Racism: one way traffic?

At a private party, two girls dress up as domestic workers, with their faces painted black.  A picture of them  goes viral.  SA Students Congress (SASCO) reportedly calls it “racist in the extreme”.  [http://www.timeslive.co.za/politics/2014/08/06/patience-of-black-people-quickly-diminishing-says-sasco] The University of Pretoria says they have investigated and disciplined the students, because they are students at UP.  [http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/Action-already-taken-against-blackface-students-20140806]

I would not want to make light of the pain and genuine sensitivity and hurt of other people.   I also cannot fault institutions for acting decisively against acts of racism. 

But I’m not quite sure that dressing up in a particular way at a private party could constitute “the dignity of Africans [to be] trampled upon”, to quote SASCO, and that it should call for disciplinary action. 

I observe my own kids who attend a tertiary education where they are in the minority.  They happen to be white.  They have grown up fairly colourblind, and having been in integrated schools, I do not detect racial prejudice with them.  Yet, they are very often the subject of racial abuse by their fellow black students.  The same kind of disposition that the media loves to report on when they find it in white people.   When the SAHRC very recently expressed concern about racism on campuses, would that concern include this kind of behaviour?

A few years back a prominent writer / lawyer / politically connected lady wrote a book on Affirmative Action (I don’t identify her or her book, because I’m recounting from memory and might not attribute the quote exactly correctly).  As I recall she defined racism as an action where the abuser could affect the social status of the abused person.  The argument then goes that, as black people cannot change white people’s social status, it follows that black people cannot be racist towards white people.

So how cool is that.  You create a definition that would allow you to be as obnoxious and abusive as you like, but you are immune from being called a racist.  You can call me Al, but you can’t call me a racist, to do a little adaptation on Paul Simon’s song. 

So there you have it.  That’s probably why Barney Pityana could call Dennis Davis a racist years ago with impunity [http://mg.co.za/article/1996-03-22-davis-pityana-row-cools-to-a-simmer].   

 Imminent politicians (mostly, but not limited to, the more junior side of the spectrum) would often publicly call Helen Zille a racist, or refer to her in racist terms.  And the only discernable basis on which they can attribute racism to her armoury, is simply because she is white.  In my view judging someone a racist because of the colour of her skin simply shows up your own racial prejudice, which is nothing but racism.

It is ok to call any white person a racist, but it normally seems to work better to call a farmer one.  Not only is it very popular, it also politically correct.    

A few years ago false charges (which were for that reason subsequently withdrawn) were made against farmers of Rawsonville.  All the who’s who of the political flamethrowing fraternity arrived in Rawsonville.  Inflammatory speaches were made, with comments including the following gem: 

“Ons is vandag hier om oorlog te verklaar. Ons is gekant teen geweld, maar as dit is wat dit verg om slegte boere in ’n regte rigting in te dwing, moet ons hulle in die rigting in moer. As boere aanhou om soos mal honde ons plaaswerkers se regte te skend, dan moet ons hulle slaan om op te hou, hoewel dit die laaste uitweg is. Hulle gaan k*k as hulle nie ophou nie.”

The Human Rights Commission was asked to adjudicate on these and other comments, [http://www.politicsweb.co.za/politicsweb/action/media/downloadFile?media_fileid=964] but found that these utterances lacked a “clear intention” to be hurtful, harmful, incite harm or to promote or propagate hatred.

The matter that served before the HRC was to adjudicate on hate speech.  But the principle should come very close to the principles to be applied to adjudicate on whether an action had been racist or not. 

So let’s return to where we started, and apply those principles here:  Could the dressing up and colouring the faces by two girls at a private 21st party really be said to have been done “with the clear intention to be hurtful, harmful, incite harm or promote or propagate hatred”?