For some coconuts, the quickest way to prove solidarity with black struggles is to express hatred towards white people, says Eusebius McKaiser.
Johannesburg - This past week it dawned on me that some new self-styled radical middle-class blacks think that anti-white hatred, and even hate speech, are the gold standard of one’s commitment to fighting anti-black racism. If you scream, publicly, “F*** WHITE PEOPLE!” and follow that up with saying that you do not want white friends, then you’re amazeballs!
That, they imagine, proves you’re more black than other blacks; you’re more in touch with poor and working class black people than fellow black middle-class people who have white friends, or who do not care to sign up for anti-white hatred at a public event. And if you can say you struggled to sleep over this the other night, then you’re really ahead of fellow new radicals: insomnia as evidence of commitment to revolution.
These sentiments are absolute rubbish and should be rejected with the same venom with which they are being expressed. There is a difference between anger and hatred, and there is a difference between the expression of anger and the expression of racial hatred aimed at an entire group. This conceptual confusion stems from an anxious desire to get receipts proving your hatred of whites, the hope being that such expressions of hatred will elevate your status in an imagined ranking of degrees of black radicalism.
Not only do these attitudes collapse once critically scrutinised, in tragicomic irony it also turns out that many of the proponents of this anti-white hatred are blind to class differences between themselves and the biggest victims of white hegemony, poor black people. The real site of daily violence in South Africa is the poor black body.
Coconuts and interracial friendship
The context of this faux neo-radicalism that is emerging among some middle-class blacks is this year’s 2015 Ruth First Memorial Lecture that was held at Wits Great Hall earlier this week. Panashe Chigumadzi had conducted research into a group of South Africans she calls, including herself, coconuts. These are black students who went to former Model-C schools or private schools. They - we - are fluent in the grammar of whiteness because of our proximity to white people. And yet despite that proximity many coconuts have been willing to be part of the Rhodes Must Fall-movement, and its variations, across South African campuses, most notably at seemingly safe, calm, English liberal institutions like Rhodes University, Wits University and University of Cape Town.
A fascinating set of research questions follow, “Why are the born frees not imbued with colour-blind conceptions of non-racialism? When and how did they find a political conscience?”
She accounted, in part, for the politicisation of coconuts by arguing that proximity to whiteness does not always result in assimilation. In fact, proximity to whiteness can help you see the subtle manifestations of white racism more clearly than someone not close to whiteness. Whether it is the policing of black hair, the fear in a white teacher when you speak isiZulu rather than English or, at university, noticing that white networks enable your white peers to enter and negotiate corporate South Africa better than you. Proximity to whiteness ultimately enables you to realise that racism is class-blind, and that you remain, as one interviewee said, “a n****r”. This particular female student who felt this way had attended Roedean, one of the poshest private schools.
Sisonke Msimang, by contrast, set out to explore the prospects of interracial friendship in post-apartheid South Africa.
It might seem like a cheesy question but that reaction would betray your absence from the event rather than absence of rigour on Msimang’s part. With the help of Aristotle, she raised the bar for asking whether or not all is well in South Africa, racially. Can we be friends? Can we be friends as opposed to strangers who are polite to each other? Can we be friends as opposed to mere acquaintances? Can we be friends in the sense of meeting the moral demands of true friendship? Such friendship would include a commitment to justice on a white friend’s part, because you cannot genuinely be my friend and yet not have adequate regard for my well-being, including a practical commitment to eliminate the racist world in which our friendship is located.
Her conclusion, with lots of textual and other evidence, is that the conditions for interracial friendship do not currently exist. Too much in the structure of our society remains deeply stained by racism. And until that is undone, true friendships between blacks and whites remain, at the general level, unlikely. This does not mean there are not a few particular examples of such friendships.
She insists that for interracial friendship to be possible at a general level, however, as an unsurprising feature of life in our country, white people must ask themselves: “How prepared are you for intimacy?” It is invariably racism’s victims, black people, who are expected to dig deep to enable such friendships. This is part of the legacy of racism, an expectation from many whites that these burdens are black people’s to discharge. Merely proclaiming you’re committed to non-racialism does not bring authentic interracial relationships into existence. This analysis is painful for many whites to hear, but then imagine just how painful it is for blacks to live with the violence of colonial and apartheid indignity in the year 2015 still.
Some people who clearly chose to listen passively misconstrue Msimang as being soft on whites. No, no: this is not Rainbowism. The moral demands of friendship that Msimang has in mind are intimately tied to racial justice. That is precisely why the prospects are dim in the short term, because whites who sign up for that journey will have to work bloody hard. Msimang’s friendship-analysis is not jingoistic Rainbowism.
That, in a nutshell, is what went down on that stage, and ended with a brief discussion from the floor, all of which is available, including audio and text, at www.journalism.co.za. During that discussion a black man, who is a student I assume, took the mic and wondered why we are honouring a white person, and not black struggle heroes, and while saying this, he added words to the effect of “F*** WHITE PEOPLE!”
I intervened after his swearing, asked for the mic to be switched off, and suggested that he would have to be asked to leave if he continues his swearing. Chigumadzi disagreed with me, and thought I was policing black anger. Msimang did not comment directly on the swearing but affirmed her willingness to see First as a hero, one that was prepared to die as an ally of black people in the fight against apartheid, and in fact did die when a letter bomb was sent to her while she lived in Maputo, Mozambique.
The Anger Olympiad
The vast majority of feedback about the event remains positive. But those who were unhappy about aspects of the night are deeply unhappy, and pained. And it is important to make sense of, and grapple with, this pain, and lingering anger.
There are angry socialists (black and white) who do not merely disagree with the work of the Fellows but are genuinely angry about what they regard as ahistorical, self-centred and self-indulgent identity politics, and first person narrative, pretending to be research. These folks are mightily pissed off. I’ve seen the anger in emails from some, and on the faces of yet others who have approached me to opine about Monday night’s event.
Then there are angry white people who think that the evening was maliciously designed to piss them off, and to guarantee they would feel uncomfortable. And, in fact, they are pissed off. And they are uncomfortable. A few white people walked out during the performance by Msimang and artist Lebo Mashile who performed some of the voices that Msimang had drawn on in her text. Other whites walked out during the “F*** WHITE PEOPLE!” intervention.
Others who did not walk out endured the discomfort, and decided the morning after to express how, in fact, they had felt the previous night. In this group of white people were a number of people who wondered whether the message of the Ruth First Memorial Lecture this year was that white people should leave the country.
Expressions of pain and anger don’t end there. Some black people thought the evening was almost perfect but that I messed it up by not letting the disruptor to continue to tell white people to “F*** (OFF)!” and whatever else he still had left to say. Some tweeted that they had struggled to sleep, grappling with the gravest injustice since apartheid ended, that of McKaiser threatening to eject a man for grabbing a mic to share with us his hatred of all white people in delicious f***-glory. I was characterised by one person on Twitter as someone “trained in the management of black slaves”.
What should we make of all this pain and anger, and a callous competition to be the most self-righteous? I have several views. First, I have zero regrets – none whatsoever – about shutting down, as moderator, the racial hatred expressed by a member of the audience. No one is entitled to a platform for racial hatred, whether the group at the receiving end of the F-bombs are blacks, whites, pinks, oranges or any other hue in-between. Anger and hatred are distinct emotional responses.
I am also not prepared to have my commitment to eliminating white privilege, and eliminating white supremacy, be measured by my unwillingness to hate people. No black person should feel they are insufficiently radical if they are not willing to hate white people. Why on earth is that a marker of transformative politics? Anger can fuel transformative politics, and history is littered with such examples. In my forthcoming book I devote an essay to defending the moral and instrumental value of anger. Why on earth would I pander to politeness just so that no one feels discomfort? But anger, and sheer hatred, are different things I’m afraid. Hatred, and hate speech, have no transformative effect. It simply divides, for its own sake.
What is also insulting here is the assumption that if someone does not sign up for hatred, then they are not angry enough. That too is a logical misstep. I am just as angry about anti-black racism as some who were angry that I stopped the expression of hatred. Actually, let me use the language of those who imputed to me a desire to make white people feel comfortable to show how easy a competition for anger can unfold, just like a competition to hate. If you think I aimed to make white people comfortable because their feelings are more important than a frank discussion about racism, then I say to you, doubting my own commitment to fight white supremacy, “F*** YOU!” (Sorry, what did you say? You want to raise me five more “F*** YOU!’s?! Okay. What must happen now? How do we decide who wins gold in this year’s Anger Olympiad?)
I laugh, frankly, at the naivety of people who think that the more anti-white they sound, the more they must surely be the Black Consciousness real deal. This is the kind of bull that Steve Biko did not sign up for. It is the kind of misappropriation of black consciousness that racists need to be called out for. My commitment to non-racism isn’t dependent on screaming childishly from a stage, ‘I do not want to be friends with whites!’
What is the end game here? Is the next utterance after “F*** WHITES!” going to be “LET’S F*** UP WHITES!” Brand new revolutionaries who have just discovered the joy of swearing, and hate speech-as-disruption, do not like being asked pragmatic questions about what the programme of action is. Physical violence next? Why not? After all, if we should not “police” the guy’s expression of verbal hatred, why should we stop him “f***ing up” the nearest white person he sees in the Wits Great Hall? Oh, you are not okay with physical fights? So where do you, ally of his non-existing right to utter hatred in that space, draw the line between a violent speech act and physical violence? I’d dearly love to know. Or is that too practical for linguistic revolutionaries?
It is worth reflecting on my own anger. I accept that the tone with which I am engaging here is intense, and aggressive even. It is because discussion about race is inherently personal. It is deeply personal and being told, as a black person, that you’re some kind of House Negro trained to manage Field Negroes speaking out of turn, hurts. Worse: It triggers an existential desire to fight back and say, “Ok, so you want to have a discussion about whose commitment to fighting racism is most sincere? Let’s have it!” I am sure it is not useful. But I am not deleting it, despite this being several drafts on an initial attempt to write about Monday. Because I want to own my anger at black people who do not think of the effects of policing another black person’s understanding of how whiteness operates. I occupy a black body. I have no choice but to get it. I write about race. I have become, to my annoyance, a go-to person for some organisations to moderate these painfully difficult discussions. How could I possibly not respond personally, and with anger?
Similarly, as time passes, I am checking my lack of empathy for black critics. Those who were upset were upset because we all are too familiar with white people’s comfort being prioritised over our pain as black people. I have not done enough, including in this piece, to show my understanding of where that criticism of me came from. But, trust me, I get it. It is tiring for rules of engagement to put the bully at ease. I just wish we would not judge in the moment. It would have been easy to ask me, on the evening or the morning after, “Eusebius, out of interest, what went through your head when that black man gave a guttural expression of pain? What were you feeling, thinking, as that unplanned expression of pain happened?” Instead, and I guess I should work on understanding why this happened, many people simply imputed to me Kumbaya politics and crawling up the behinds of whites. So now we’re all angry and meanwhile racism is untouched. We really need to be easier on each other and focus on the common enemy.
It is in this moment, fortunately, that Msimang’s complexity saved the night. Msimang was not prepared to diss Ruth First just because she was white. Msimang was not afraid that her commitment to eliminating racism would be doubted, and shown up, just because she is friends with some white people, including her husband.
But, for some coconuts, the anxious desire to be affirmed as fully acquainted with black struggles runs so deep that they think the quickest way to prove cross-class solidarity is to express hatred towards white people. And then what? Will the structures in society infused with racism fall the morning after your white friends now know how horrible it was to be made fun of for speaking bad English at a private school? This competition between us to police and evaluate each other’s radicalism in not strategic and is misplaced. We lose sight of the real enemy: anti-black racism.
Non-racialism and socialism
Angry socialists have a point but must also sit down. A few people, especially older white people who knew Ruth First, were yearning for Chigumadzi and Msimang to prioritise class analysis over race analysis. This is a false dichotomy. No one is only black. No one is only white. We are all multiple identities simultaneously and “the dialectic between race and class”, as veteran journalist Karima Brown put it, is what we must be faithful to.
It is not that class analysis doesn’t matter, but writer Osiame Molefe is right that we must insist on “class-and-race”-discussion rather than “class-vs-race” discussion. The reason this partial pushback against this critique of the race analysis of this year’s Ruth First is important is because, frankly, I am tired of tactics that are designed to stop us talking about racism and its present day manifestations. Those who only want to use class analysis as the analytic framework through which to make sense of our country lack the guts to stare the racism challenge in the face. The intersection of class and race matters. Pitting the concepts against each other is intellectually and experientially dishonest.
There is a similar denial – and I have been waiting for the “thought pieces” on this point which no doubt are forthcoming – from some older white people who think First must be turning in her non-racialism grave as a result of a memorial lecture in her name that skewered whiteness. This too is profound arrogance in two ways: Firstly, how dare you tell Msimang and Chigumadzi what they must think about non-racialism, even if First punted non-racialism? First would have been proud of two black women choosing their own analytic approach to a society very different to the one that existed in the early 80s when First was alive. First was a researcher whose methodological tools were relevant to the context in which she worked. Right now in our country there is an urgent need to allow young black people, in particular, to choose the methods and praxis with which they want to articulate their lived experiences in contemporary South Africa.
In that sense, I have no time for critics who think that first-person narratives that deliver phenomenogical accounts of the black body in contemporary South Africa are anti-intellectual. The public response to Monday’s event is evidence that creativity and intellectual rigour is what was experienced by everyone present. We need to learn to separate disagreement with fake quality control. Disagreeing with the style, methods and arguments of a researcher aren’t proof that whatever you are disagreeing with lacks rigour.
At any rate, non-racialism should be assigned to the dustbins of history as far as I am concerned. It is a vague term whose function in modern South Africa is purely to stop discussion about racism. What we should instead be aiming at is to change the racist structures in society so that we can, one day, live in a non-racist South Africa.
The language of non-racialism was helpful, perhaps, decades ago when, as academic Richard Pithouse puts it, it was “an organising principle” around which there was some sincere rallying between allies from different racial groups in the fight against Apartheid. But words and concepts change meaning over time. In 2015, non-racialism isn’t the “organisation principle” to mobilise people against racism that First might have approved of. These days, it is a conversation stopper. It has no clear analytic meaning, and its use, simply, is to stop hard conversation about race. So if I was Chigumadzi, I would not lose sleep over old folks romanticising the historic usefulness of non-racialism. In contemporary South Africa, non-racialism is a distraction.
But I do, however, share one criticism with some of these socialists. Even if we accept that class analysis must intersect rather than replace race analysis, I think that the new radical coconut needs to be much more honest and nuanced. We have often, as black middle class people, been complicit in keeping poor black people poor. We benefit from our relationship with white capital, and many of us do not give a damn about poor black people. We theorise about them, but avoid them. We do not interact other than the odd visit to a chisa nyama or a week in December going back home.
I am not trying to belittle the violence of learning the grammar of whiteness at Model C and private schools. But we must get a grip. Being told I can’t have a chiskop because white boys can’t have short hair (they would look like skinheads) was a form of hair policing even black boys faced. I was told I had to eat my chicken with a fork and a knife and not with my hands. I got elocution lessons from the school librarian.
And so we can all, as black middle class kids, show our documents of being subjected to white attempts at assimilation. But I am sorry. Sending home black tax, and letting your hair grow naturally as it wants to now that you’re older, do NOT mean you get black poverty. It does not mean you get the material injustices that coloured farmworkers, black domestic workers or migrant mineworkers experience. The proximity to whiteness helps us smell white racism in all its subtle and violent glory, sure.
But there is a big gap between black middle class people and poor black people that should be acknowledged even as the radical new coconut is keen to be accepted as a comrade, as a revolutionary ready to wear an EFF overall. I grew up poor, and even with that experience in my head, I still do not fully understand poverty because I have been middle class for so long already.
My sister’s child is fighting for his life after a brain operation at a state hospital in the Eastern Cape that can only be described as a hellhole. They have no medical aid. She is unemployed. Her reality is not my Sandton reality. I can afford to fall ill. That is where the demand for humility comes in. We cannot, as black middle class professionals living in the suburbs, think that cross-class solidarity with poor black people comes easily to us. We still have to prove we are ready for that solidarity, learn from the social movements and social justice organisations who do that kind of work. And, if you are a writer, it is important to be humble about what you do not know, including the theoretical tools you are unfamiliar with, and empirical work already done, that can deepen your connections as a coconut with poor black people.
So while we pat ourselves on the back for twanging the verbal revolution, let’s not forget that the widows and orphans of Marikana are the worst off in this land of ours. Some of the coconuts who were angry this week, for example, have cars their parents bought them, live in apartments paid for by mom, and that is fine. Do not bemoan your access to credit or your assets. But check your privilege while you skewer whiteness. The two are not mutually exclusive. Know that fighting anti-black racism isn’t proof of cross-class solidarity between rich and poor black people.
Feeling pain or feeling anger are important responses to experiences of racism. Expressing such anger is also necessary. And we cannot prioritise a desire for zero discomfort over a victim’s need to express their anger at a sick world.
It does not follow that every single expression of hatred should be seen as an expression of anger. It also cannot be true that all F*** YOU!’s are always useful, permitted and should under no circumstances be disallowed. The policing of tone can be, and mostly is, a serious abuse of power. When it is not a deliberate abuse of power, the effect of policing tone can be the reinforcement of domination.
What is just as true, however, is that the singular desire to express hatred, without being called to order, achieves nothing but the performance of fake solidarity with those who truly have reason to disrupt all of our lives, working class and poor black South Africans.
As for the anger of white people who attended Monday night’s memorial lecture, the best response I can muster is this: “Welcome to my daily reality. Your temporary white anger is my permanent black South African reality.” What would help to reduce these tensions, as a start, is for all of us to do what Msimang implored when she refused to have a definitive answer on every single race-related question, and preferring instead to learn to “live in complexity”.
* Eusebius McKaiser is the best-selling author of A Bantu In My Bathroom and Could I Vote DA? A Voter’s Dilemma.
** The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Independent Media.