Danielle Bowler, Eyewitness News
Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it… How does it feel to be a problem?
The St Louis County grand jury’s decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, did not come as a surprise. While it registers as unthinkable, it simultaneously fits within a paradigm that continually devalues black lives.
Its effect, nevertheless, was surprising to some who cannot understand how its impact is not limited to the United States. Brown has come to stand as a metonym for the lived experience of blackness that transcends geographic confinement and the neat compartmentalisation of the black experience in state borders. Beyond the important particularities of context, place and time, this experience is rooted in the dilemma that arises when oppressed bodies are framed as problems, devoid of the content of full humanity. It is the phenomenon that Lauryn Hill describes as being ‘two-thirds a person’.
This phenomenon speaks to pervasive narratives of power and its repeated abuse and misuse through a codified system that gives us recurrent riffs on the du Bois theme: “How does it feel to be a problem?” What du Bois argues is that black people are not seen as people who have problems, but rather dehumanised as those who are themselves the problem. This manifests itself in sophisticated ways that are embedded in every aspect of human life. It is inescapable and pervasive and allows events to be framed as if they are divorced from race, or any other power structure. As if they just are. It skews the narrative and distorts the facts.
Recently, a series of events have been reported in the South African media that have brought the question of race to the fore once again. These are not new phenomena. Rather, the media and national attention have brought these acts of violence into sharp focus. They collectively reveal how narratives of power attempt to distract from the lived experience of race and endorse claims to the exceptionality of the perpetrators. From Tim Osrin to Djavan Arrigone, the Tiger Tiger Five and beyond, the same structure that manifests violence on black bodies sees its stark replication. As writer Sisonke Msimang phrased it: “You literally cannot make this stuff up.”
Many continue to look for reasons to justify these actions, dismiss the influence of race, or explain them away. Nevertheless, there are constant reminders that it is not safe to be a person of colour, or a member of any other oppressed group, in the public space. That mere existence is a threat. That this existence itself is a problem.
Philosopher Lewis Gordon names this phenomena ‘illicit appearance’. He argues: “Offending blackness is in fact a hyper-visibility” which “manifests epistemic closure, where to see a black as such means there is nothing more to be known or to be learnt. Black men stay at the centre of the prison industrial complex”. Just as one struggles to reconcile the idea of an impartial legal system with the reality of racial disparities, there is a tension between the idea that we all live the same reality, and the facts that continually prove otherwise. These race events repeatedly masquerade as unconnected incidents, rather than manifestations of a structure that devalues black bodies through multiple forms of violence.
As Associate Professor Carol Anderson commented on events in Ferguson, this violence can be “cloaked in the niceties of law and order”, a codified white supremacist rage that is now “respectable” and operates through a sophisticated subtlety. This subtlety often allows people to believe that these are unconnected incidents committed by monsters, a narrative that belies the fact that we can all be, and often are, complicit in racism – which embeds itself in things that often masquerade as ‘normal’, or ‘just the way things are’. But the actions, gestures and words of the everyday are touched by the politics of the white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. It is inescapable.
To quote writer Zadie Smith, “it is in the air, or so it seems”.
The mechanism that often allows us to “escape”, disregard, ignore or discredit narrative that do not fit with our perception of reality is privilege. Privilege can facilitate a remarkable cognitive dissonance and dissociation. It allows us to say “it is not about race/class/gender” et cetera, rather than to focus on the uncomfortable realities, believe the narratives of the oppressed, and deal with our own blind spots and the power afforded to us by virtue of who and what we are. It allows us to avoid the incredibly hard, uncomfortable and necessary work of unpacking what it means to live abbreviated forms of humanity. As TO Molefe argues, we are all “capable of actions that in effect perpetuate and enable anti-black racism” and other forms of oppression.
Despite the increasing appearance of these race incidents, privilege attempts to tell us these things are not about race. Narratives are spun to reinforce this idea: “She was a prostitute.” “They are just young, naïve boys.” “He stole cigars.” They are made matters of class, citizen justice or law enforcement and any excuse is made to stand in the place of the idea that race is at the core of these incidents. The matrix of race-class-gender-sexuality-privilege, and their unavoidable connection, is confusing to those who seek singularity in their explanatory narratives, who would like it to be about just one thing.
But these factors cannot be untethered, and their connection and complexity doesn’t make these incidents any less about race. To argue that these incidents are not about race is a silencing tactic and a distraction. It attempts to invalidate the lived experience of blackness and is part of the constant reminders that the system will defend itself, even in the face of its blatant contradictions. It will attempt to defend the indefensible. Mike Brown will be remade in the image of a thug. Cynthia Joni will be refashioned as a prostitute for the simple fact of walking while black at 09:50am.
When oppressed groups share their experience of the world, they are rarely heard and scarcely believed. Lewis Gordon argues “the grammar of American ‘race and class relations’, so to speak, is generally one of continued disavowal of their legitimacy, of their being ancillary aberrations of an otherwise pristine societal order”. His words have a profound echo in the South African context. Claims to race are viewed as illegitimate by a social order that continually seeks to disavow the black experience and seeks refuge in democratic discourse.
When President Barack Obama stood up to address the American public, he remarked: “Communities of colour are not making these problems up.” This comment has global resonance. Those who experience the world differently, by virtue of racism or any other oppressive system, often feel remarkably gaslit by a system that is designed to protect, endorse and hold up the dominant reality as the only version of the way things are. It produces narratives that say the reality of the oppressed is the product of overactive imagination rather than rooted in lived fact.
Consequently, the rage that oppressed groups feel is constantly invalidated. Offensive acts are committed by “ghosts”, violence is trumped up by those committed to racial mythology, dehumanising experiences are the product of overreaction and hypersensitivity. Anything will be made to stand in the place of the way things are. There is an appeal to “reason” and not rage, as if there is no logic to the overwhelming anger that oppressed groups feel, as if this rage is divorced from both real content and context. This rage does not lack content. It is built on multiple, constant micro and hyper aggressions and repeated physical, emotional, psychological and institutional violence. Its founding principles are reality in stark colour. It is maintained through numerous factors that include a justice system that operates as ‘codified terror’, and continually appeals to the idea that it is able to operate outside the organising principles of life.
The repetition of these race events keeps the global black community in an endless cycle of simultaneous frustration, anger, despondence, exhaustion, distress and utter disillusionment. As Fanon argues, blackness is “haunted by a galaxy of erosive stereotypes”. The law is upheld as the final bastion, as the institution that will ensure justice for black bodies, but repeatedly fails to reflect the conditions of black reality. From Ferguson to South Africa and beyond, black reality has to constantly defend its existence against a system designed to render it remarkably invisible and to see black people as problems. The words of poet Jennifer Davids have profound resonance in articulating this phenomenon, it seems: “We are locked/By particular associations/Of ages in us/To the symbol/The word/And cannot reach/Beyond the limits of this cycle.”