Blackface: A chance to uproot prejudice
Racism and other prejudices proliferate in our society. How could they not? Like other societies, we’re products of a long history where prejudice enabled one group to oppress and claim dominion over another. Men over women. Rich over poor. Lords over serfs. The Dutch over the indigenous people of the Cape. The British over Afrikaners. Whites over blacks. Heterosexuals over homosexuals. South Africans over other Africans.
The list is endless. And it crisscrosses us such that no one’s innocence is absolute. Innocence can only be measured by degree.
We’ve come far in dismantling some of the oppression inscribed into law by this history, but the oppression remains, at times indirectly. And prejudice passes from parent to child.
The “blackface” incident at the University of Pretoria was a predictable manifestation of this history and our inadequate efforts to address it. The two students, thinking it a cool costume idea for a party, dressed up as domestic workers.
They painted their faces black, wrapped their heads in doeks and padded their behinds to make their butts look big.
It was an offensive representation of domestic workers and the black female body, which varies in shape and size. The costume was little more than a reprise of European curiosities about Saartjie Baartman’s body. And it made a mockery of the unjust reality that our society limits the aspirations of millions of black women to domestic work only – a noble career, but only if it’s of your choosing.
You don’t have to think too far back or limit yourself to racism to realise that this history has reared its ugly head many times. It will continue to reappear unless we dismantle all forms of oppression and rid our minds of prejudice and superiority complexes. Only then will we begin to resemble the society we aspired to become after 1994 – one founded on human dignity and equality.
It is unfortunate that the university has expelled the two young women from campus residence and launched an investigation into their behaviour.
These actions appear to single out the two students as exceptions when they are the rule. Our society practises multifarious prejudices, the university is a microcosm of society, and these young women are the products and wards of both.
The appropriate action in this case, alongside measures to hold the two accountable, is a permanent, structured education programme to raise consciousness about prejudice among the entire student body.
Other universities, institutions and households should do the same. As for the oppressions that prop up our social edifice, they too must fall.
It was an offensive representation of domestic workers and the black female body