The unbearable whiteness of being
Johannesburg - Hi. My name is Eusebius. And I am fluent in the grammar of whiteness. I am such a clever black that as a scrawny little boy – hey wena, no one is born with an mkhaba! I really was scrawny once – I quickly learnt the grammar of whiteness. I remember practising “bru” in a sentence, followed by other gems such as “sarmie”, “dos” and “oke”.
If you don’t know these words, I pity you. You are doomed. Kiss upward mobility goodbye, baba. The grammar of whiteness is key to doing well in corporate South Africa.
You must sound like the chief executive’s son, not the chief executive’s maid’s son. You catch my coconut drift? I am multilingual like that – Afrikaans, English, a wee bit of Xhosa (on a good day), and a whole whack of whiteness. That is why I, how do they put it, “fit in everywhere”.
But here is a bloody gripe that has been on my native mind for a week.
Why are so many white South Africans shamelessly uninterested in the grammar of blackness?
Yes, yes, get over yet another column about race. Racism, and awkward race relations, are not going out of fashion anytime soon. Let’s deal with the issues, not wish them away through non-engagement.
So ignore the colour-blind trolls, readers, and hear me out on the crux of what went down on Twitter the other day. There is a crucial issue that lurked in one of those #thatawkwardmoment exchanges.
A white tweep – incidentally a DA provincial leader – had a most bizarre response to one of my tweets. I tweeted an article about folks reportedly throwing faeces at a bus in which DA leader Helen Zille was travelling. I said in the tweet: *claps hands once*. Why not? Such behaviour is darn shocking, and so it was right to express my surprise at below-the-buttocks tactics. There are less distasteful ways of engaging political opponents.
Hayi ke! What do I get for expression of shock at the way Zille was engaged? An insulting tweet from a white tweep, a DA leader at that, expressing shock that I am – don’t laugh – celebrating the throwing of poo at a bus. And, wait for this, I call myself an analyst?
I initially thought of blocking this person for insulting me. And then, within 10 minutes, a whole lot of white tweeps responded in exactly the same manner! Some even unfollowed me! Thiza wam!!
And then it dawned on me. White South Africans are not particularly familiar with the grammar of blackness. These folks, sincerely so (shem), thought that *claps hands once* was an exclamation of joy, of affirmation, of celebrating, of going ‘YEBO YES!!!’ Ouch. Talk about lost in translation. A familiar black expression was simply lost on a white liberal DA leader, and an assortment of other whites, liberal or not.
Is this much of a muchness? Worth a column at all? Trust me, I agonised about this for days. I even insisted that my colleague Siki Mgabadeli, herself fluent in whiteness, sanity-check my concern over dinner.
And we came to the same conclusion. As black people, especially almost-born-frees and born-frees, we go out of our way to be adept at learning the language of white South Africans – literally but also culturally. That is the social capital our folks paid for when they sent us to former Model C and private schools.
This is why white South Africans don’t need to be translated to me. I get you. I still cry myself to sleep for missing the Bon Jovi concert.
Imagine a white friend sad for missing an L’Vovo gig? Whiteness is part of my cultural DNA though. But cultural exchanges mostly go in one direction in Mzansi.
And the reason we invested in our kids learning the grammar of whiteness is simple. Because whiteness pays. Literally.
And because whiteness is normative. You can be, as political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi beautifully puts it, in the numerical majority but still be in the cultural minority. Even in the media that is true.
You might have a radio station where blacks are a numerical majority or a newspaper with mostly black readers. But the question is whether black South Africans are still a cultural minority on these platforms. The answer, sadly, remains yes, for the most part. Which is why an incredibly simple, familiar black expression – claps hands once – can be unfamiliar to otherwise (self-declared) cosmopolitan, educated, well-travelled, middle-class white South Africans.
I dream of a country in which the cultural identities of black South Africans don’t need to be translated. And, no, I am not a racist, bru. Some of my best friends are white.
* Eusebius McKaiser is author of the bestselling book A Bantu In My Bathroom, a collection of essays on race, sexuality and other uncomfortable South African topics.