Gillian Schutte
Gillian Schutte

Of clowns, covert racism and whitewashing black concerns

The furore over the cartoon depicting the ANC parliamentarians and their electorate as a bunch of inept clowns is indicative of how far we still have to go in terms of embedded and unconscious racism in South Africa. There is nothing wrong with critiquing government in satirical depictions, but there is something horribly wrong when those depictions verge on 19th century blackface stereotypes and entirely overlook the racial demographics of our land.

In this offensive cartoon we see the spotlight solely on black people in Parliament. There is no focus on the Freedom Front or the Democratic Alliance, as part of this “buffoonery”, which is depicted as an exclusively black “condition”. There is no mention of the Indian or coloured demographic either. It is wholly about representing black African government and their black African electorate as hapless, foolish and gormless. The derogatory textual commentary that accompanies this cartoon is also telling as it is infused with sneering condescension and superciliousness disguised as humour.

But more telling in terms of these racist incidents that continue to erupt on our social landscape, is the apparent shock and horror expressed by the white echelon that support this type of humour when they discover that black people may be offended by this racist depiction of blackness. This is most apparent in the nonplussed reaction to the outcry from the creator of the cartoon, John Curtis, who maintains that the depiction was not racist but a valid critique of the government.

Really? Then why was it so offensive to many black South Africans and why was this concern written off as buffoonery too? And it was not only ANC supporters who decried this cartoon racist.

Again, as in The Spear debacle, this has become a battle of wills between a sizeable group of white and educated liberals and a critical mass of black people — with the white side shouting about “freedom of expression above all” and black commentators asking if freedom of expression is always going to be about white people being given the space to depict blackness in such negative and offensive terms? This is about the whitewashed master narrative that has been entrenched in our society for over three centuries, battling it out and trying to overrun an emerging dissenting narrative that says the racism inherent in this discourse is no longer acceptable — redundant even. It is worrying how mainstream media seems to uphold the master narrative and assist in the silencing of the dissenting narrative.

But more worrying is the fact that if the content is not recognised as racist by the creators then the default expectation is that it is “not racist” and again black dissenters are written off as reactionary and unreasonable by the purveyors of this contemporary dominant discursive trend.

Nowadays there is a tendency for gatekeepers to downplay and even write-off concerns about the racist element in the white narrative in an attempt to sanitise the public discourse of the notion that racism is still a problem. Added to this dominant discourse is the “nouveau liberal” element of race denialism and it is very clear how the discourses of power, social discourses and media discourses seek to temper, evade and even ignore the issue of racism in contemporary societal narratives. These societal narratives, though infused with racial bias, are now disguised in polite liberalist linguistics, satire and of course, an inbuilt disavowal of the possibility of racism.

Since independence in 1994 we have become a South Africa in which explicit racism is frowned upon and those who are outwardly racist have had to curb their verbose racist impunity. Those with a more liberal and less right-wing ethos who still embody “unconscious” race-bias, have found a new form of expression for their predisposition — a disguised form of racism which, although does not appear to be overtly racist certainly contains implicit and implied racism. Instead of saying, “the kaffirs are bladdy lazy and useless”, the expression becomes one that “reasonably” or “humorously” blames the poor for their poverty and asks questions such as, why the poor have “so many children when they cannot afford to feed them?” Or “Why don’t they just get a job instead of waiting for hand-outs from government?” Or simply depicts “them” as a thoroughly obtuse bunch that unthinkingly vote the useless ANC government in over and over again.

These questions and depictions are devoid of the acknowledgment of historical or structural oppression and contemporary racialised bias, nor is there any awareness of the role that white privilege plays, both economically and discursively, in the marginalisation of the poor. The creator of this particular cartoon does not seem to even imagine that there is any thought and consideration given to who the electorate votes for or why they opt not to vote for any of the alternative parties, most of which, in fact, are just as neoliberal and anti-poor as the ANC has become.

Implied in these suggestions of black idiocy is the coded message that whites know and perform best and that whites exist on a higher rung of rationality. This message, though oblique, is steeped in suggestions of white superiority and infused with racism but comes across as humour and political critique. In fact this discourse becomes more destabilising and thus crueller than outright racism because it is very hard to prove that racism is the creator’s intent. If the purveyor is accused of outright racism, the response is often that the accuser is being “oversensitive” and “defensive” and has missed the point entirely, as has played out in the public spats around this cartoon. Even the apology does not seem sincere and comes with a disclaimer that it is not racist but …

This whitewashing of black concern displays a veneer of niceness and insincere surprise but this insincerity distances and blunts the transmitter from taking responsibility for their own racism and from reflecting on the structural violence inherent in their supposedly well-meaning/funny discourse. It is also passive aggressive and psychologically abusive as it serves to destabilise the recipient because this type of racism has a friendly and natural façade and is thus hard to prove as outright racism — leaving the recipient second-guessing their response.

In terms of the ruling by George Bizos that the cartoon is “not racist” I ask if it is not somewhat inappropriate for whites to be the ones deciding what is “not” racist since whites are not the receivers or victims of racism? This verdict overrules the opinions, feelings and sensibilities of black commentators who have called it racist. It also rips into the integrity and intelligence of the premise for the black backlash and cancels out the concerns expressed in this uproar over the cartoon.

Surely it is also time for “well-meaning” and “humorous” white people to start reflecting on the overt or covert or unconscious racism inherent in these on-going negative and insulting depictions of blackness. Is it not time to recognise that their own inability to authentically acknowledge the awareness and integrity of the black backlash to these depictions only exposes their stranglehold on the belief that white is right and black is “oversensitive”. Those dismissive attitudes only further the oppressive nature of the dominant discourse and cannot be described as anything other than racist. Just because the purveyor does not recognise his own racism does not mean for certain that it is not racist. Perhaps this is a good place to begin to recognise and therefore undo, unconscious racism and to stop calling the recipients of this phenomenon oversensitive and irrational.

Whether overt or covert, racism is still racism.

This article first appeared on www.sacsis.org

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