Athambile Masola
Athambile Masola

On being mis-recognised: Julian Hewitt and the angry black woman

People think I’m an angry black woman. People who know me well, know that this is a misrecognition of me. I’m a nice person. I hate foot-in-mouth interactions: that awkward moment when someone says something they shouldn’t have said, and someone else has to salvage the situation or we all walk away. I save face. All the time. Especially when I have some kind of regard for the person who needs to be saved from an awkward situation; like when someone (usually of another race) constantly pronounces my name incorrectly.

But in spite of that, I’m the angry black woman. I’ve never done the Malema-esque “You are racist!” but lately, because of my misrecognition, I’m contemplating that I might as well do or say something so I can legitimately earn the title of the angry black woman.

I thought more about this misrecognition last week, while sitting at the Ashley Kriel Memorial Lecture. Julian Hewitt was the speaker. He was sharing the lessons learned through his experience of living in Mamelodi for a month in August last year. When the time came for the audience participation, the comments from the audience members selected were very critical of Hewitt. Two of the four speakers were black women who rightly pointed out some of the problems with Hewitt’s experiment: his whiteness had everything to do with the treatment he received in Mamelodi, and how dare he find black life “interesting” in order to address his own personal angst about white privilege.

In response to the criticism, Hewitt acknowledged their anger and continued to explain himself as one who has become accustomed to the criticism. I was interested in how he responded to the questions. He bordered on being dismissive because he had heard this before and he knew which arguments to use when the same issue came up.

His relaxed and cool approach was of someone who wasn’t threatened by black anger because, after all, he had lived with black people in a shack for a month. I wondered if he wondered whether behind the hospitality he received, the friendships he made and whatever difference he made in the month of staying in Mamelodi, he hadn’t left behind simmering anger amongst his neighbours who didn’t have another life to go to after a month in Mamelodi. Neighbours who only knew squalor and poverty but had been very nice to him because they knew he’s just a visitor.

The first time I heard about Hewitt and his family I didn’t think about his personal journey. I was more concerned with how white privilege allows such choices where people like Hewitt can go in and out of black life and be self-righteous about the experiment at the same time.

Where Hewitt made steps to commit class treason and live in a township with black people, I can’t help but wonder whether he will ever realise that his whiteness undermines these efforts. And when black people talk about him behind his back or to his face in the case of the lecture, listening to him arouses anger. And like me, he too is misrecognised as the privileged, white male who is blind to white supremacy. His well-meaning efforts of stepping out of his comfort zone are null and void.

Shouldn’t we be more grateful that there are white people out there who are trying? Why crucify Hewitt when he is genuinely interested in the lives of black, poor people? Why must black people always be so angry when some white people are really trying?

While listening to Hewitt, I realised that I too was angry. But not the kind of anger an angry black woman has (whatever that might be). Rather it was the anger I recognised from my school days, when we did group work and someone didn’t do their homework, so I would end up doing the extra work. I resented doing other people’s homework the same way I now resent having to do homework for some white people who are not doing their part; seriously questioning themselves about their role in this country.

I am now the resident black face in certain settings that has to help white people understand why they shouldn’t say certain things or why blackface is racist, and an endless list of other issues white people take for granted, because they can.

Listening to Hewitt, I wondered if he has a trusted black friend, and not just his domestic worker, but another black person he has regarded as an equal since the first time he met the person. Would he have continued with his experiment in Mamelodi? Perhaps his black friend (not the cheese boy type, but someone racially and class conscious) would have cautioned him and proverbially helped him with his homework in order to avoid the misrecognition that has ensued.

I’m trying to be a good South African and trying to empathise with Hewitt. I know what it’s like when your identity is misunderstood. When your efforts are only ever about your race and class. I’m the resident angry black woman because I question people when they say certain things. It’s part of being in this awkward situation that is the new South Africa twenty years later.

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