When men say ‘F*** off whites!’

CityPress - - Voices - voices@city­press.co.za

There is a gen­uine af­fir­ma­tion in see­ing parts of your ex­pe­ri­ence ar­tic­u­lated, and even though I un­equiv­o­cally re­ject the vi­o­lence of the term “co­conut”, the ex­pe­ri­ences ar­tic­u­lated by Panashe Chigumadzi and Sisonke Msi­mang at the Ruth First lec­ture are im­por­tant. It was great to be in a space where they could be said with­out hav­ing to ex­plain them, with­out the feel­ing of hav­ing white­ness over one’s shoul­der.

How­ever, as soon as the high wore off, I was kept awake by some very se­ri­ous ques­tions and is­sues.

Even though a di­a­logue like this is im­por­tant in pro­vid­ing a coun­ternar­ra­tive to both the rain­bow na­tion story and what­ever white­ness in­sists is the truth, we must be aware of how priv­i­leged these spa­ces are. The mid­dle class can­not lose sight of its place. Chigumadzi ex­plained that “co­conuts” were com­ing to grips with their own com­pli­cated and nu­anced place in con­tem­po­rary South Africa, but the work­ing class had long un­der­stood, with­out fancy gram­mar, that the black mid­dle class was hugely com­pro­mised.

We must be aware, even though the spa­ces we oc­cupy are fraught with dif­fer­ent chal­lenges, that the black mid­dle class ex­pe­ri­ence is still the more palat­able one be­cause it uses white supremacy’s tools: its lan­guage, academia, univer­si­ties, de­bates and dis­cus­sions. And so we con­tinue to look for par­tic­u­lar ex­pe­ri­ences and con­ver­sa­tions.

This was ob­vi­ous in the re­sponse of one mem­ber of the au­di­ence, whose con­tri­bu­tion in­cluded re­peat­edly shout­ing: “F*** off, white peo­ple!” He pro­vided a snap­shot of a real, gut­tural, lived ex­pe­ri­ence and a con­ver­sa­tion about black rage and hurt that we are still to have.

The room’s re­sponse was un­set­tling – gen­eral shock, em­bar­rassed mur­mur­ing and some shouts voic­ing dis­plea­sure. In that mo­ment, we aban­doned him, qui­etly dis­tanc­ing our­selves from him and his pal­pa­ble anger at both white­ness and the room, and this man’s voice was re­jected as in­tru­sive and in­ap­pro­pri­ate.

He was swiftly rep­ri­manded and threat­ened with re­moval, which was tan­ta­mount to tone polic­ing to me, whether in­tended or not.

South Africa is fast fall­ing into the trap of only ac­cept­ing cer­tain forms of black anger as le­git­i­mate. Pan­els, dis­cus­sions, de­bates (as if there is a thing to de­bate about the vi­o­lence of white supremacy), ne­go­ti­a­tions with univer­sity of­fi­cials, col­umns and opin­ion pieces such as this, round ta­bles, end­less talk­ing, end­less en­gage­ment on mas­ters’ terms ... We run the risk of over­selling the black mid­dle class’ abil­ity to re­ject white supremacy – be­cause it is com­plicit in it too.

It is a plea­sure to see young black voices be­ing given promi­nence, but it con­tin­ues to cod­dle white supremacy if we only hear from the twang, the right aca­demic English words, the pol­ished col­umns – and the peo­ple who have the lux­ury of more than just hurt, anger and sad­ness.

In this way, we con­tinue to be the buf­fer be­tween the poor ma­jor­ity of this coun­try and the mas­ters, whether we in­tend to be or not. We can­not, even as the con­scious mid­dle class, fully un­der­stand what the ma­jor­ity of this coun­try is feel­ing or go­ing through.

We must guard against be­ing stuck in an un­end­ing mo­ment of navel-gaz­ing, and think­ing that is enough. And I re­alise fully that this is harsh, but liv­ing one’s pol­i­tics is not meant to be easy. In the same way we have been clear that white peo­ple have to ac­tively seek out di­vest­ment from their priv­i­lege, so too does the black mid­dle class have to (from what lit­tle, but still im­por­tant-enough-to-be-of-con­se­quence priv­i­lege that we have) if our con­scious­ness is to mean any­thing at all in a coun­try like ours.

The fan­tasy of a ‘colour-blind’, ‘post-race’ South Africa has been pro­jected on to us co­conuts, but our ex­pe­ri­ences are far from free of racism Panashe Chigumadzi, Of Co­conuts, Con­scious­ness and Ce­cil John Rhodes: Dis­il­lu­sion­ment and Dis­avowals of the Rain­bow Na­tion


RACE TALK Po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Euse­bius McKaiser mod­er­ates a de­bate about race with Panashe Chigumadzi (cen­tre) and Sisonke Msi­mang at this year’s Ruth First Me­mo­rial Lec­ture at Wits Univer­sity

Gugulethu Mhlungu

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