There is a carelessness in the way South Africans and the South African media discuss issues of difference. Whether these issues of difference are about race, gender, gender identity, sexuality, disability, and/or class they are all often dealt with in sensationalist headlines and with disregard of the people affected. You would think with our horrible history of discrimination, and our talk of creating a more democratic and empathetic society, we would be more inclined to pay attention to the way we address issues affecting marginalised communities. I want to use the example of the “first black” to illustrate the ways in which little attention is given to details in the way we talk about race and how racial injustice from the past is always with us, even when we fail to acknowledge that.
The way in which we talk about the “first black” person to achieve a certain milestone in their professional careers is problematic. The first black cricketer, first black president, first black scientist, first black book, etc, have all made headlines. Recently when Cape Town born South African cricket player Temba Bavuma scored a test century, the headlines were “the first black cricketer to score test century.” Now Temba Bavuma IS the first black to achieve this feat in an “official” cricket-sporting event and should be congratulated. So I appreciate the need to recognise people’s achievements, and to praise black people for being outstanding in their professional fields. What I do have a problem with is how being the “first black” is always the leading statement, the prefix, and the introduction to that black person. A google search for Temba Bavuma will show all the headlines with the tittle “first black.” The fact that a person is the “first black” to achieve a certain goal, which often, and certainly in Temba Bavuma’s case, is true, often overshadows the achievement. An achievement, of course, that white cricketers have been achieving for a long as long as South African cricket has existed.
I find this problematic because it often ends at the “first black” and does not continue to substantiate why this is the case. When the “first black” statement is not qualified, there is an underlying assumption of meritocracy and that makes the “first black” sentiment hugely problematic. It is disingenuous to just state that someone is the “first black” to achieve a professional milestone, like the one achieved by Temba Bavuma, without stating the reasons why there’s never been a “black cricketer” to achieve what he has achieved. By leaving out the qualifying statements of why someone is the “first black” suggests that there has never been a black person who has had the ability to do what the “first black” has done. This is obviously not true, there were and there continues to be structural impediments for black people being able to achieve all kinds of professional milestones. The way life was organised during the colonial years and then during apartheid made sure that black people didn’t have access to many professions. For example before Nelson Mandela became the “first black” president there were plenty of black people who were capable of being president of South Africa. They couldn’t run for president because there was a system of apartheid that prevented black people from participating in politics in South Africa. During apartheid black South Africans were legally barred from participating in national sports like cricket, which obviously meant that there would be no black person to achieve a test century in the sport. On top of that, it has been hard to transform sporting institutions in South Africa to include black sportspersons. Almost all sports that were dominated by white South Africans during apartheid have been inundated with critiques of the lack of transformation.
Also, if we are going to talk about the “first black” we should probably also keep in mind that there are many black people who achieved great milestones in their professional fields that were never given the recognition they deserved. Professor Archie Mafeje and Hamilton Naki were both great in their professional fields and were mistreated in their respective fields. Archie Mafeje was appointed as a lecturer at the University of Cape Town and then the appointment was withdrawn because of pressure from the apartheid government. Hamilton Naki was a laboratory assistant to Christiaan Barnard and was not really given the credit that was due to him as he worked with Dr. Barnard. These are two of the most well known cases of people denied recognition for their talents and professional abilities.
What I am trying to demonstrate here is that black people have had abilities to do all kinds of great things, but there were systems in place preventing them from realising their human potential. All of this history is left out when we write and talk about the “first black” without qualifying the statement. The “first black” does not exist in a vacuum. The “first black”, or I should say, the-lack-of-there-being-a-black-person-to-achieve-this-in-the-past can be explained by history and not by merit or ability and that our misshaped society is a product of colonialism and apartheid.
Claiming that a person is the “first black” should come with a qualification of why this is the case, because otherwise it feeds into an already existing negative narrative about black people never having had the ability to achieve career milestone. White people are very quick to point out that someone is the “first black” to achieve something, and black people are always ready to celebrate being the “first black.” My gripe here is with black people celebrating being the “first black” instead of critiquing why they are the “first black.” Yes, celebrate the fact that you have achieved something amazing, speak about working hard to achieve it, but also mention that people before you weren’t given the space to do what you did. It should be taken for granted that many more black people would have done what the “first black” did had they had the chance.
We must also be mindful that we are living in post-apartheid South Africa, where black people have more access to institutions that were previously denied to them because they were whites only institutions. Obviously there will be many “first black” achievements, but we need to be attentive of the ways in which we report on and talk about these “firsts.” We can’t feed into the narrative that there were no black people capable of professional milestones before the post apartheid “first black.” In our excitement, and it our quest for higher achievements, let’s think twice about celebrating being the “first black” because you are only first because generations of our ancestors were unjustly and sometimes violently denied access and some recognition.
One of the reasons that black people react with such excitement to the “first black” sentiment is because we care way too much about what white people think. Although Toni Morrison’s literary career has been about teaching us to avoid the white gaze, although Steve Biko taught us to ignore the white liberal and if they want to help, they should go teach other whites about racism, and although Frantz Fanon gave us a detailed account of the complexity of decolonisation and ignored white people altogether in Wretched Of The Earth, we still care about what white people think. In South Africa, black South Africans care way too much what white people think of them. Blacks care too much for the opinions of white people, while white people at best often treat us as invisible. There seems to be a constant need for black people to prove themselves and to prove their humanity to constantly disbelieving white people. In South Africa whiteness is a hard-wired social structure since 1652, and it is hard to get rid off. I suppose it takes more than having the right to vote to shred generations of self-loathing. What is even more frustrating is that even with a black majority government, white people’s opinions are still highly regarded. Why do black people care so much what white people think? I find the white alter that black people worship at exhausting. The white worshipping is exhausting to read about in newspaper pieces, to hear about it on radio, there’s recently even been a book dedicated to white people (which is topic for another time).
The reactions over the racists remarks made by Penny Sparrow on her Facebook account was one of shock and disbelieve by many South Africans. Penny Sparrow, a white woman realtor from KwaZulu calls black people monkeys and bemoans black people taking over the beaches on New Year’s Day. She then goes on radio and tries to justify the racist’s comments, and all throughout this a race war is raging on social media about her comments. There are three things I want to address: Firstly my first reaction to Penny Sparrow was that this is not shocking. This is a white South African being a white South African. I find it disingenuous for South Africans to act shocked as if white racism is an infrequent occurrence, while it occurs everyday. Angela Davis was on to something when speaking at Centre For The Book in Cape Town when she spoke about our complicity to racism by acting shocked every time there’s a racist incident as if it’s out of the norm, when it is an everyday practise. The real surprise is not that penny Sparrow said the racist things she said, the shock is that South Africans were shocked.
Secondly, Penny Sparrow is not alone in her racist thinking, many white South Africans share her sentiments. We all know that racist language is part of dinner table and around the braai fire conversations; Penny Sparrow is the one that got caught because it was on a social network. She probably thought she would get a few Facebook ‘likes’ and laughs and it would be the end of that. Now she knows social media is a different beast all together, and not as safe as a whites only Friday night dinner for six.
Lastly, linked to the first and second point, Penny Sparrow’s racist verbiage follows on the footsteps of some really horrifying racist incidents that have taken place in the last few years in different parts of the country. The year 2015 deserves honourable mention. There was that Guardian piece that asked if Cape Town is racist, and then there was Cape Town school that was involved in a racism row, then there was the UCT students who attacked a black woman in Rondebosch, there was also the horrific video of black kids being beaten by a white man, then there was the Stellenbosch professor who was fired over a racist SMS, and who can forget Tim Osrin who assumed Cynthia Joni was a prostitute in Kenilworth and attacked her (as if being a sex worker is an invitation to be beaten). So no, Penny Sparrow is not a shocker at all.
My approach to the whole Penny Sparrow saga is really informed by my approach to most things concerning white people; don’t waste your time thinking about what they think. It is a waste of time thinking about what white people think of you. It is a waste of time and energy trying to convince white people of your humanity. Having to defend your personhood is already dehumanising. The best way to deal with white people and their ignorance is to ignore them and continue with our work of building a better country and ultimately a better world for black people. My approach to white people is informed by Toni Morrison’s philosophy of racism as distraction. She said:
“It’s important to know who the real enemy is, and to know the function, the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
Toni Morisson spoke these words in 1975 at Portland State University, but they are very relevant for South Africa in 2016. Ironically when Toni Morisson made this speech she also mentioned South Africa, and the absurdity of race because the South African apartheid government had just made Japanese people “honorary whites” in order to conclude trade agreements. The words spoken by Toni Morrison are pertinent for black South Africans. Understanding the function of racism as distraction is very liberating. It also enables us as black people to ignore the likes of Penny Sparrow because the hatred she harbours has nothing to do with black people but with herself. The distraction caused by Penny Sparrow is evident in the way she absorbed national attention. Penny Sparrow wasted all of our time when we engaged with her as if she is someone to be taken seriously. Even talking about Penny Sparrow in this piece, I feel like I am wasting precious minutes of my life that I will never get back. But I have to make a point about her and what she represents. This is the first time that I am actually engaging with her racist rant. Even the political parties like the DA, lead by Musi Maimane and ANC Youth League, that normally don’t agree were said to be pressing criminal charges against Penny Sparrow. Think about all the energy, all the uproar about this woman’s racist rant, the newspaper articles, the radio discussions, they are all a distraction. We, black people, have more important things to discuss and to work on.
I absolutely don’t have time for white people like Penny Sparrow. I am ethically above the likes of Penny Sparrow. Penny Sparrow is morally lacking. Penny Sparrow and white people like her are not worth my time and energy or any other black person’s time and energy. She does not deserve all the attention she received from black people. The perfect reaction to Penny Sparrow is to ignore her, as if she doesn’t exist, as if she didn’t say anything. We, as black people, should not care what Penny Sparrow and other white people like her think of us. We should be focusing on creating a better country for black people and not allow distractions by racists like Penny Sparrow. We, as black people, have a responsibility to each other to make this country work. We have a responsibility to young black South Africans to ensure they understand racism as a distraction, and really not about them but about the white people who are racist. The project of rehabilitating our consciousness and this country is our responsibility. The decision is ours on how much power we are going to give to Penny Sparrow and her ilk. I, for one, refuse to be distracted by Penny Sparrow.