/ 7 August 2014

Kodwa siyaqhelwa – we’re being taken for granted #blackface

Kodwa Siyaqhelwa We're Being Taken For Granted #blackface

It’s always puzzling how often we come across people who were never affected by racism, telling people who were (and still are) affected by it, to grow up when they complain about it. It happens far too often. The levels of disrespect have risen to an all-time high. Siyaqhelwa kodwa apha. Asibonwa (We are being taken for granted).

I was shocked to find that we were still debating yesterday – yes, in the year of our Lord Jesus, 2014 –  whether blackface is racist or not. I was shocked, and then I remembered that these things happen in South Africa. Why must we explain to people who insist on offending us why we are offended? I’m done explaining. Kunini? (How long?) We can’t still be explaining to people in 2014 why their actions are racist.

You would think that someone who goes to university, like the two students who dressed up in blackface, would be self-aware and knowledgeable enough to understand that certain things are just unacceptable.

Why do we have so many incidents of racism so often? Surely, one would think, the number of these outrageous incidents would have diminished. Yet every other day we marvel at how some people are trying to bring back racism. It cannot be defended.

I don’t know which is worse: the fact that they are racist, or that they are completely incapable of knowing that they can’t justify or defend their actions.

Every time racism rears its ugly head, someone tells black people how they should respond to it. Must we now teach people not to say dumb things, like one Pieter Meyer on Twitter? Meyer defended racism by adding even more racism: “When a young white girl in make-up can offend an entire race, I reckon that race has some growing up to do.” Sorry black people, but you guys have just not grown up and need to accept this funny thing called racism. You blacks take racism way too seriously. Grow up and laugh with the rest.

Black humour
I suppose it was really funny dragging a black person to his death behind a bakkie too? Or take the case of those white students at the University of the Free State who made black workers eat food they had urinated in and made them perform athletic tasks after forcing them to drink alcohol. Also absolutely hilarious.

According to Meyer, blacks need to grow up about this racism thing. Why so serious about racism?

Blackface goes beyond a painted face; there is also a black accent. I had a white colleague who often put on a black accent. Truth is, I doubt I would have found it that offensive, but I noticed that she only ever used it when saying something really stupid.

One day we were in a meeting where, as usual, I was the only black person in a boardroom full of whites. She said something stupid in a black accent. I stopped everyone mid laughter and said: “That’s actually not funny, the black accent thing is not funny at all,”

“It’s just a joke,” she said.

“It’s not a joke. You never use that black accent to say something smart, you always use it to say something stupid,” I said.

“That’s not what I mean,” she replied.

“I don’t care, but that’s how it comes across. Blacks or people with black accents are dumb.”

There was an uncomfortable silence in the boardroom.

To her credit, she never made that mistake again.

We are not saying people must not be funny and have fun, but it’s possible to be funny without being offensive and hurtful.

Object of ridicule
Some people make examples of Leon Schuster movies, but I think that is outrageous. Schuster doesn’t only dress up as a black person. He also portrays an Indian, Afrikaner farmer, surfer, woman and everything in between, so I don’t find him offensive, I simply don’t like his movies. There is a difference between an art form and deliberately targeting a single group to make it an object of ridicule.

What of the Wayans Brothers and their movie White Chicks? We could also bring in Robert Downey Jnr’s performance as a black man in Tropic Thunder. These examples add to why I think that the Leon Schuster argument is a nonstarter.

The fact that the University of Pretoria students posed for pictures in blackface, and posted them on Facebook, tells me that they are comfortable with racist actions, and so are the people around them. I am certain that was not the first racist act they have ever performed, and I shudder to think of the things they say behind closed doors.

We still have a long way to go to bring this country together. It would be a mistake to now start thinking that all white people behave in this manner, which is what tends to happen when people’s emotions are heightened, but it still needs to be made clear that these kinds of racist actions are not okay.