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.


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.