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‘Blackface’ but not really

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.

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.


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  1. Roland Paterson-Jones Roland Paterson-Jones 9 February 2016

    “The current trend is to punish all white people.”

    Well, glad that it’s not only white people that recognise that. In a nutshell you have just admitted that reverse racism is not only possible, but it is alive and flourishing.

    “This article is not … a call to go easy on white people.”

    Really, are you truly unable to see the visceral self-justified oppression in that statement.

    On balance, this is a nice try. But if you really want to treat others as you would have them treat you, then it seems like you still have some way to go.

    Thanks for having to metaphorical balls to publish this though – you have taken on a very brave and contrarian point of view, and kudo’s to you for that.

  2. Desiree Lourens Desiree Lourens 9 February 2016

    actually, I think it’s all about the middle classed stratified part of society- I live a stone’s throw from a community who are seasonal farm workers- they treat me much as they treat each other- there’s never an issue about racism, ever. yea, it’s that middle class morality, that is all about facades, veneer, smoke and mirrors, and the fact of the matter is that it’s an undertow that black south Africans respond to, that subliminal energy of subtle condescension that is wholly unconscious in that white middle class strata of south African society- liberal or not- that still has that same air of condescension that is its brand signature. during apartheid people who were not of this strata never made much of a stink about it, because it’s the way it was – and is in an insidious pecking order called ‘class’ but now there’s a means to name that energy. so it really just makes me laugh when white people of this class go to great lengths to prove their non-racist bias because a thorough reading (and a comprehensive grasp intellectually and actually) of Freud’s concept of projection is really all that is needed before South Africa can move past this current impasse.

  3. DavyH DavyH 10 February 2016

    Here’s a simple question: WHO HAS APOLOGISED TO THOSE GIRLS who have doubtless been pretty traumatised by this whole episode?

    …listens to the silence….

    That’s what I thought.

  4. John Viveiros AddictedToTruth John Viveiros AddictedToTruth 10 February 2016

    Making racism the filter for assessment, is racism, think about it.

  5. DavyH DavyH 10 February 2016

    Reverse racism does not exist. It’s racism, pure and simple.
    The argument has always been that one must be in a position of power in order to be truly racist; in Africa, political power is exercised by black people – who are therefore quite capable of being racist by their own definition.

  6. charles mshentshele charles mshentshele 10 February 2016

    As an African I cannot see anything offensive if white people paint their faces black in trying to make fun of us. It’s their stupidity ’cause there’s really nothing funny about being brown skinned.
    By the way our skin is better protected from the sun – hence we dont need those sunscreen products and brown skin looks good. Why would I be offended by someone with a weak skin that chemical products to protect it?

  7. Marty Marty 10 February 2016

    telly tubbies are upset as well

  8. Roland Paterson-Jones Roland Paterson-Jones 10 February 2016

    Or, just _treat_ people the same, in practice, regardless of their skin colour.

    It is always easier to make ‘friends’ with ‘others’ who are familiar to us. That is much more ‘culture’ than skin-colour.

    For example, my best friend is a chinese scot. Somehow, we both had similar experience as young people, and we just ‘get’ each other.

    I really don’t care that he is ‘non-white’. It is entirely irrelevant.

  9. Rusty Bedsprings Rusty Bedsprings 11 February 2016

    How can you be offended about blackface when you are from the Cape Flats, and most likely celebrate Tweede Nuwe Jaar every year?

    The origin of the insult and the costumes worn in the celebration is exactly the same.

    For me, Tweede Nuwe Jaar is an example of where people celebrate their victory over oppression, rather than wallow in the reminders. Kudos…

  10. Manu Manu 11 February 2016

    Its amazing that South Africans continue to fail to learn the obvious lessons that history has to offer. It’s pitiful to see the same mistakes repeated with the same results.
    Is what happened to these girls unfair? Of course it is. it’s grossly unfair.
    But is it surprising? Not at all.

    Rewind to just the two black face incidents last year. The overwhelming response of whites (at least on social media) to that incident was, ‘it’s just innocent fun take it on the chin’. Whether you accept it or not black people’s feelings were hurt and that pain meant something to them.
    Now if you hurt people repeatedly, they become hypersensitive to not only the pain but also the threat of it. So the extreme treatment these girls have received shouldn’t come as a surprise. Some saw the pictures of two white girls covered in dark paint and their minds snapped back to the ridiculing of the Venus sisters or the mocking of domestic workers.
    Had this been a first time incident people would have waited for the facts. But because it happens over and over again (and it’s defended as innocent fun) those who are hurt by these stunts no longer stop to ask questions.

    So, the natural outcome of not caring for the feelings of others, is that others soon stop caring for your feelings. How hard is it to learn this simple lesson that some of us learned when we were 5 years old?

  11. jack-the-lad jack-the-lad 12 February 2016

    The yanks put dye in the river in Chicago every year on 17 March, to make it green, and they paint their faces green and go on a big parade and wear green clothes
    Does that mean they’re racist against the Irish?
    I remember when I first went to London, the signs on the B & B said
    Young Irish in London today, have no knowledge of that
    The born frees do not have the same views as those from the apartheid past and they should be allowed to express themselves in their own natural way, with peer pressure setting the ground rules, not the media, without the apartheid thinking of yesteryear being shoved down their necks
    I watch my daughter at her birthday party with her school friends of all colours, and no-one see the colour
    the apartheid yesteryear people are messing with the minds of the born frees and it should stop

  12. Catantho Catantho 12 February 2016

    Makes me wonder what to think of the black mime artist with the white painted face at the corner of the street. Racism, or art. Wait, he’s black, he cant be racist. Must be art then….

  13. Heidi Heidi 12 February 2016

    I would still like to see the same outrage following a report about black school principals being killed for their jobs and the following placement of corrupted people in their place in schools for mostly black pupils. How about the black children losing a whole school year after being held hostage for a road not build by their black government. Racism by white people is not acceptable and should not be tolerated, but is the real tragedy( and maybe the most enduring legacy of the past) not that black lives matter so little to black people?

  14. Thizza Thizza 12 February 2016

    Its actually a pity because this case had nothing to do with racism really, their faces were not even painted black but purple to look like aliens. I think the girls should have rather explained their case instead of apologizing. Its imperative that we all unite against racism but let’s not find it where its non existent.

  15. D Thomas D Thomas 13 February 2016

    Buuut, being offended is so much fun.
    A simple fact is that in the mechanics of offense the majority of process happens within the brain of the offended, not the offendee.
    Anyone can perform a simple experiment to test this: Find a person, give them headphones playing loud but inoffensive instrumental music. Then call them a “f#@ing @ssh0l3”. Take off the headphones and ask them if they feel offended. Chances are that unless they have pre-existing issues with instrumental music they won’t.
    Offense is most often taken, not given. The offended party makes a decision (often unconscious, but it is still them) to be offended. To legally place the blame on anyone else is just illogical.
    I feel offended when I hear religious people go on about how evil I am because I think their scriptures are bullshit. Should all religions have to keep quiet in the public sphere because my brain processes their utterances in this way? Probably not.
    This doesn’t mean that people should try and be offensive and not be judged as being an inconsiderate ass by society, just that legal and material action is untenable.

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