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Morality Politics

#Blackface, white noise

Blackface-Sheep-ScotlandSo you might have heard about two female students in Pretoria who recently painted their faces black, dressed up as domestic workers, and padded their behinds with pillows, just in case it wasn’t clear to anyone that they were trying to look like a certain stereotype of a black woman.

Thanks to the provocations of inane commentary on social media, a whole bunch of big names in atheism, humanism and the like now have too, and they’re consistently as bewildered as I am that people want to try and justify this idiocy.

They’re hearing about it because I’m at the World Humanist Congress in Oxford, and whenever someone asks me about South Africa, I’m currently telling them about this incident and what some responses to it tells us about how clueless some South Africans seem to be about race, and how simplistic views on free speech can end up (even if unintentionally) supporting racist attitudes.

The easy thing (for me) about the blackface case is this: I don’t think it should be illegal to be an idiot of this sort. I’m even reluctant to agree that “hate speech” is an easy enough category to recognise, and that – even if it can be recognised – that it should be illegal. This is because I’m broadly in support of J.S. Mill’s famous defence of free speech, and think that hearing hurtful things is often part of the price that individuals have to pay for society to flourish.

That’s no comfort to the person hearing the hurtful things, I know – and I also know that middle-class white males like me are seldom, if ever, the ones hearing the hurtful things. Which is why I want to remind those of you who think that “free speech” is sufficient to excuse, if not condone, the blackface incident of Isiah Berlin’s essay entitled “Two concepts of liberty”, with its reminder that negative liberties – in short, free speech as in your right to be free from my stopping you from speaking – should be contemplated alongside positive liberties.

Again, in summary, positive liberties amount to enabling conditions for being free at all – we can imagine having opportunities to speak: access to media, education, the requisite cultural capital and confidence, the absence of the fear of being mocked or derided for what one might have to say, or for how you’re dressed, or your skin colour, sex, sexual orientation and/or preferences, etc.

In other words, positive liberties amount to a bunch of the things that structural racism has compromised for the vast majority of the South African population (black South Africans), and enhanced for a small proportion of us, the white South Africans.

When someone suggests that white students wearing blackface does not impinge on anyone’s liberty, they aren’t taking the positive liberty aspect into account. They are instead relying on an understanding of rights that is technical, rather than one involving substantive rights.

Because even though we’d (well, at least I’d) like to live on a planet where we don’t have any uncontrolled or instinctive reactions to people based on arbitrary characteristics like race, we don’t live in that world yet – and black South Africans (not only South Africans – black humans) are victims of more discrimination than white ones are.

When you make a “joke” that references that discrimination, it’s likely to hurt. If you point out that “you should just get over it”, that’s likely to hurt too, because it’s callous, and because it ignores how difficult it is to just “get over” hurtful things. We all know this at least on some level, whether it’s the minor sort – perhaps being betrayed by a trusted friend – or something more significant like, say, generations of oppression alongside still living in a world that seems to ignore that oppression.

Freedom of speech isn’t the only thing that matters. It matters enough that I don’t want to ban your offensive speech – enough that I think it would be a very bad idea to do so. But it doesn’t matter enough that we can use it as a way to excuse that fact that some behaviour is inexcusable, even if it is legal.

Whether or not the women in question knew how offensive their actions were, this is no time to be making excuses for them.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

9 replies on “#Blackface, white noise”

Thought provoking piece. Couldn’t believe how many dug their heels in and dismissed this as nothing to worry about.

Lots of assumptions still being made, by people who weren’t there. I know some who were: black friends of those girls. One of their black friends even appear in the second image of the girls. Friends who understand the context, and are not offended (as so many ‘liberal’ whites appear to be). Friends who don’t just snatch at the easiest, most simplistic explanation – like every second “intellectual” columnist on the web.

The hype lasted a day, replaced promptly the next day by the oscar trial – so how serious was it, or how truly offensive was the action, or was it just another blown out of proportion hashtag trend?

We can’t condone racism, yet we live in a society where racial quotas are enforced. Any association for black people is allowed, but should the tables be turned, it’s deemed discriminatory. It’s these hypocrisys that confuse me. So two young students are punished fir a stupid dress up party antic, yet during political rallies, hate speech is strewn around.

We really need to look around and realise we live in a world of mixed ethnicities, races, cultures etc… We need to stop tip toeing around, face fact – we’re all different, highlighting that fact is not racist, creating hate and division is. We each hold the power to CHOOSE not to give power to hate.

You cannot bar someone from being racist, just like you cannot bar someone from getting cancer. Racism is a reality and it will probably be for a long time to come. At least for as long diversity exists.

My approach is to look at a raciism in much the same way as I would at someone who is gravely ill. By pointing them out and making a big stink about their “illness” I will probably only alienate them further and preclude myself from further constructive engagement. And with that all hope of “healing” them.

Racists are punished inherently for their “illness” – they preclude themselves from engaging with the subject matter of their prejudice. Worst yet it probably also affects their ability to trade with that market segment which they so despise, so it is hardly necessary for me to pile on further punishment.

Your blog was recommended on reddit and I found it intellectual and interesting until I came across this doodle of nonsense. I would have thought you have much more important stuff to talk about…

Since this’s the language I used I’ll assume it’s partially directed at me (rather than I hope fully since I wasn’t excusing their behaviour in any way, only defending against calls to limit it).

I maintain that wearing blackface doesn’t impinge on anyone’s liberty (which I defined as negative liberty), whereas censorship does, and contend that hurt feelings shouldn’t form part of the liberty equation since the feeler is ultimately in control of them and noone else (at least, if we grant personal agency to make sense of this freedom thing).

Any other threats to positive liberty (which noone else should be obliged to provide in the first place) are only potential, and the structural racism you mention wasn’t caused by prior free speech.

Partly inspired by some of the things you said, sure, but not directed at you (especially not the references to idiocy and the like). Your second paragraph highlights quite plainly that we’re operating off different understandings of the spectrum of liberties that should be factored in, so I don’t have anything to add. On a purely negative conception of liberty, there’s nothing disagreeable in what you say.

Every weekday I see African beggars in white face capering at major intersections in Pretoria. Time once more to lose all sense of humour and proportion in a crusade for social justice! Evil white face racism is worse than Hitler!

It’s a bit less about whether this was appropriate or not. But, if the university or for this matter any government agency should interfere with the students for dressing up the way they did. Some “social liberals” did indeed expose themselves as the new totalitarians they are. So it when from blackface to eggface.

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