On Clowns and Covert Racism

By Gillian Schutte · 9 Jun 2014

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Picture credit: Green Tea Designs
Picture credit: Green Tea Designs

The furore over the cartoon depicting the ANC parliamentarians and their electorate as a bunch of inept clowns is indicative of how far we still have to go in terms of embedded and unconscious racism in South Africa. There is nothing wrong with critiquing government in satirical depictions, but there is something horribly wrong when those depictions verge on 19th century blackface stereotypes and entirely overlook the racial demographics of our land.

In this offensive cartoon we see the spotlight solely on black people in parliament. There is no focus on the Freedom Front or the Democratic Alliance, as part of this ‘buffoonery’, which is depicted as an exclusively black ‘condition’.  There is no mention of the Indian or coloured demographic either. It is wholly about representing black African government and their black African electorate as hapless, foolish and gormless.  The derogatory textual commentary that accompanies this cartoon is also telling as it is infused with sneering condescension and superciliousness disguised as humour.

But more telling in terms of these racist incidents that continue to erupt on our social landscape, is the apparent shock and horror expressed by the white echelon that support this type of humour when they discover that black people may be offended by this racist depiction of blackness.  This is most apparent in the nonplussed reaction to the outcry from the creator of the cartoon, John Curtis, who maintains that the depiction was not racist, but a valid critique of the government.

Really?  Then why was it so offensive to many black South Africans and why was this concern written off as buffoonery too? 

Again, as in The Spear debacle, this has become a battle of wills between the white and educated liberals and a critical mass of black people – with the white side shouting about ‘freedom of expression above all’ and black commentators asking if freedom of expression is always going to be about white people being given the space to depict blackness in such negative and offensive terms?  This is about the whitewashed master narrative that has been entrenched in our society for over three centuries, battling it out with an emerging narrative that says the racism inherent in this discourse is no longer acceptable.

But more worrying is the fact that if the content is not recognised as racist by the creators then the default expectation is that it is ‘not racist’ and again black dissenters are written off as reactionary and unreasonable by the purveyors of this contemporary dominant discursive trend.

Nowadays there is a tendency for gatekeepers to downplay the race element in the master narrative and thus to sanitise the public discourse of the notion that racism is still the problem. It is now all about race denialism and it is very clear how the discourses of power, social discourses and media discourses seek to temper, evade and even ignore the issue of racism in contemporary societal racist narratives. These societal narratives, though infused with racial bias, are now disguised in liberalist linguistics, satire and of course, an inbuilt disavowal of racism.

Since independence in 1994 we have become a South Africa in which explicit racism is frowned upon and those who are outwardly racist have had to curb their verbose racist impunity. Those with a more liberal and less right wing ethos who still embody ‘unconscious’ race-bias, have found a new form of expression for their predisposition – a disguised form of racism which, although does not appear to be overtly racist, certainly contains implicit and implied racism. Instead of saying, “the kaffirs are bladdy lazy and useless”, the expression becomes one that ‘reasonably’ or ‘humorously’ blames the poor for their poverty and asks questions such as, why the poor have “so many children when they cannot afford to feed them?”  Or  “Why don’t they just get a job instead of waiting for hand outs from government?” Or simply depicts them as a thoroughly obtuse bunch that unthinkingly vote the useless ANC government in over and over again.

These questions and depictions are devoid of the acknowledgment of structural historical and contemporary racialised oppression, nor is there any awareness of the role that white privilege plays, both economically and discursively, in the marginalisation of the poor.  The creator of this particular cartoon does not even imagine that there is any thought and consideration given to whom the electorate votes for or why they opt not to vote for any of the alternative parties, which, in fact, are just as neoliberal and anti-poor as the ANC has become. 

Implied in these suggestions of black idiocy is the coded message that whites know and perform best and that whites exist on a higher rung of rationality. This message, though oblique, is steeped in white supremacist racism but comes across as friendly humour. In fact this discourse becomes more destabilising and thus crueller than outright racism because it is very hard to prove that racism is the creator’s intent. If the purveyor is accused of outright racism, the response is often that the accuser is being ‘oversensitive’ and ‘defensive’ and has missed the point entirely, as has played out in the public spats around this cartoon. Even the apology does not seem sincere and comes with a disclaimer that it is not racist but…

This whitewashing of black concern displays a veneer of niceness but the insincerity distances and blunts the transmitter from taking responsibility for their own racism and from reflecting on the structural violence inherent in their supposedly well-meaning/funny discourse.  It is also passive aggressive and psychologically abusive as it serves to destabilise the recipient because this type of racism has a friendly and natural façade and is thus hard to prove as outright racism – leaving the recipient second guessing their response.

Surely it is time for ‘well meaning’ and ‘humorous’ white people to start reflecting on the overt or covert and unconscious racism inherent in these on-going negative and insulting depictions of blackness. Is it not time to recognise that their own inability to authentically acknowledge the awareness and integrity of the black backlash to these depictions only exposes their stranglehold on the belief that white is right and black is ‘oversensitive’.  Those dismissive attitudes only further the oppressive nature of the dominant discourse and cannot be described as anything other than racist. Just because the purveyor does not recognise his own racism does not mean for certain that it is not racist. Perhaps this is a good place to begin to recognise and therefore undo, unconscious racism and to stop calling the recipients of unconscious racism oversensitive and irrational. Whether overt or covert, racism is still racism.

Schutte is an award winning independent filmmaker, writer and social justice activist. She is a founding member of Media for Justice and co-producer at Handheld Films.

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Comments

Michael Henning
9 Jun

Cartoon

Does on anyone who has written an article about this cartoon bothered to establish what was in the mind of the cartoonist? Or is it just based on an assumption of knowing the mind and intention? As far as I could tell the cartoon ripped in ANC voters rather than black voters...or am I mistaken ? Whites, browns, and I'm certain the odd yellow vote for the ANC... surely your whole argument rests on either a wrong assumption that only black people vote for the ANC or it rests on an assumption of knowing the mind of the cartoonist .While I don't necessarily feel the cartoon is in good taste ..its stretching it a bit to think its racist...derisive and derogatory to ANC voters yes, but racist ?

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Gillian
10 Jun

I rest my case.

donovan roebert
19 Jun

Cartoon

Well there you are, Mr Henning, Gillian Schutte 'rests her case', and you have become a 'racist'. Of course, there is no need to analyse what you have said, and to show on what basis the 'case is rested'. Just the fact that you have made a response nuanced ever-so-differently from the doctrine of the elite is sufficient to condemn you. That is how it works with any inhumane ideology: if you won't bow and worship and recite the same formula, well, you are a heretic due for burning. Those who make it their life's work to find racists will find them, even where they do not exist.

Donovan Roebert
18 Jul

Cartoon

Of course my tone is not neutral: I am speaking against something. What I'm speaking against is your a priori judgement of Mr. Henning. This leads you naturally to condemn me as speaking against a whole group of people, but my comment makes it clear that I am speaking only against you. You are once again extrapolating from what is being said to create the impression that anyone opposed to your unfair judgements must therefore be opposed to some greater good. Also, your reference to Buddhism here is purely manipulative.



Wanga Zembe
10 Jun

Cartoon

Oh please Michael Henning, as if anyone can be confused about who the 'voters' of the ANC are??! The cartoonist knew exactly who they were depicting when they drew that cartoon - look at the exaggerated Black African features of both the cabinet clowns and the voters. You are undermining the intelligence of the average reader! And you are a good example of exactly what the author was trying to say about racism in this country - race denialism!

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Gillian
22 Jun

I suppose, Donovan Roebert, you speak against all those black South Africans who experienced this cartoon as racist - or are you going to overrun their concern with this top-down authoritative tone and dismiss them too? Perhaps you should read this through a framework of stillness - that would be more Buddhistic would it not? Your response is not from a space of neutrality or oneness at all.



Mike
10 Jun

Nuances...

This cartoon is crudely racist.

I appreciate Gillian directness in calling this out.

But as is often the case with her writing she collapses into talking about racism as if all members of each race are of one view. This is just not true. Like Gillian I am a white person who is appalled by racism. Yet there is no room in Gillian's narrative. Her discourse may be anti-racist but it is also racialising.

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thabo
12 Jun

Not All...

The "not all Whites" defence is also part of the master narrative. It centralises the personal goodness of some whites, thereby distracting from the task of dismantling systemic racism.

The nuance lost on you is that you are merely perpetuating White Supremacy with your indignation. Perhaps you doth protest too much, to mangle Shakespeare.

Mike
13 Jun

I Beg to Differ

I certainly did not suggest, in any way, that the fact that some white people are decent people should be foregrounded in a way that diminishes our focus on the scale and seriousness of white racism.

Your point would be valid if I had said that but I didn't. You are, therefore, attacking a strawman argument and not what I actually said.

What I actually said is that Gillian writes in a way that presents races as fixed categories in so far as everyone of a certain race automatically thinks in a certain way when in fact we all have the capacity to choose our own politics. I said that while I appreciate her anti-racism it is unfortunate that her discourse is racialising.

I also find the type of white anti-racism that foregrounds 'good whites' rather nauseating and unhelpful.

Gillian
19 Jun

Nuance

Perhaps if you re-read the article in a less defensive manner, you would pick up the fact that it is infused with nuance and speaks of those who etc. But until a critical mass of white people become publicly anti-racist, it is the dominant discourse that needs to be challenged and those who are anti-racist will understand this about anti-racist writing...that it cannot be defused with too many references to the tiny portion of whites who are actively not racist.