The furore about the blackface incident occurred just after I had read a piece on The Con titled ‘Black’s Not Beautiful’. The writer of that piece argues how the standard of beauty both in the media and in society at large precludes black women from being naturally beautiful. She points to how we see beauty as blonde, with straight hair and light skin. As a black woman who is positioned outside of society’s standard of beauty, this resonated with me. Positioned on the margins of beauty and acceptability, black women have and continue to be at the centre of everyone’s idea of comedy – from Leon Schuster’s Mama Jack to the University of Pretoria blackface image that did the rounds on social media last week.
The picture in question depicts two young white women with brown polish (or whatever that is) painted on their faces and arms, wearing domestic-worker uniforms with exaggerated fake Sarah Baartmanesque bums. Commenting on the photo on Facebook, one young man notes how the picture can clearly not be racist because black students helped the white girls dress up in their “mammie” outfits. Sadly, comments like these from both white and black South Africans do not surprise me any more.
You see, racism is ingrained in our society, we live with it every day. We have internalised it. In her book Plantation Memories: Episodes of Everyday Racism, academic Grada Kilomba articulately describes what everyday racism is and what it means for black people. She distinguishes between crude, overt racism – which is usually a single act (much like the UP blackface thing) – and institutional forms of racism, like how it became normal for Schuster to make fun of blacks without us even noticing, and how blacks are systematically excluded from the economy and other parts of general society, much like what the EFF’s Andile Mngxitama describes in Blacks Can’t Be Racist. We cannot expect justice in an unjust society. Such ‘big’ incidents are effects of the structural and systematic racism we have not sufficiently dealt with in this country.
One of the dominant rebuttals to the calls of racism has been from Schuster himself. He is the one who eases white consciences – “But Schuster does it all the time,” they say. As the poster boy for post-1994 comedy, and the highest-grossing filmmaker in South Africa, Schuster has done it all, from blackface (Mama Jack) to the ‘black’ accent (Mr Bones). Having made millions at the box office from basically mocking black people, his movies resonated with many as the whole country was eager, if not desperate, to forget our dreadful past. We did not see (or refused to see) how Schuster was ridiculing and infantilising blacks. We did not realise how our 1994 ‘miracle’ meant we did not deal with blacks’ inferiority complex, and the superiority complex of whites, a result of more than 300 years of subjugation and derision. Thus, we sat, welcomed and laughed along with the likes of Schuster as he and others played with our situation. So, 20 years into democracy we still accept such crude, racist, arrogant and ignorant depictions of black women. Clearly, in the imaginations of those who deem this as acceptable and funny, black women deserve to be ridiculed for existing in a situation not of their making.
When such images circulate, I see my mother in them, a woman who struggled to make ends meet raising five kids alone. I see my aunt, a woman who only ever worked as a domestic worker, until she was taken by mental illness (which she could not keep under control because of a lack of access to medical care). But, I also see myself, destined to remain at the margins of society because of hundreds of years of institutionalised oppression, marginalisation, infantilisation and humiliation. Flashes of images – black women used as entertainment for the white world – from Baartman to the women who were forced to drink piss by white boys in the Free State! I’m tired of just letting it go, tired of sweeping things under carpets with no justice! I’m tired of being the face of humiliation!
What does surprise me, though, is how we expect the ‘miracle’ of ‘integration’ and ‘transformation’ to just fall from the sky. How we still refuse to address the injustices of the past 350 years of slavery and colonialism. How we can’t see that the negotiated settlement of 1994 meant negotiating us into an unchanged antiblack, white supremacist system. How we refuse to see that white supremacy is our enemy, and it still has the media and society by the balls. How we refuse to see that negotiating and pleading for our dignity from the very same hand that has us by the balls will not change anything. How we refuse to see that there is no quick-fix cure for racism – not even ‘Mandela magic’ or Tutu’s tears at the Truth and Reconciliation commission. Our only hope is justice, and in South Africa we, the black majority, have not yet received it. Until such time, we will continue to see our pain (as black people, and black women in particular) being paraded and ridiculed. And we will continue to be reprimanded to “stop complaining” and not be so “sensitive”.