My colleagues and I often care for patients suffering from hallucinations, prophesying, and claiming to speak with God, among other symptoms—in mental health care, it’s sometimes very difficult to tell apart religious belief from mental illness…. Our conclusions frequently stem from the behaviors we see before us. Take an example of a man who walks into an emergency department, mumbling incoherently. He says he’s hearing voices in his head, but insists there’s nothing wrong with him. He hasn’t used any drugs or alcohol. If he were to be evaluated by mental health professionals, there’s a good chance he might be diagnosed with a psychotic disorder like schizophrenia. But what if that same man were deeply religious? What if his incomprehensible language was speaking in tongues?
The reaction from many people to a poster released by the Democratic Alliance Youth (DASO), in which they tried to make a point about the importance of trying to achieve a non-racial society in South Africa, is rather amusing and also quite revealing.
On the one side you have the lunatics (sorry Gareth!) like Connie van der Walt who wrote that if the guy in this picture was her son she would “shoot him dead like a bad dog”. On the other hand, there are those who interpret the poster as subliminally racist, either because it depicts a white and black person in an intimate pose at all, or because (slightly more plausibly) it depicts a white man and a black woman in an intimate pose.
Others have, of course, been outraged by the “disgusting pornography” of it all, given the fact that the two people in the poster appear to be naked from the waist up. (The people who pretend to be shocked by a mild poster like this, are probably not familiar with real pornography and would probably not make good classifiers at the Film and Publications Board.)
What is going on here? I believe (and I would, would I not?), these reactions demonstrate a few revealing things about our communal attitude towards race, sex and gender.
First, it seems to me that these reactions demonstrate the obvious fact that certain opponents of race-based affirmative action, who argue that we should not rely on racial categories when we devise measures to address the effects of past and on-going racial discrimination, are wrong. These critics argue that racial classifications are always morally repugnant, that it is in any case not always easy to determine what the race of a person is, that people who embrace non-racialism might not even see race at all, and that redress can be achieved without invoking such categories as people suffer disadvantage not because of their race but only because of their lack of access to financial and other resources.
I think the poster is rather clever (although DASO probably did not think about this) because no one who sees it will be able to deny that they noticed that the man and the woman in the poster look, well, “different” from each other. How we respond to it will of course depend on our deeply held (and perhaps unexamined or unknown) views on race and sex. We might see a white man once again exploiting a black women (despite the fact that the two people look more or less the same age and are both beautiful), or we might see two heterosexuals who are going to get a lot of flak from their parents, or (I confess this was my first thought) we might wonder whether the white guy is actually going to take his girlfriend home and whether he will one day marry her.
Given this obvious fact, how do people continue to assert that race has stopped mattering in South Africa and that most well-adjusted middle class (white?) people never see race anymore? How can we maintain the fiction that when a black person and a white person apply for the same job, we do not take any notice of the race of the applicants – unless we are forced to do so because of the requirements of affirmative action?
The poster reminds us that (as I have written before):
race hovers not far from the surface in private or other everyday settings: as an unspoken presence, a (wrongly) perceived absence or as a painful, confusing, liberating or oppressive reality in social, economic or other – more intimate – interactions between individuals or between groups of individuals. In South Africa we cannot escape race. We cannot escape our own race. Even when we claim that we have escaped the perceived shackles of race, we are merely confirming its presence by our stated yearning for its absence. And because of this we cannot claim that race does not matter when we talk about redress.
Second, the poster reminds us that many people (of all races) have internalised an apartheid mind-set regarding race, sex and gender and are utterly incapable of seeing intimacy between two people of different races and sexes in anything but starkly racial and gender stereotypical terms. Thus they claim that the poster reflects a racist and/or sexist mind-set because it depicts a white man (a man being the person who supposedly “is always in charge” in a sexual interaction) with a black woman (who is supposedly “always submissive” and to some extent the victim of the man’s sexual aggression).
To such people the thought never seems to have occurred that the women in the poster could be in charge (in charge emotionally, financially and/or physically) and that we cannot tell from the poster whether this is so or not. They have jumped to conclusions (based on their own internalised prejudices and stereotypical assumptions about race and gender and sex) that the woman in the poster is a meek receptor of male aggression. Maybe some have done so because the poster originated with the DA and in that context they are prepared to expect that the DA shares these racial, sexual and gender prejudices. But I would guess most did so because of their own prejudices of which they might not be aware – and not because of their view of the DA.
Lastly, the poster reminds us that many South Africans have internalised a notion of sexuality which has its origins in Judeo-Christian culture. We might call ourselves “Africans” but we often think about sex like modern day Christian missionaries. The assumption underlying the Judeo-Christian tradition is – as Susan Sontag has argued – that a person can be judged as “good” or “bad” (in other words, that a person can be judged as moral or immoral) almost exclusively based on that person’s sexual desires and/or conduct.
Sex is therefore always viewed as a “special case”. While we may not be judged for letting a man starve, we will be judged for wanting to sleep with that man. While a person (of whatever race) may therefore think of him or herself as having no racial prejudices, these prejudices might be flushed out when confronted with a poster that hints at sex between two people of different races. Seeing a black woman in the arms of a white man, the person recoils, either because the picture evokes (in the mind of the racist) unspeakable immoral couplings between the two, or because it evokes (in the mind of the person infected by colonial ideas) images of sexual exploitation of a black woman by a white man.
Leaving aside the white racists, many people would not recoil if he or she saw a picture of black man and a white woman sitting next to each other around a boardroom table. But when they see this picture, they do recoil instinctively because sex, somehow, is different. How ironic that they might then produce arguments that might sound progressive, arguments about the exploitation of black woman, while they are justifying the prejudices which they carry with them, prejudices that can be considered as one of the “special gifts” bestowed on indigenous South Africans by the colonial culture.
Which brings me to the second poster of the DA Youth depicted in this post. What, I wonder, would the reaction be to this poster of two men of different races? Would the same people who recoil at seeing a white man in an intimate situation with a black woman feel comfortable with two men of different races in an intimate situation? If they do not recoil, does this say something about how we construct woman as necessarily passive, powerless and meek? If they do recoil, do they know that their minds have been colonised by the ideas first brought to South Africa by white missionaries? I wonder…BACK TO TOP