By Melissa Nefdt
Recently there has been a story in the news of what initially appeared to be yet another case of blackface at a traditionally white institution. “Blackface at Stellenbosch University”, headlines said, above a picture of two young women clearly sporting paint all over their faces, necks and arms, smiling broadly into the camera. “Disgusting!” roared some, and others started petitions to Stellenbosch University to get these girls excluded, all racists herded up and stoned, and other extraordinary measures of redress for the crime. I was one of them, insomuch as I took a screenshot of the headline and photo and forwarded it to a friend of mine with the caption, “Again!”
The thing is, if you clicked on the article and actually read it, it says somewhere near the bottom that the girls may have been at a res party where the theme was “Aliens”, and they may have in fact been painted purple to resemble the theme. I confessed this news to the friend I had sent the screenshot to, and upon further inspection of the photo, we found that the students were wearing strips of tinfoil in their hair, as one would do if you were trying to look like an alien. Whoops!
And yet the tar and feathering continued, by those who had clearly not read the article, and had assumed the worst. Even after another photo emerged of one of the girls, this time in better lighting, where one can clearly see that she is painted purple and not black or brown, and that she has tinfoil in her hair, and that her fellow students are similarly bizarrely painted, it continued. This was clearly not a case of blackface, yet people had already sprung onto the nearest high horse, latched it to the nearest bandwagon and rode it into the setting sun. The students were suspended pending further investigation.
— Barry O'Donoghue (@BarryBru) February 8, 2016
My friend seemed concerned, yet cautious. As an Afrikaans woman with a liberated mind, she noted that it must be easier just to be racist. “I mean, as a racist, you can say what you want, without fear of offending anyone, because you are racist, and you don’t care if anyone is hurt by your words. Your intention is to hurt. But as a liberal, liberated white person, everything you say and do you have to be so cautious, examine your words, your actions and the context, to make sure it couldn’t possibly offend anyone.” I know this particular friend triple checks every Facebook status to make sure it wouldn’t unintentionally hurt her conservative white friends or her radical black friends.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Oh shame! Poor white people! They have to think twice about everything they say! That more than makes up for the fact that they have historically oppressed people and have all the land!” Yes, it’s easy to be blasé and dismiss this minefield some people have to cross, especially if the colour of your skin is a clear indication of your intentions.
Wait, what does that mean? It means that if you, as a person of colour, make a joke, it is understood not to be hurtful to other people of colour. If you try to pantsula on the dance floor, or even try to twerk, it is considered natural and not offensive. People might laugh at your efforts, but no one will criticise you, or whisper the words “cultural appropriation”. You can say words like “nigga” or “gam” or even make sweeping generalisations of white people, coloured people, Indians, whoever, and it won’t be assumed that you’re making a racist slur.
Obviously, this is because white people speak from a position of power. If a person with no power says a bad thing about a person with no power or even a person with power, what difference does it make? Conversely, if a person with power says a bad thing about a person with no power, that’s oppression. Intention doesn’t matter, all that matters is that someone is offended. Right?
In 1995, the New York Times reported that the song They Don’t Really Care About Us by Michael Jackson contained racist lyrics, just a day before the release of the album HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book 1. If you were a child of the 1990s like I was, I’m sure you know the song, and probably can sing along to the album. The line in contention was “Jew me, sue me, everybody do me/ Kick me, kike me, don’t you black and white me.” “Kike” is a derogatory word for Jewish people, and the very use of the word is offensive, the New York Times argued.
Michael himself was horrified that anyone would think that his intention was to demean anyone. He responded in a statement saying, “The idea that these lyrics could be deemed objectionable is extremely hurtful to me. The song is in fact about the pain of prejudice and hate and is a way to draw attention to social and political problems. I am the voice of the accused and the attacked. I am the voice of everyone … I am not the one doing the attacking. It is about the injustices to young people and how the system can wrongfully accuse them. I am angry and outraged that I could be so misinterpreted.”
So ironically, in a song about how marginalised groups are oppressed by those in power, he was accused of being racist. His outrage stems from the fact that that was not his intention, if seen in the context of his heart. Anyone who is a Michael Jackson fan would know that he was all about world peace, anti-discrimination, anti-global poverty and taking care of our planet. Yet his song critical of discrimination had backfired. After some consideration, he changed the words of the song.
My friend is often saddened by the fact that people can’t see into her heart. I have rarely met a person, particularly a white Afrikaans person, who is so totally committed to the project of reconciliation and justice in South Africa. She is passionate about trying to get white people to see their ingrained racism, the everyday ways in which they isolate themselves and oppress everyone else. She is fully aware of her privilege, completely understands both the white fear of loss and the black need for real, tangible, redistributive justice, and is actively thinking and working towards bringing understanding between the two poles of society.
She marched with #FeesMustFall, she wants to know what she as a white person who owns no land can do to contribute towards socio-economic justice. She has dedicated her life towards empowering young people to change South Africa. And yet people can so quickly call her a racist, for the most innocuous deeds or words. It could easily have been her suspended from university for painting her skin an alien purple.
It is currently very unfashionable to be asking for consideration on behalf of white people, whether allies in the cause for justice or not. The current trend is to punish all white people. “Fuck white people,” as one Wits student recently wrote on his T-shirt, and not without good cause. This article is not about asking for leniency, it is not a call to go easy on white people. I am not stupid enough to say that liberal white pain is in any way equivalent to black pain, or even vaguely comparable. It is merely a plea to people of all races to observe the Golden Rule, the central tenet of most world religions, and a very good idea if you want to be a decent human being: Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself.
As much as we would each like to be seen as an individual with individual interests, beliefs and intentions, why are we so quick to make assumptions about others, based on a few visual markers of skin colour and body shape, or the sound of their name? Let’s pause a moment before flinging ourselves onto our high horses, to see if we cannot discover someone’s intentions behind the action, word, look, smile that has offended us. Context matters, after all. If we could ask Michael Jackson, he’d agree.
Melissa Nefdt identifies as a coloured woman about to turn 30, born and raised in the Cape Flats. She works as a facilitator for a youth leadership organisation in Johannesburg.