People often weigh the extremity of an act of discrimination on a scale that evaluates intention. We try reach a moral verdict based on whether or not the perpetrator had intended on causing harm. Unfortunately, this can’t always be the ice pack to the burnt area of society. It’s a concept I was very familiar with growing up:
“Sorry doesn’t make it better”.
Two girls from TUKS University dressed up for a 21st. They painted themselves black (an activity entitled: “Black Face”) and dressed as stereotypical maids, stuffing their butts with pillows to enlarge their features to match the stereotype. They proceeded to take photos and post them on Facebook, which very quickly hit the media. The girls faced disciplinary hearings, which governed whether their academic futures at the university should be terminated and resulted in their expulsion from residence.
The Internet exploded with opinions surrounding what the fate of the girls should be. A lot of people responded with oversimplified notions that, because the girls hadn’t meant the act as anything more than a joke, they shouldn’t be punished so harshly.
Historically, particularly in South Africa, Blackface has been, as described by Wits Diversity Studies professor Melissa Steyn, “like a visual equivalent of a racist joke. It’s part of a tradition of mocking black people.” It is offensive and it is a symbol of a past out of which we are still emerging.
It is possible that the girls didn’t know they were being racist. They chose a caricature – which most fancy dress costumes are – and dressed accordingly. If they had intended on being racist, one would think (or at least hope) that they would have tried to use some discretion. Whatever socio-political situations led to their decisions, they took that photo unaware of the impact their actions would have.
With this being said, is it fair to say that they weren’t racist just because they didn’t mean to be? No. It does not. Thus, the more pressing question we find ourselves asking is not what their intentions were, but why they didn’t know what they were doing was wrong. I find it astounding that two girls receiving tertiary education were blatantly clueless about the potential repercussions considering the race related contours of modern South Africa.
Think about this: would you find it “funny” if someone went to a party in Germany dressed as Hitler, taking into consideration the historically significant symbol for which he stands? If you say this is unacceptable but not the blackface incident, then you need to evaluate the standards you are using to judge the circumstances. Both are examples of bad jokes that remind us of the past – pasts that are, by most standards, particularly un-funny.
People argue that these girls, and now boys, are being made scapegoats and really, society is the ultimate culprit. However, how are we to ever reach a point of racial neutrality if we keep excusing people who “didn’t know”?
The bottom line is: they should have known.
When a child repeats the word: “Fuck” for the first time, it is usually because they have heard their superiors use the word and so take it to be normal practice. This might be likened to a child who grows up in an environment that says it is OK to make inappropriate jokes about black people. We could say, by the logic that “people can’t be punished for things they didn’t know were wrong”, that we should allow them to keep saying the word. Despite their ignorance of acceptable social practice, we still reprimand them and teach them not to use the word. If we just laughed it off, they would keep doing it.
We can only genuinely use the “I didn’t know” excuse the first time an incident happens. Thereafter, it is the responsibility of every person to think about the impact of their actions before taking them, regardless of their intention. If it is true that the girls didn’t know the offensive nature of their costumes then – if nothing else – let this be a lesson for them, as well as for others who have witnessed what has unfolded. Because it is long overdue.
However, we then have to look at the recent Stellenbosch incident. Two students dressed for a 21st as Venus and Serena Williams and so, in accordance with their choice, painted themselves black. I feel this is a slightly different situation to the first, however badly timed and inappropriate it may be. I think the difference between the two is that the girls dressed as a stereotype which suggested that in order to accurately dress up as a maid, one needs to be black. Whereas, the boys dressed as specific people and their painting was an attempt to increase the authenticity of their costume. Both cases are wrong and I am not justifying either. However, I do think there are different levels of critique we can make on the two situations. The boys “didn’t mean” to be offensive or distasteful, this has been made clear… But they still were, so what they intended becomes largely unimportant. Where do we draw the line between intention and impact?
Although arguments have been made that the uproar from both incidents is “oversensitive” or “blown out of proportion”, it is not up to you, or me, or anyone else, to decide who is entitled to be offended. It’s a little like introducing a comment on someone’s bad outfit choice with: “No offence, but…”
Just because you don’t want something to be offensive does not mean it isn’t.
Racism is never acceptable, especially in our young democracy, and it is a shame that our youth can be so socially unaware as not to realise what constitutes as a racist act. It is also particularly alarming that they continue making decisions so unaware of the possible backlash. The number of incidents of such ignorance will only begin to deteriorate when we bring them to light and the less we sweep it under the carpet.