Bigotry will cost you, Ronnie

A man called Ronnie saw fit this week to tell us what he thinks of black girls who do not want to have their hair policed at schools that regard braids as inherently unruly. Ronnie decided to perform a slippery slope fallacy on radio.

He asserted that allowing black girls to wear their hair as they saw fit, on the basis of “their culture”, would also lead them to demand to wear grass skirts because that too is “their culture”.

Ronnie obviously thinks he knows what “black culture” consists of and makes ridiculous assertions about the content of such cultural norms.

There is a lack of humility in claiming knowledge about “their culture” even as you reveal the social distance between yourself and “them”. This lack of epistemic humility is an inherent feature of white supremacy.

The logic of this nonchalant performance of knowledge about “them” is that “they” are such grass skirt-wearing simpletons that I, Ronnie, can confidently say that I “know them”.

This isn’t surprising. Ronnie’s -confidence in his capacity to intuitively and wholly know black life without evidence of any actual touchpoints between his supremacist self and the anthropologised natives is a key ingredient of the white supremacist psychology.

What is also ridiculous in this insult is the lack of irony in how he essentialises black life.

He is probably the kind of character who gets mortally offended when he hears generalisations about “white South Africans”. Whites must be individuated. Blacks, on the other hand, are a type.

Blacks, furthermore, can be reasonably characterised in group-identity terms. White people, however, cast in essentialist notions of white “culture” quickly incur the wrath of those who stand ready with stock critiques of identity politics.

Ronnie is not curious about why black teenagers may feel excluded by the norms of their school. Ronnie does not invite explanation. Ronnie does not seek comprehension. Ronnie is not puzzling through black rage. Ronnie does not recognise the black teenager’s humanity.

He simply stands ready to condemn. He is ready to anthropologise. He is ready to misconstrue a complex and cogent articulation of exclusionary praxis in educational institutions as an antisocial demand by black girls not to be subject to rules.

The lack of political and intellectual sophistication on Ronnie’s part is also ironic. No doubt in his mind he is mentally agile and socially astute. So much so that he does not fear his own impulse to dial the number of a radio station ready to share observations about “them”. After all, Ronnie knows “them” very well, doesn’t he?

What we do not quite know, however, is how many people think like Ronnie. The anecdotal evidence is confusing at best and disheartening at worst. My radio producers had their hands full with countless white South Africans who wanted to agree with Ronnie and who wanted to add to his hubris with their own, strange, modifications on his viewpoint.

Some, for example, insist that school rules are inherently good, inherently value neutral. One person went so far as to claim that there is a material connection between one’s hair and educational outcomes. Another warned that the legacies of excellence of former whites-only school require these rules about hair to be in place. I was gobsmacked at how these unsubtle constructions of bigotry masqueraded as concern for good pedagogy.

Mercifully, there are also some white South Africans who are willing to push back against Ronnie, lest anyone should think that the Ronnies in our midst exhaust the range of viewpoints held by white South Africans.

This means, though, that we can play example table tennis. What would be helpful, however, would be for more progressive white South Africans to engage a Ronnie in the family, in the boardroom, over the watercooler, on the golf course, in the queue at Woolworths. It is hard for black South Africans to truly know whether Ronnie is an outlier or an exemplar of what white South Africans think.

It is hard because too few white South Africans are prepared to say: “Not in my name, Ronnie!” The consequence of such silence is that public debate ends up coalescing around the rubbish spoken by someone like Ronnie precisely because too many white people with very different principles and values choose -irresponsible silence.

This is not to deny how emotionally exhausting it is to step up to the antiracism challenge every minute of every day. Sometimes you must ignore Ronnie as a matter of self-care. The impact of Ronnie’s poisonous beliefs can also be restricted to his echo chambers if you do not centre him continuously.

In the long run, however, Ronnie and his ilk will not stop their expressions of supremacy just because we ignore them. Illness does not disappear if you work hard to ignore the signs that all is not well. We have to crowd out those who sully the public space with their expressions of bigotry and the material effects of their bigotry on society.

Call Ronnie out. Ostracise him. Don’t do business with him. Don’t employ him. Let Ronnie know that bigotry can and will cost him, even if these punishments do not guarantee a change in how he sees or relates to “them”. Social and economic sanctions matter for the sake of affirming the dignity of victims of bigotry.

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Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a popular radio talk show host, a top international debate coach, a master of ceremonies and a public speaker of note. He loves nothing more than a good argument, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytic articles and columns have been widely published in South African newspapers and the New York Times. McKaiser has studied law and philosophy. He taught philosophy in South Africa and England.

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