Chester Missing and the authority of race

0d3e82a33a17e75f79fd2ef6c1caf5cfOver at Africa is a country, T.O. Molefe has written a very interesting post on whether Chester Missing is blackface. If you don’t know Chester Missing, he’s a puppet controlled by political satirist Conrad Koch. Read Molefe’s column if you’re at all interested in South African racial politics, as much of it is generally relevant, even for those unfamiliar with Missing. A key point can be found in the conclusion, where Molefe points out that the choice of Missing’s race (which is ambiguous, but probably black) can’t be trivial or accidental. Someone as thoughtful as Koch appears to be made a deliberate choice to use a black puppet (or one who is definitely not white), and

At the very least Chester Missing is an embodiment of the fear, unwillingness or inability of liberal-minded whites to use their own voices, faces and words to talk publicly about this country’s racialised privilege.

Deep Fried Man (another South African comedian) left a comment to Molefe’s piece that I thought astute, in which he pointed out that it’s easier for a black comedian to get away with saying certain things than it is for a white comedian to say those things. Molefe was sceptical of this claim. My response is perhaps of interest to the people who read Synapses, so I’ve copied and pasted it below.

I’m not a comedian, but Deep Fried Man’s comment rings true to me as someone who does comment on South African racial politics by other means. T.O. – you ask: “What makes it easier for Loyiso Gola and other black comedians to satirise SA’s political landscape and harder for you or Koch or other white comedians to do the same? I’m not convinced it makes sense in the same way that, say, gravity makes sense.”

So, from the perspective of a columnist & blogger who is a) white and b) critical of various elements of SA’s political landscape, including both ‘whiteness’ and ‘the idea of whiteness’, it certainly seems easier for black columnists than it is for me, on some topics. This is a simple matter of self-preservation and the increasing volume (in both senses) of online trollery and insult.

Take the perennial “is Cape Town racist” discussion. A black columnist can claim that it is, and they will (mostly) just get shouted down by white racists. As the (to my knowledge) only white columnist who argued that Cape Town is in fact racist, I got shouted down by white racists as well as by some who style themselves as Biko-ites or somesuch, telling me I was being patronising and so forth, and that I don’t really have any right to make those claims. And then there are others like Vice who also provide reasons for me to shut up, even though I don’t find those reasons compelling.

So, even if you think a cause important & worth advocating, there might be less second-guessing and potential pitfalls for those who are falling into the stereotype of speaking about issues they “own” (such as black comedians talking about a “black political party”). The risks are more easy to identify and combat.

The broad point is that there are various constraints on public commentators of various sorts. Being thought a troublemaker is one, being thought a traitor another, being thought irrelevant yet another, etc. So it’s at least possible that in the complicated intersections of race & class and all that, black comics/columnists could experience different pressures than white ones do. Of course it won’t make sense in the way gravity does, but that’s a rather high bar to set.

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.