Two weeks ago, a journalist sent me a list of questions about racism and parenting. “Do you often think about how to protect your child from racism?” was one of them. “Is it important in your parenting approach?” This is still a theoretical question for me right now, though in years to come I will certainly confront it. My unborn daughter is not white. Depending on what shade her skin takes on in the great Dulux colour chart of life, she will be viewed through the prism of a particular racial identity. Her surname will certainly be a clue.
So the stakes have changed for me, and certain things that once I might have dismissed with a shrug now become triggers. Usually, I’m on the sidelines watching others get their knickers knotted. It’s rare that I’ll express obvious irritation over something I encounter in the news, let alone get caught up in a minor twar. This time was different.
“We are not going to allow SA to be sold over a plate of curry,” Julius Malema said at a press conference on February 5. It was one of his typically meme-worthy soundbites, the ones he’s produced with admirable regularity over the past decade.
It was a literal curry, in one interpretation, what many assumed to be a reference to a comment by Helen Zille. But is a plate of curry ever just a plate of curry? In South Africa? From the mouth of the smartest, most practiced purveyor of the political insult ever to pick up a mic?
No, it is not.
And so this afternoon, I found myself in the rare and unexpected situation of a prickly Twitter exchange with two very well-known journalists. Both questioned my interpretation, as they have every right to do. I stand by my view: that this was no ordinary curry. The power of the truly brilliant insult is that it looks innocent on the surface, while delivering the sucker punch to the solar plexus. Having published three collections of South African insults, I’m very aware of our recent history of anti-Indian slurs. Coming from such a powerful figure, someone who is set to influence South African politics for many years to come, this is not an anodyne comment about catering. “Curry” is a metonym for an entire set of cultural practices, associations, assumptions and prejudices. What Julius Malema says matters. And what he gets away with saying matters even more.
Letting his comments slide is a signal that certain types of prejudice are fine – depending on who expresses them. This is the world we create, tacitly, every day, and the world we end up despairing over because we paid no attention at the time.
The questions the journalist sent me were focused on the fallout from Penny Sparrow. “Have you spoken to your children about apartheid and racism?” she asked. “Have you spoken to them about the incidents of the past few weeks?” I have no doubt that at some point I will talk to my daughter about her roots in Huguenots, Dutch settlers, British imperialists, and indentured labourers from Tamil Nadu, and how chance brought her parents together despite the awful messiness and injustice of the past. I have already had conversations with my eight-year-old stepdaughter about my horrible ancestors (and the guilt I feel when talking to my parents-in-law about the past is sometimes so intense that I want to weep in shame). I’m sure these exchanges will get more challenging as she gets older and her little sister starts asking questions too.
This is something I know for sure: I do not want racism to shape the world our daughter grows up in. I also don’t want casual bigotry to be acceptable – amusing even – as long as it’s politically expedient. I don’t want hypocrisy and double standards to determine the way the world sees her, her family, or any of her friends.
If #racismmustfall, then all racism must fall.
“Do you think you can ‘racism-proof’ your children?” was another question I was asked, and to that I would say: I hope I can. Calling out curry jokes for what they are is one way to start. No matter who they come from.