Vincent Maher
Vincent Maher

The racism is in the reading

The “firing” of David Bullard has kept my mind busy all weekend because I have an uncomfortable sense that something is very wrong with the situation and its various interpretations.

Aside from these concerns, something that concerns me even more is that I don’t feel safe writing this post because I suspect the same mindset that accuses Bullard of racism will accuse me of being a racist too, for pointing out the logical flaws in the same accusation. For the record and before I begin, I have had substantial run-ins with Bullard myself so I know what it feels like being on the wrong end of his stick. I also know the type of outrage that prompts one to wish him to be fired.

I would like to suggest, however, that the racism in Bullard’s column is in the reading of it, not in its writing. Let me start with a simple example.

When Bullard says, “Every so often a child goes missing from the village, eaten either by a hungry lion or a crocodile. The family mourn for a week or so and then have another child,” there are a few ways you can interpret this. The first is to understand it as a statement about the way family systems work in a “primitive” social order and the pragmatism surrounding death in an environment where the size of your family is directly related to its survival. Furthermore, when survival is of primary concern, it follows that mourning will be intense but not debilitating.

The second way to read it is to think the author is trying to convince us that black people breed like flies. If you got the second option, your reading is either rife with racial stereotypes or you simply believe it to be true.

The way Bullard’s column is constructed asks us to make some imaginary leaps that clearly were not historically possible — it asks us to imagine the possibility that our country could remain isolated from European colonialism and the “development” that came with it; it asks us to imagine that the people themselves were not exposed to modern technology until the present day.

The column’s construction depends on the reader making the distinction between an imaginary scenario and a prediction, in order to be set up for the final snide point about people needing other people to blame. Bullard’s failure is assuming that his readers will be able to make that distinction in the racially charged climate in which the reading takes place.

But for a moment let’s assume that Bullard is asking us to imagine too much, that what he is actually trying to do is convince his readers that primitive people, left to their own devices and in complete isolation, would not develop their own technology or some sort of equivalent “progress”.

There are very few cases in the world where this type of isolation has been possible: Papua New Guinea is one example. Partly because of the climate and physical conditions of the island and partly because it was never colonised, the people there have remained relatively isolated and live in traditional societies by means of subsistence farming. Is it fair to say the people of Papua New Guinea are racially inferior because they have lived in the same way for thousands of years? Let me put it another way: it is racist to read the retention of traditional social structures by a society as a sign of racial inferiority.

Bullard’s column makes no attempt to imply racial inferiority. The “rustic idyll” is presented precisely as that; if anything, it is Western culture and consumerism that takes the most criticism. So how is it, then, that there are so many people speaking about racism in this column? Could it be that in their minds, traditional social structures are the sign of an inferior race?

There is, of course, an insult — that people need someone else to blame in order to achieve true happiness. This is the message of Bullard’s column and it is an unpleasant one that is not, however, racist, because it can be said of anyone. It alludes, no doubt, to a sense that colonialism and apartheid are sometimes used as a crutch to make us feel better about the current state of things. Ironically this point can be applied equally to everyone in the country.

Now let’s get a few things straight here: Bullard has written much worse during his tenure at the Sunday Times. The thing that springs to mind is the time he said that all black people in South Africa hired as a result of BEE policy were incompetent. Now that is racist, so what you have to ask yourself is this: What has changed between the publication of the BEE column and the one he was fired for last week?

Could it be the Empire Magazine column he wrote recently? There he says:

“So I’ve decided to part company with the Sunday Times and write no more motoring pieces for them. It’s not only about the money, although that is a large part of it. It’s about the lack of vision, the pettiness and the creeping mediocrity.”

It has been a long time coming — Sarah Britten, who shared a blogging platform with Bullard, chose the following words:

“Those of us who have been watching this brew for a while …”

So it’s clearly not about the racist column alone; the column is a convenient way to axe him without having to go through the tedious process of firing him according to labour regulations. Racism is a trump card; you can’t beat it even if you’re innocent, and no one will listen to you defend yourself.

And then there is the issue about editorial culpability, which Kathan Pillay has argued well. There are some rebuttals by Robert Brand and Anne Taylor here.

I don’t care whether Bullard stops working for the Sunday Times; he was clearly unhappy there anyway. It is unfortunate that this was not kept as a quiet agreement between Bullard and Mondli Makhanya to part ways because the racism herring is very destructive and makes them both look bad.

Many of the readers crying foul about racism are clearly applying a big, heavy, blunt instrument to a text that requires a little more subtlety. Alternatively, what this all means is that everything remotely related to race must be reduced to a black and white issue with no debate or intelligence permitted in between.