Into the heart of white suburbia and the fear of the black body

The Peppettas were the fifth black family to move into Bluewater Bay in Port Elizabeth. This fact came to my parents by way of a “maid” who worked nearby. She knew because the arrival of every black family was noted and discussed in secrecy among her white employers and their white friends. Today, the suburb is 55% white, according to the 2011 census.

Shortly after we moved in, the couple next door gave my little sister and me a tub of ice cream. My mother was wary of allowing us to eat it. It’s not because it would mess with our appetites. She was afraid the ice cream was poisoned.

But that was 1991.

Now, South Africa is a democratic society where everyone is equal. Well, at least on paper.

My time in former whites-only schools ensured I was taught the gospel of Rainbowism. I believed it with my entire gullible being. I had the multiracial upbringing the ANC envisioned back in 1912. So my mother’s mistrust of white people seemed, for a long time, anachronistic. It was a curious relic that lingered in the back of my mind of days I believed long gone.

It took me more than two decades to realise that this relic not only lives but also has some basis in reality. Two decades and social media, that is.

White South Africans may not actually poison black people with ice cream but their treatment of black people in “their” spaces is just as noxious — sugar-coated but nonetheless noxious.

The dawning of this realisation was not sudden. It was not Frantz Fanon’s great train incident, when a white child’s cry of “Look! A Negro!”, pointing an accusatory finger at him, caused him to “cast an objective gaze” over himself and “discover his blackness”.

Unlike Fanon, I was not holed up in a mostly black community in the French Antilles. I lived among white people almost my entire life. There was no “race war”. But there were many instances of what I now see as racism that I chose to use as “teachable” moments for my friends or brush off as misunderstandings — both somewhat resentfully.

It wasn’t until a blog post by Terry-Jo Thorne that the resentment over these incidents came to a head and the Rainbow-tinted scales, which had been coming loose, finally fell from my eyes.

Thorne posted on her blog in November 2014 the details of the racism she had witnessed in a Facebook page for Harfield Village, a majority-white southern suburb of Cape Town. It wasn’t always so. Harfield Village became majority white after the dispossession and forced removal of black people, after the area was declared whites only.

To see for ourselves, some friends and I joined the Harfield Village Association Facebook group. We responded to posts in a manner that we thought polite but still exposed the implicit anti-black bias of what the members said. We disturbed their “we would have voted ‘yes’ twice in the 1992 referendum if we could” liberal white lives by repeatedly pointing out racism where we saw it in their posts.

The reaction was a swift deluge of outrage, frustration and White Tears, which I secretly delighted in.

At last, I had access to the inner-circle dialogues, things white people like those I grew up with said to each other about black people — but never in my presence. I had access to the mindset of white people that finally snapped to the present day the realness in my mother’s mistrust of their ice cream.

There is something about social media, and Facebook private groups specifically, that lures people into believing that what they post will remain among friends. Like how conversations around the braai do, where there are no screenshots that go viral. This naivety is probably why the South African Human Rights Commission has been inundated by complaints about racism on social media.

The Harfield Village Association Facebook group made me hunger to sow more discord in more of Cape Town’s white neighbourhood Facebook groups. We lasted only two days because the group’s administrators kicked us out for having “hijacked” the page and promptly banned “racial or political debates”, much like, as someone wryly pointed out, the apartheid-era government would have.

I became a troll. I became, according to Wikipedia, “a person who sows discord on the internet by starting quarrels or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community”.

My posse and I then moved on to several other pages. I ended up being most active in Pinelands 531’s neighbourhood Facebook group. About 84% of residents in this suburb are white — again the outcome of the forced removals of black people from the area under the Group Areas Act of 1950.

It was after what we now refer to as “the Battle of Harfield Village” that one in our merry band of trolls, Philip Owira, upped the stakes and started a Tumblr page called Suburban Fear, which a number of us administered. Originally described as “a group dedicated to South African Facebook civic organisations, the bastion of white, middle-class fear”, the page, at least to me, was just another extension of our trolling.

To our surprise, Suburban Fear drew media attention and public debate. The people we were trolling did not like it one bit.

Even while crying defamation and threatening legal action against those of us behind Suburban Fear, white people, well-meaning white people, couldn’t stop making racist statements. Because what happened, what they posted about the suspicious Bravo or Charlie (code for a black or coloured person), “had nothing to do with race” — a contradiction that, to this day, still makes me shake my head and chuckle. Because this was all so unsurprising.

No matter how many times you point out the racism in their own words, the well-meaning but racist white liberals will not self-reflect. The label “racist” sends them into moral panic. Because, in their minds, the only racists that exist are those beating or killing black people or calling them kaffirs.

One of the most memorable examples of this involved the very person who had warned the Pinelands group of Suburban Fear’s existence. Barely a month later, aiming to “make Pinelands safe for kids”, he proposed “a traceable register of workers working in the Pinelands area with us giving preference to employing such registered people”. He had, wittingly or not, just proposed a redux of apartheid’s pass laws.

As fun as those first few months of trolling were, nothing topped the month between faeces being flung on the University of Cape Town’s Cecil John Rhodes statue and its removal in April 2015. In that month, well-meaning white people in neighbourhood Facebook groups, to borrow from the more direct African-American vernacular English, done shown their racist asses.

The names I was called, the things I was accused of made me consider the importance of what we were doing, if indeed we were doing anything at all. More so as the year went on and students activists choked on tear gas for the right of access to and a sense of belonging in the country’s public universities.

My trolling tapered off and died down sometime in 2016.

Looking back, I have begun to wonder whether I was indeed trolling purely for pleasure.

As much as I laughed at it then and still laugh now, it took effort. It took labour, labour that white people have become accustomed to receiving from black people for free or close to nothing. Repeatedly choosing to place myself in the way of dog-whistle racism and then pretending to calmly engage took a toll on me.

By engaging calmly I was playing a character I was very familiar with. I was the Calm, Measured Black Person, which I had played since the day my mother warned us about white people’s ice cream. The anger I was internalising by being measured instead of angry was no different to the choices made when I was younger to navigate the supposedly multiracial but still definitely white spaces I grew up in. It was a 14-year-old me calmly walking a white friend through why saying “Oh, but you’re not like them” did not nullify the racism in his preceding statement that began: “Black people are just …”

Insert whatever racist stereotype you will of black people to the end of that statement. Lazy. Entitled. Criminal. Weird. Unintelligent.

By entering the heart of suburban white fear of the black body by way of neighbourhood Facebook groups, part of me, the part that I cannot quite let go of, nor am I sure I want to, hoped I could convince these white people of the error of their ways. I believed that white people can and want to do better.

Maybe this is a role I will always play, a role that needs to exist alongside all the important work others are doing to dismantle white supremacy and to restore to black people the land and neighbourhoods they were frog-marched out of at gun point.

However much Fanon, Anton Lembede, Steve Biko, or Kendrick Lamar I internalise, I fear that there will always be that part of me that has also internalised the ideals of Rainbowism.

No matter how cynically they were implemented, the ideals remain to me worth striving for. The criminals in our midst, the ones worthy of Facebook groups that question their being, are the many white people who choose not to show up when called upon to do their part in the hard work necessary to make Nelson Mandela’s ideals real.

Mvelase Peppetta works in media

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