Gcobani Qambela
Gcobani Qambela

Resistant whiteness: On Pistorius, Memela and the dead bodies of women

Sandile Memela recently issued an apology to “countrymen” in the form of Dr Piet Mulder, The Freedom Front Plus, The FW de Klerk Foundation “and everyone who was offended” by his article “Oscar would be a hero if Reeva were a black man”. In the article, Memela questions if Reeva Steenkamp were a black man, “would it be an issue?” Not only in the South African context, but the broader global and historical context of white male brutality on black bodies. This is a valid question. To what extent does the justice system treat crimes committed on and by blacks with the same urgency, fairness and equity as those committed against and by whites?

Unease with Memela’s article rested on premise that he’s provoking hate speech by portraying “white race” as existing outside the confines of law. I do not think by any measure Memela’s article is an attempt to spur racial hatred. South African artists such as the late Brenda Fassie have long been grappling with unpacking white men, their brutality and the criminalisation of the black body. In her song Good Black Woman she tells of how as a black woman, in the justice system in South Africa, she along with her black brother, are treated like they are donkeys, in the same manner Memela tells of the killing of black bodies by white men as dogs.

Yet, what concerns me here is not so much Memela’s article, but rather the effort to silence his opinion by groupings of (largely) white men. Why are white men attempting to write themselves out of their (continuing) history of assaulting the black body without accounting let alone redressing for their deeds? This to me shows the unwillingness of whites to strip white men of normativity, and start unpacking white men for what they are: raced, gendered and problematic beings.

In his 1984 Essence article, “On being white … and other lies”, James Baldwin notes the apartheid slaughter of the bodies of black South Africans continued because black Americans did not have sustained funding from (the white United States government in) Washington to assist black South Africans, in the way in which the Jews who “opted to become white” in America were able to sustain the Israeli state through “a blank check [sp] from Washington”. The process of “becoming white” according to Baldwin was necessary as a political project of denying the presence of black people and accordingly justifying the white subjugation of black people. He notes how white men from Norway were able to become white “by slaughtering the cattle, poisoning the well, torching the houses, massacring Native Americans, [and] raping black women”. According to Baldwin, white people, particularly white men, thus attain whiteness, humanness and personhood through this almost ritualistic enactment of violence on the bodies of black people.

In her book, We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, bell hooks observes that “In recent years when young white males, especially those who have class privilege, violently act out, even killing, psychological issues are explored as possible explanations. Yet when black males act out, the [dominant message] is that they are ‘inherently’ evil, flawed beyond repair.” She continues that “In even the worst cases, where white males are perceived as committing evil acts [including murder and serial rape], immense effort is made to understand their psychological condition, to represent them as not inherently evil but disturbed [while] black male violence is rarely contextualised in this way”.

According to hooks, black men are seen as “inherently demonic”, while white male violence is seen as not inborn in white males requiring holistic contextualisation. This can be seen in efforts to explain the irrational terror Oscar Pistorius allegedly felt in misinterpreting his girlfriend of being the white-feared “black intruder” and not as a rational and strategic act of white male violence against a woman. The underlying assumption is that there must have been something that provoked him thus justifying consequent actions.

Lessons from American context, where we share a similar history of institutionalised racism, and a white society resistant to dismantling whiteness and its various privileges indicates that it is women who suffer the most when white men resist adapting to a gender and racially integrating society. In Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, Michael Kimmel, observes that when white men refuse to forfeit their privilege and integrate into society that allows for gender and racial equality, many develop permanent dysfunction of “aggrieved entitlement” from which they cannot “even be dragged kicking and screaming into that inevitable future”.

Whites, as Baldwin prophetically said, continue to diminish and attempt to leave black people “totally out of account” instead of deconstructing their whiteness, even when there is a dead body of a white woman at the centre of white male violence.

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