Time to abandon dangerous game of racial stereotyping

How do you know apartheid was successful? By listening to how black people talk about other black people.

The recent headline that the new interim provincial leader of the DA in the Western Cape, Bonginkosi Madikizela, was “the perfect stooge” is simply one in a long line of biting attacks on blacks who think for themselves.

It is a sickening tendency in our civic discourse that reveals nothing more than a stubborn political immaturity in the body politic.

In this reasoning, all blacks think the same thoughts, vote the same way, listen to the same music, speak with the same accents and support the same political party.

Social scientists call this essentialism, the notion that there is a racial or cultural essence shared by the same group of people and that predicts their behaviour.

This is the kind of thinking of people who call Bonginkosi Madikizela a stooge or former DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko a tea girl.

Now where did this stupid idea come from?

Apartheid, of course. Africans were supposed to possess essential racial, cultural and social “essences” that distinguish them from “coloureds”, who in turn can be set apart from whites on the same grounds, and so on.

Even though the odious legislation of apartheid is no longer on the books, the expectations of a supposed racial loyalty to a black dominant party still haunts our understanding of ourselves and others.

When Stanford University sociologist Corey Fields did his research for the book Black Elephants in the Room, he took on the seemingly odd notion of African Americans belonging to the Republican Party in the US – a party today associated with anti-black sentiment and conservative values.

Yet what he found was that ordinary and prominent African Americans belonging to the party whose symbol was the elephant were not sell-outs but individuals committed to black identity and racial justice as well as conservative values.

To cast every black Republican, including Professor Condoleeza Rice and General Colin Powell, as a stooge or “kitchen nigger” would be to swallow the slave masters’ narrative of how blacks think and behave – with simple-minded sameness.

Yet among the same people whose tribalism singles out black DA leaders for not acting in accordance with the essentialist script are those who piled onto Paula Marais.

Marais, recall, is the co-author of Rainbow Nation Navigation who composed some of the most racist stereotypes of so-called coloured people – in short, most of them behave in the same silly ways from drinking Sparberry to handing over child-raising to their mothers.

With a coon whistling in the background and people with missing front teeth in the foreground, the portrait Marais paints is one of coloureds who embrace this racial identity as part of their “colourful, vivacious and eclectic way of life”.

Liewe land!

This, of course, is the same kind of drivel that would tell us that Zulus are innately aggressive and Xhosas conniving thieves.

When are we going to grow up?

There is no typical black person.

You will find black people of every political conviction and every religious persuasion.

The suburban black person who speaks with an accent is no less black than the rural black person who does not.

It is in the very nature of our multi-cultural, multi-faith and multi-class society that our diversities as black or white people will shine through. But racial stereotyping has the nasty habit of outlasting racial laws.

Notice, for example, how our high-profile comedians still make their money out of a single, persistent comedic line – racial stereotypes.

Of course, this kind of backward, essentialist thinking works best when you seek political advantage.

By portraying the black leaders in the DA as puppets of white thinking, the accuser is really saying “we are the authentic blacks” or “the real Africans”. Unless you remain true to the essence of being African – however obvious the corruption agenda – you must be a white man’s fool.

In this vein, the Minister of Finance, Pravin Gordhan, must be a tool in the hands of “white monopoly capitalism”, whatever that means.

When she steps out of the party line, even the dignified Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, is reminded of her “foreign” English accent derived, ironically, from her years in exile.

It’s all fun and games for the essentialists until you realise the danger of calling the non-conforming Gordhan by the explosive nickname impimpi.

We forget that the mere utterance of that word in an angry crowd often led to a terrifying death for the person at whom the finger was pointed – innocent or not.

We are playing with fire.

Professor Jonathan Jansen is the former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State and is currently a resident fellow at Stanford University, US

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