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Lines of privilege

“I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.” These are the words that played over and over in my mind while I was at the Franschhoek Literary Festival (FLF) this past weekend. Two friends and I attended two sessions on the festival’s final day “It’s News to Me” and “The Colonial Aftermath“. The blurb of the first event read as follows: “Ray Hartley gathers with journalists Stephen Grootes, Simon Pearson, Martin Welz and Janet Heard to talk about press freedom versus the exigencies of declining readership, cost-cutting and challenging ownership.” The topic was a curious one and I was more interested in the questions around readership.

The panel itself was curious: an all-white panel in a hall full of white people except my two friends and I. The discussion among the panellists made me uncomfortable when the issue of readership was skirted and not dealt with sufficiently. The readership that was assumed in the discussion was a white, middle-class audience. The panellists were more concerned about the newspapers’ white middle-class readers (together with the fringe of black middle-class readers, as one of the panellists put it). The symbolic annihilation of black people as readers and consumers of print media made me ask a question about the role the Daily Sun has played in terms of providing news for what was understood as a working-class audience that reads the Daily Sun. The answer to the question was somewhat garbled and unsatisfactory because I realised as the panellists spoke they were only speaking about themselves and their experience of consuming and producing news relevant to their class and race.

The unintended consequence of a literary festival in the heart of the winelands in the Western Cape is that white people will gather en masse. While walking around Franschhoek (and even analysing the festival programme and literally counting the number of “brown” faces of the speakers) I realised that in the cultural space of the festival there is always a cultural majority and cultural minority operating whenever people gather to exchange ideas. I couldn’t help but wonder, if the white audience at the festival realised there’s something wrong about cultural spaces that represent the views of a privileged minority and therefore limiting the possibility of a diversity of ideas from across racial, class and gendered perspectives?

More importantly, I wondered whether white people realise the politics of space in relation to places like the Franschhoek Literary Festival? There wasn’t a sign anywhere that said “whites only” but there might as well have been along with the tagline: “Of course middle-class people of other races are welcome too” (when I spoke to a speaker who was part of another panel on Saturday, he reflected that the audience at his event was largely white as well).

This year wasn’t my first encounter with the FLF. Last year I was invited along with a group of Grade 11 students from my school. I didn’t have a chance to focus on the politics of space because I was more concerned with the students who were attending with me (getting to venues on time etc). My students enjoyed the festival (as any teenager would as they were not at school for the day) and that’s what mattered last year. This year, I had the chance to consider the festival from a different perspective especially because I recently read about Peggy McIntosh who wrote a paper titled “White privilege and male privilege: a personal account of coming to see correspondences through work in women’s studies”.

I was lead to the paper through the article “The origins of ‘privilege’” which explores the relevance of the work McIntosh began in the 1980s when she wrote a list of the everyday experiences that she had as a white women (in the US) that are largely “unearned, and largely unacknowledged, advantages, even when those advantages aren’t discriminatory”. In this paper she writes a list of what privilege has meant for her and the everyday events that confirmed and affirmed that she formed part of the cultural majority in spite of the criticism that came with the work she was doing. Number one on the list: “I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.”

The list she writes is still relevant today especially in spaces and institutions that are seen as culturally and socially significant. The session I mention above had the unintended consequence of implying that certain voices don’t matter. In a country with robust opinions from diverse voices, how is it that there were panels that represented only the views of white, middle-classness? A panel without black/coloured/Indian women or men sends the message that the ideas of these people may not matter. Of course the presence of such people wouldn’t mean that they are speaking on behalf of their race or gender, but rather there needs to be recognition that in every issue, all voices and experiences matter.

In reflecting about a single session at the FLF one might say that perhaps this was the only session that may have had this problem of symbolic annihilation. When looking at the FLF programme in its entirety, most of the panels were peppered with people from speakers of other races, age and gender (but all middle-class) but it’s not a mistake that such a festival attracts a certain kind of audience. One with radical race politics might question my concerns about FLF and ask me: so what? So what if white people find spaces that they can gather together to pontificate on all things political and literary? Why don’t other races simply do the same? This isn’t an easy question to answer given that in the Western Cape, the FLF isn’t the only space that highlights the gulf between the races and the classes that still needs to be traversed. Cultural spaces need to be more inclusive and mindful of the history we have in South Africa.