more radical than the DA youth poster

February 15, 2012

I didn’t follow the tweets and facebook discussions on the DA youth poster 3 weeks ago. Also decided to wait a while with responding, since the hype and emotions around it doesn’t necessarily create the ideal space for reflection. First: I don’t think they were necessarily wrong to create the poster. I don’t think there is anything wrong with what the poster is portraying either. On the contrary, I think the nerve that they touched with the poster need to be examined, and that we can learn a lot by slowly reflecting on our instinctive reactions to the poster. I do however think the poster is naive, and that if a romantic and/or sexual relation between a black man and a white woman is the symbol for the future that they are working for, then we need a new opposition party. So let me explain.

Some responses to the poster had so-called “moderate” voices fall back upon hard-core racist rhetoric. Comments such as “I am a DA supporter, but this is like cross-breeding a goat and a sheep” do reveal the depth of racist formation in South Africa. After a long history of attempting to convince the country that indeed that was some inherent difference associated with a few biological markers (primarily skin colour), it would be naive to think that 18 years of democracy would exorcise these ideas.

But responses on a “lighter” note is just as revealing. Decades after we have found consensus in academia that there is no such thing as “race”, that external biological markers are not revealing any internal qualities, we still find “caring” responses about the fact that the children from a mixed-race sexual relation would have no identity, or about the fact that cultures are incompatible. These attempts to justify our discomfort with an image need to be examined, its a deep reminder that we have a lot of baggage to work through.

However, what the poster are best at revealing remain hidden from public discourse. It is the instinctive feelings from those of us who have been trained on politically correct responses. I don’t use politically correct in the negative sense here! There is things that we know is acceptable (such as sexual relations between consenting adults regardless of the racial categories in which society place them), and therefore wouldn’t voice critique upon, yet continue to struggle with internally, on an emotional level. Deep within ourselves, hidden from the media, twitter or blogs, is the question whether we ourselves would be willing or able to disregard race when reflecting on our possible sexual relations, or those of our children.

I write the previous three paragraphs not as a kind of guilt trip about the deep racism which “others” still reveal, but rather as an attempt at an honest reflection from within the “own” position of white South Africans. To some extent our reactions to the poster does reveal the depth of what a racist past has done to us.

If we are to move beyond this poster, if we are to move towards the future which the DA imagine, then it might help to stop and reflect on where our instinctive responses come from. The relation between sex and race has been important throughout the development of racial notions during modernity. Studying this remain important if we are to de-racialize society, if we want to undo the effects of a system of white superiority. Within a system in which strict biological markers was associated with internal qualities, sexual relations across these racial boundaries create many questions on what the quality would be of the children born from these. The particular fear is that the “pure” white race, with its superior qualities would become extinct when mixed with “inferior blood”.

But more is at stake here. Black and white bodies is defined to some extent in relation to sexuality. The black male body being associated with a “sexual predator”, always seeking to prey on the white female body, to rape the white female. The black female body is defined as the tempter, responsible for tempting the white male body into unacceptable sexual relations. Furthermore, the black female body is constructed in the gaze of the white male as a sexual object, a body good for the gratification of white male sexual desires, as long as these remain out of sight, since the children born from these relations will be of  “lesser quality”. In contrast to the black female body, the white female body is supposed to be “pure” (reminding that race and gender cannot be separated). And the white male body? Well, since it is white males that construct identities under a racist patriarchal society, these bodies are possible considered the most perfect beings, in perfect balance. But the modern history of racism is scattered with the untold stories of white men raping black women, to some extent being the act against which many of the above notions is constructed.

I point this out as a reminder that indeed the DA is on to something when they imagine a future where the racialised nature of sexuality no longer determine the social networks of society. On a side note this short reflection should remind us that if they changed the poster around so that it was a black male and white female, they might have found themselves with even more fierce reactions, but let’s leave it at that.

However, I found the poster to be deeply dissatisfying. Not merely because it was provocative (sometimes public images need to provoke reaction to stimulate public reflection), but because I find it somewhat conservative… and yes, I did intend this last statement. Let me explain.

The poster seek to reveal the depths of our personal prejudices and fears concerning race, and imagine a future no longer determined by these. This is its strongest as well as weakest point, as one of my mentors sometimes said. While I tried to point out the strength of this image above, the limits need to be discussed as well.

Let’s put is this way: while more difficult to portray in a single image, an image imagining a future where schools reflect the reality of the country, and where we don’t look twice at this might have been more radical. A future where if I drove past any primary school, the playground would reflect kids exhibiting features which once was used as markers dividing people, and where these markers would no longer determine who is in this school. In short, an image imagining a future where basically every school would consist of a majority of black kids and a minority of white kids, merely because race no longer determine where kids go to school.

Or what about an image of a South Africa where the super-rich no longer dominate in extremely expensive residential areas which exclude the majority. What about an image which imagine a future where my level of education and my position at work no longer determine who my neighbour would be, a future where the vast inequalities no longer exist. While the relation sex and race is indeed very important, and has been an important contribution to maintaining the racist social structure of society, exclusionary economic practices has been as important, if not more. Merely accepting a future where we don’t look twice when a white man is in a sexual relationship with a black woman to some extent simply reinforce the existing status quo, a status quo where a small, generally economically secure, white minority mix freely with the emerging black middle class and elite while assuring that the privileged position of some (although the image of exactly who the “some” is might change) remain intact and the majority remain in dire circumstances (the majority in South Africa remaining, and possible remaining for the imaginable future, the Black African population).

While I welcome the challenge the DA Student Organization bring concerning the way in which sex and sexuality has been racialised, and indeed I hope that they would do more than a poster, and contribute to a healthy public debate on the actual complexities involved with their image, the poster still leave me wondering whether they are willing to voice the necessary critique against exclusionary economic practices, internationally, but with its counterpart in South Africa. Will the DASA be willing to imagine a future where we will not allow residential spaces which exclude the majority and which are ecologically unsustainable, schools which are only for the elites while many rural black schools provide horrible education, super-salaries for some while unemployment remain a primary challenge. All these questions has as much to do with race as sex has to do with race, but they force us beyond the questions of personal prejudice. While the sex questions might contribute to renewed challenging of structural racism in the long run (a different argument, but I do think that it is indeed the case), on its own it might just comfort us into believing that racism is merely about not being willing to date a black or white man.

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