Race (still, probably always will) matter(s)

In light of the blackface incident involving two Tuks students last week, I asked TO Molefe a few quick questions on the matter. He indulged me with the most enlightened and thorough answers anyone has ever left in my inbox. As such, I figured I should share and let his words hit you with some knowledge.

Image: Twitter
Image: Twitter


Q:The two girls have now been expelled from res but not the University. Do you think this action was appropriate? If so why and if not why?

A: I think the university needs to follow due process as such decisions on individual students’ fates can’t and shouldn’t be arbitrated based on public sentiment. Hopefully UP already has in place an objective process to assess infringements of its student code of conduct and to assign the appropriate sanction(s). I personally do not believe punitive measures like expulsion are necessarily the best way to handle things, but like I said, the university should be following whatever pre-established protocols it has in place to deal with these situations.

The unfortunate thing about UP’s response to this incident is, as I said in my column, is that it singles out the two young women’s behaviour as an exception. They should definitely be held individually accountable, but the university, too, needs to examine its role in allowing such behaviours and attitudes to go unchecked among its student body. The university needs to use this example as the motivation for a compulsory education programme that uses South African history to teach about prejudice and oppression, particularly racism, sexism and sexuality. Right now they seem to be panicking because of all the public scrutiny directed towards them.

Q: In your opinion what was problematic about the girls dress?

A: For me it is pretty clear cut: If, when you think “domestic worker”, the first thing that comes to mind is black women with big lips and behinds, you’re playing on a racist stereotype of black women’s bodies and a long-held belief in that such bodies are the ones best suited to domesticity. Your intention is to poke fun at black women. It is racist and sexist. It is what queer scholar Moya Bailey calls misogynoir (anti-black misogyny).


Q: Some have said they the girls were having harmless fun, much like Leon Schuster. What are your thoughts on that line of thinking?

A: I think anybody who thinks the girls were having harmless fun has chosen not to think at all about what their performance tells us about the cycle of servitude millions of black women are trapped in, many from birth. The two young UP students probably grew up in a house where a black woman cleaned up after them and took care of them. That woman has daughters of her own who, without some kind of intervention, will probably have few work options other than to become domestic workers, too. And chances are that woman’s mother was also a domestic worker. We’ve seen this in the mines where low-paying manual-labour jobs ensnare generations of a single family.

Yet, these two girls, when asked to imagine a domestic worker, a figure that has been a feature of their whole lives, they imagined a stereotype instead of a real human being. These two girls will probably go on to hire domestic workers for their own homes when they grow up. And I imagine it will be difficult for them to find it within themselves to pay their domestic workers a living wage if they can’t imagine them as human beings in all their complexity.

What I’m saying is that the dehumanising way in which the girls imagined domestic workers is how many people imagine domestic workers. And that dehumanising imagining is directly linked to why many domestic workers in this country have never been and are not paid a living wage.


Q: Black comedians make it a point to talk about race in their sets – do you think the way they do it is helpful or harmful?

A: I think it’s great when black comedians talk about race. I think it’s great when anybody talks about it. However, for something that is so divisive, race is generally poorly understood. And even those of us who read, write and think about it every day have to keep our wits about us when dealing with it out of a fear that we might be reinforcing misconceptions about race and promoting racial prejudice. I’m not sure how many South African comedians and satirists exercise this kind of thoughtfulness or care.

This might be a bit utilitarian of me, but the objective of talking about race should be to expose its contradictions, and to subvert people’s deeply held misconception that race has no social significance. (I think most of us by now are comfortable with the idea that race isn’t a biological reality in the sense that it was once believed to determine traits such as intelligence, athletic ability and creativity.) Comedy is a great way to challenge people’s ideas about themselves and the world, but only if the comedian has stopped to think about whether they are repeating and reinforcing stereotypes, or subverting it. There are too many comedians doing the former because it’s easy and because the latter is hard and takes tremendous skill to pull off while being funny.


Q: Lastly, have you seen the trailer for Dear White People set for release later this year. Do you think the South African audience has the capacity to engage with the movie meaningfully?

A: I have seen the trailer. I am ambivalent about the movie’s relevance in South Africa. I mean, we will definitely see parallels to situations here. But, although related, the contexts and histories are a little different. Because of that, I am hesitant to adopt American (or other) anti-racist narratives wholesale. We have a rich history of anti-racist thought and activism here that I think we’re making too little use of. So, I don’t think there is a need here for black people to address white people as this movie does. Instead, I think what this country needs right now is a “Dear Black People” written, directed and produced through an immersion in black consciousness thought.

Boom. Basically.

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