, irrespective of what personal histories and tragedies may lie behind any stranger we encounter. Indeed, it is a stranger, and we cannot know. It is what we add in our ignorance – the domain of assumption – that is my concern. If we allow this racial qualifier, if we submit to a desire for the racial qualifier, if we submit to the need to describe the world by using such qualifiers, we open the door to a range of assumptions.
This is an old story. The neutral is of course not neutral, but white; the black nevertheless signifies a deviation from the neutral. So, still, the white is often described in neutral terms and only the black is racialised. Racialising the white does not resolve the issue, it simply provides balance. I am not interested in balance.
It is the actual use of racial categories that should be scrutinised, still, again, against especially the world’s love affair with asserting ethnic and racial identities. From the need to see the student as black it is an instantaneous switch to seeing only the black and to a blindness regarding groceries, book bag, brisk walk. Seeing the black man gives way to the non-rational and the looker sees only blackman, the category, no human, nothing but a cipher of criminality. Nothing, and she clutches at her bag.
Where does this power of the white woman over me lie? When did I concede it to her? Did I concede it to her? And if the criminal is an unwanted presence, which it is, then I am again the unwanted presence in a white suburb, no matter how many black people populate it. And what about guilt? The exhaustion of white guilt is well known. But what about the black man who now feels guilty for causing the encountered white woman such visible anxiety? What is it in that brief moment – she sees me, she cluthes at her bag? How do I maintain agency? Shout a quick, sharp ‘Boo!’ at her?
I am, also, what is called ‘coloured’, a term that still rankles, and it is finally the Mike Nicol piece (‘The trouble with Cape Town’, M&G, 3 August 2001) that drove me to the page in an anger that I feel, now, as I write this, dissipate, because I have attempted again to unpick something in me, something of which I think South Africa is far from resolving. A national sore which will not heal; something both public and thus open to intellectual scrutiny; something which can cause private agony, the confession of which, in turn, is an admission of vulnerability and cause for paralysis.
I found Bryan Rostron’s piece about Cape Town (M&G, 20 July 2001) worthwhile because it certainly described my experiences of public Cape Town. Some of the encounters he describes or quotes are too familiar: people quizzically quoting you the price of an item, assuming that you cannot possibly afford it, and so on and so forth.
The accusations of ‘coloured’ racism, quoted by Rostron, and said by a black person. Another thing that rings true. Since I pass as ‘coloured’, I am often privy to such racism, on a parallel to what Rostron described several months ago in another article about his encounters, as a white person, with white racism at dinner parties. An interesting footnote to this is how some white people, complete strangers, will make assumptions about my racial politics because I am ‘coloured’ and freely espouse racist views about black people.
All in all, the Rostron article about Cape Town puts in writing, in a newspaper, experiences and perceptions of Cape Town that I share, that I have heard in conversation, and so on.
But certainly it cannot be simply a matter of perception, as Mike Nicol suggests in his response: ‘this is true if you see the city as colonial redoubt’ (my emphasis). If it is a matter of perception, then the response or counter to that can only be another perception, as indeed Mike Nicol goes on to do: he uses the figure of the teenager to explain how he sees Cape Town. His depiction of Cape Town as made up of so many things, from the beautiful to the ugly, while more complex, more balanced, does not give to me what is my dominant experience of the place. No matter how hard I try to see the mountain, to wonder at a pair of pied crows cajoling in the air not more than 50 metres up, I will be walking along a sidewalk where certainly I will be reminded of the ugly.
Certainly perception plays a large role in how we describe the world, and certainly some things can be perceived in many different ways. But by casting the Rostron article as true depending on how you see Cape Town, what is then true is again dependent, in a way, on a state of mind. I see some of my experiences in the Rostron article; those experiences are experiences of racism; my experiences of racism are often easily dismissed as perceiving something which is not there. An article which confirms some of my experiences is countered by the same argument: the incidence of racism is a matter of perception. If you experience Cape Town as overwhelmingly racist, you walk around with half-closed eyes. We end up with competing perceptions, one true for X, the other true for Y. Equal truths, another site of paralysis. What do my descriptions of racism matter if they are one-sided, my perception of a small piece of a wider reality?
It is towards the end that the Nicol piece exasperated me though: ‘I’ve heard the coloured voice declare off record: this is our city, what do blacks want here? What is needed now are coloured voices to articulate publicly the deeper issues behind these sentiments’ (my emphasis).
My exasperation is partly caused by the writer, and partly caused by whomever the ‘coloured’ voice or voices are which he quotes. Nicol is, after all, merely relaying what he has heard and what many other people have relayed and what many other people have said.
My contention with the writer surrounds that definite article: ‘the coloured voice’. By suggesting a singular ‘coloured’ voice which is racist towards black people, the ‘coloured’, all ‘coloureds’ are swiftly, by virtue of a definite article, cast as resistant to the presence of black fellow Capetonians.
When I walk the streets, in other words, I am a cipher of criminality and a cipher of racism, irrespective of whether I engage in criminal behaviour or not, irrespective of whether I espouse racist views or not. I am both a target and an agent of racism.
Nicol’s definite article is simply a galvanising moment for me. I have been following with despair, since 1994, the rise of the ‘coloured’, in the context of a world captivated by the assertions and celebrations of ethnic identities. And it is this that is bothersome. We still give to ethnic and racial categories so much explanatory power and by so doing fall into easy thought. So it was the ‘coloured’ vote that left the Cape ‘unliberated’, one more addition to our politics that remain race-driven. Thanks to the media’s political analysis, I was also a National Party supporter. Criminal, racist, NP supporter: is this what is meant with multiple identities?
The ‘coloured’ is exactly that category which subverts our reliance on race as an explanatory category; the ‘coloured’ confounds racial thinking and should be read as emblematic of the non-existence of race. It is an old story, but one that bears repeating. How do you know someone is ‘coloured’? Skin colour? Good luck. Accent? Music? Again, good luck.
Unfortunately, the ‘coloured’ is now a race and the individual who can be described as such easily stands in for the race, the group. Then, whatever we have constructed to believe about the group can help us to interpret, in an instant, the individual. The line between racial thinking and racism is thin thin thin.
Here, now, I no longer care how many people assert and celebrate a ‘coloured’ identity. And here I turn to Nicol’s ‘informants’. I am sick and tired of ‘colouredness’. Fuck ‘colouredness’! And fuck bobotie! It is parochial, limiting; and it feeds racism. This city is not yours, in the same way as it still does not belong to black Capetonians. You are again simply a buffer, the bodygaurd of white capital. Here I am, a ‘coloured’ voice, on record.