Saggy pants is a popular form of displaying rebellion to teenage respectability by young men who wear their trousers far down their waists, often times generously exposing their underwear. Saggy pants are mostly associated with black male masculinity, which has been highlighted by the imagery often associated with mainstream hip-hop culture. Of course today this phenomenon is no longer the privilege of young black lads as many white boys in my classrooms and elsewhere subscribe to the ”sagging” pants phenomenon. Yet, nevertheless, sagging pants are historically linked to black male adolescence. Like many black sisters and mothers I had been particularly averse to my two brothers engaging in these displays as I unconsciously saw them as yet another easy way black men attract negative attention (read racism and police brutality) to themselves. I have however shifted in this view.
In an interview on her brilliant book Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, Melissa Harris-Perry shows the intersection between the language embedded in racism and sexism. She critiques the frequently held view that young African-American men can escape the brunt of racism by pulling their pants up and dressing up like ”respectable” men, forgetting of course that many black men who grew up under Jim Crow had worn their pants properly, but even that could not rescue them from the violence of racism in the US. Hearing Harris-Perry making this case I could not help but also be reminded of the fact that the founders of the African National Congress in 1912, the likes of Pixley ka Isaka Seme, John Dube and Sol Plaatje and the generation of Mandela, Sisulu and Tambo were by all means, very respectable men who would never be caught wearing their trousers as if they were auditioning for a hip-hop video. Yet what connects them to their African-American counterparts working in the plantations of the US south is that their efforts at aesthetic respectability could also not rescue them from the violence of the racism of apartheid!
I have been thinking about my brother’s saggy trousers because I have been failing to articulate the very problematic language that continues to frame South Africa’s rape culture. Eusebius McKaiser in his ambitious and timely book A Bantu in my Bathroom reminds us that indeed race and gender are curious cousins that offer us interesting parallels on how to understand the ill logic of both sexism and racism. I have thought of this more and more in the past weeks as those of us in the small town of Grahamstown grapple with the tragic gang rape and murder of Thandiswa Qubuda of Hlalani township. The questions that were first asked about the circumstances of this crime centred on what time she was walking and how come she was not cautious enough not to walk around at 2am as a woman in a dangerous township. These questions have come to be as predictable as they are boring. Just like the narrative of the events of that fateful January morning in Hlalani are already indicating that this is most likely a case of another woman who has yet again been betrayed by people she knew, not strangers.
Those of us who attended the memorial service were all too awake to this prevailing victim-blaming culture that underscores the reaction to rape in this country, which most certainly informed the appalling response of the police who were called to come for Thandiswa at 2am but arrived at 6am to the crime scene. This is despite the police station being a mere 2km from the crime scene. The pervasive lack of reflection on the impossibility of individual women to act themselves out of rape is particularly tragic in this country where we should simply know better if we take our history seriously.
The view that a black person under apartheid could, if they abide by the madness of apartheid rules, be able to escape it, is not only absurd but would have been a gross misunderstanding of the workings of that system. Yet today in this country we move from a view that women can manage the war on their bodies by staying clear of the places that are populated by these violent men. We continue to believe despite ample evidence to the contrary that these violent ”beasts” are nothing but aliens who otherwise visit our neatly organised society from time to time. McKaiser reminds us that this is another flawed manner in which we continue to deal with racism in this country because instead of addressing the many ways we continue to harbour racist views of each other (revealed mostly in the privacy of our homes), as a nation we are quick to exile those who dare bring their racism to our public spaces into the Siberia of racists who are nothing but a reminder of a distant past instead addressing the reality that our day-to-day lives reproduce a racist culture.
In cataloguing the shame that is caused by the stereotypes surrounding the imagery of black women in the US, Harris-Perry draws on WEB Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk to argue that to view citizenship in America today from the eyes of the black woman is to essentially ask the same question that Du Bois asked in 1903: “How does it feel to be a problem?”
We do this too with rape in this country where we have refused to be alive to the reality that the collective punishment of apartheid simply meant that any black person was fair game to the brutality of the police whether in the public or private space. We refuse to see how rape translates to being a similar collective punishment for women everywhere, in public and in private.
Just like young (black) men wearing saggy pants are often judged harshly, to me our framing of the current war on the bodies of South African women frames all South African women as problems.
Questions such as the dress code of women who have been raped perpetuates the victim blaming of women and ignores a larger system of patriarchal male dominance that allows rape culture to continue. As a country we have not been able to appreciate the parallels between different forms of oppression. This demonstrates the fact that we are a country that thrives on dangerous levels of short-term memory.