How do you react when you attend a public lecture in which an intellectual, journalist and influencer argues that the slogan ‘Fuck White People’ is an artistically beautiful form of protest? Do you clap? Offer a standing ovation? Roll your eyes? Mutter ‘fuck black intellectuals’ under your breath?
It is something I’ve contemplated over the past week, since attending the Ruth First Memorial Lecture at Wits University, where Lwandile Fikeni, freelance arts journalist and Ruth First fellow, presented his case for why the slogan ‘Fuck White People’ is a “highly aestheticized form of critiquing South Africa’s social ordering”.
Fikeni looks back over the year and a half since the student protests began in March 2015 with the flinging of human shit at the statue of Cecil John Rhodes in Cape Town. Rhodes was the arch British imperialist, who in the late 1800s, turned much of the land of South Africa into a Company to be exploited for profit. His statue has become a symbol of white supremacy.
Fikeni argues that because the majority of black South Africans still live outside the political, social and economic life of the country to which they are supposed to belong and because the Rainbow Nation is a myth that benefits only a privileged minority; grotesque acts of rage are an inevitable, justified and necessary means to attack the symbols of white supremacy.
Hear hear, I say. Throw the shit.
Fikeni then goes on to argue that there is something else worth lobbing – the phrase ‘Fuck White People’.
He quotes the African-American writer, dramatist, filmmaker and critic, Frank Wilderson, who says: “There’s no vocabulary, no language to articulate black suffering. That means white people have screwed us to a point that is beyond discourse, that’s beyond political language, that’s beyond respectful, understandable, engagement; so fuck you.”
Over the past year, ‘Fuck White People’ has appeared on walls and T-shirts. According to Fikeni’s reading, these words are not an incitement to harm nor an attempt to start a race war, but rather a grotesque necessity deployed to capture the discourse. So ‘Fuck white people’ is an expression of fury, an incitement to introspection, and a poetic lob of shit at the status quo.
And again I get his point.
If everyone is asleep, you need to make a loud bang to wake them up. And to date, no white people have been physically – or materially – harmed in the making of these protests.
But will ‘Fuck White People’ make white people “woke”? Or is it just another layer of oppression?
The analysis used by Fikeni and The Fallists (the self-appointed label of the student protesters) to critique the post-apartheid state is rooted in economics. They argue, correctly, that the shift to democracy did not do enough to transfer economic power and opportunity to the majority black population and thus has done little to redress the inequalities established by the apartheid state. I wrote about this in my book, Lost Where We Belong, in which I report on frustration (mine and others) with the continued disregard of the black majority by the elites – an elite which includes many within the ANC government.
But there is another value system that matters to humans, and which is overlooked by these critics: moral goodness. As humans, we don’t only value ourselves according to how financially secure we are, but also on who we think is the good guy and who we think is the shitbag. You can be poor and still be respected for being good. And to many of us, being thought to be the good guy matters more than being wealthy.
So where do white people fit into the South African moral hierarchy? For the past 20+ years, we’ve woken up daily on the wrong side of goodness. We pour shame on our cornflakes, and sprinkle it with guilt, and try not to choke on it. We are the archetypal shitbags of the world. White South Africans have been tolerated for their economic contribution to the country, while being morally looked down upon for our part, be it active or passive, in the apartheid state.
A black friend told me about a black guy she briefly met who steals phones from revellers at nightclubs popular with white South Africans in Pretoria.
“How can you do that?” she asked.
“It’s no big deal. It’s not like I steal them from people,” he replied.
In his view, white people are not people.
Recently, online forums have been thick with debates about who can and cannot be racist. According to the current consensus, black people cannot be racist. Why? Because racism is not just prejudice, it is a form of oppression, and only those with economic power can oppress.
But where this argument trips up is that it uses only one value system to measure our power and our worth: money. The same value system that many black South Africans (including The Fallists) say is an abomination and not truly African.
So what happens if we acknowledge the importance of moral goodness in our human hierarchies? If moral goodness matters, and black South Africans have the moral upper hand, then it is possible for black people to use their moral power to oppress whites. Which is kind of how “Fuck White People’ feels.
It might sounds aesthetically pleasing to Fikeni and people who look like him. But from where I am sitting in my white skin, tanned by the African sun, it feels like racism and hate speech, which flouts any recognition of the efforts of redress – however big or small – that white South Africans have made during the 22 years of ANC rule, often with our hands tied because, as individuals (I’ll leave the corporations out of this), we have had very little political power.
Fuck white supremacy.
Fuck white elitism.
Fuck white patriarchy.
Fuck white corporations.
Fuck the ANC.
But Fuck white people? No. Go fuck yourself*
(*All in the spirit of debate, Lwandile Fikeni)
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