On ebony, ivory and the lack of South African harmony

‘That white smiley thing’, a conversation with Redi Thlabi, Eusebius McKaiser, Hagen Engler and Ndumiso Ngcobo, 17 May 2014, Franschhoek Literary Festival.


The tail-end of Saturday 17 May’s events at the Franschhoek Literary Festival drew a considerable crowd to the New School Hall for a panel discussion between talk radio personalities Redi Thlabi and Eusebius McKaiser, and writers Hagen Engler (Marrying Black Girls for Guys Who Aren’t Black) and Ndumiso Ngcobo (Some of My Best Friends Are White; Is It Coz I’m Black?) titled “That White Smiley Thing”. The event’s somewhat cryptic title was clarified by the panelists as referring to the painfully bright smile put on by white people when they approach “non-white” individuals; a behaviour that is presumably motivated by the expectation that the interaction will be characterised by some level of discomfort. The topic to be dissected by the panel focused on precisely these kinds of racialised assumptions; and the overarching question to be addressed was, “Can we change our attitudes, or is the historical damage too overwhelming?” The answer arrived at was, as to be expected, more complex than a simple “yes” or “no”.

The panelists began with an enumeration, led by Thlabi, of remarks made that speakers assume to be innocuous, but in actual fact are more often than not offensive. Thlabi gives the example of her husband not being fond of people asking him “what he does”, as he views it as an attempt by others to place him in a particular class (a feeling shared by Engler, who says the question is unwelcome among the white working classes in Port Elizabeth). Engler mentions how, at predominantly black social gatherings, his ability to get along with other party-goers has people telling him “he must be black”. McKaiser cites the oft-heard “Oh, you speak so well!” as an unwanted and offensive bit of praise handed down by white people to “non-whites”, as though all “non-whites” were expected to speak English only in monosyllables. He follows this up with a mention of the question “Are you really gay?” that he frequently receives. The point being made by referring to remarks like these is that pernicious assumptions sometimes underlie our interactions with others – the assumption that someone else is comfortable talking about their employment (a dangerous assumption in a country where roughly 25% of the population are unemployed); the assumption that a white man fitting comfortably into a black crowd is nigh impossible; the assumption that your “compliment” is exactly that and not a patronising slight; and the assumption that a gay man should look and behave a certain way.

Ngcobo introduces perhaps a more pervasive assumption amongst South Africans – that white people are inherently more racist than people of other races – and counters the hypothesis with an amusing anecdote regarding the white employer of a colleague of his, thought by the colleague to be racist, who showed up one day at the office with his coloured children in tow. The punchline to this story is “Sometimes you think someone is racist, when in fact it’s just you they don’t like!”

McKaiser’s response to this story perhaps captures the key theoretical point made during the discussion. He agrees that it is certainly incorrect to judge individual cases strictly in line with prejudices we may hold about certain groups, as individuals “cannot be reduced to their group identities”. However, he maintains that not only do individuals have “group identities” that make it likely that, say, black people share particular experiences (for example, having been patronisingly smiled at by a white person), but there are also group “patterns of behaviour” and “patterns of attitude” that exist as a result of the structure of South African society. His example is the homophobic violence directed towards black township lesbians – this, McKaiser argues, is not the result of disconnected, idiosyncratic behaviours, but is indicative of a broader thought pattern shared by a group of people.

The conversation eventually shifted towards constructive ways to deal with the “historical damage” in question. Thlabi gives the perspective that the contributions that black middle-class individuals can make towards “nation-building” are sometimes compromised by what McKaiser calls “black tax”, or the responsibility that black middle-class individuals have to provide financially for their extended family members. The conversation also dealt with the issue of “white guilt” – Engler emphasises the importance of white people accepting that they do have something to feel guilty about, but also expresses his struggle to feel that he is giving constructively. McKaiser, taking this discussion further, expresses his view that while white so-called “born-frees” are not responsible for the injustices of apartheid, they must acknowledge that they have “benefited from wrongdoing”, and so they should not pretend that they are free from an ethical responsibility to address the persisting inequalities.

Along with this call to ethical action, Thlabi leads the discussion towards its conclusion with a call for civic action from white people, whom (apart from certain writers and other vocal individuals) she feels have “disengaged from the socio-political sphere”. McKaiser (who is also a writer, having published most recently Could I Vote DA? A Voter’s Dilemma) seconds this call, emphasising that all citizens have the right to have their voices heard.

Thus, the audience was left with a complex and unreassuring answer to the question “Can we change our attitudes?”. It seems that the ability and impetus to do so may only develop when the societal structures that produce certain behaviours (like those white smiles) are dissolved. Furthermore, to use McKaiser’s metaphor, for new and better structures to be built in their place, the unequal numbers of “building blocks” possessed by white and black people respectively will have to be addressed.

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