Monday, 4 June 2012

Racist Supremacism ALIVE: The Spear and the Sudanese

I have to admit, I am pretty sick of hearing about The Spear. It’s an old story now. I devoted a small passage to my perspective on it two weeks ago in this blog, expressing that it was in bad taste, much like Madonna raising a machine gun at a concert in Israel and calling for peace. It isn’t illegal and the right to freedom of expression is being exercised, but it is distasteful and insensitive in the context of occupation and settler violence that has plagued the region. My complaint, however, had nothing explicitly to do with racism. So when Gwede Mantashe spat out the race card at the protest rally, I was disturbed. Racism in South Africa is a complex issue with a helluva lot of baggage, and the word should never be thrown around too loosely. Is The Spear racist? Or was the ANC just bitter over hurt egos?

According to the Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, “black men have been portrayed negatively through images in the media and have since struggled to define themselves contrary to images” such as the brute, uncivilised tribesman, and intellectually inferior. “These racist images are meant to demean the Black man’s image. Take the Brute for example: innately savage, destructive, physically strong, hyper-sexual, and criminal”. These were the pretexts under which black men and women have been kept in slavery and bondage in places like the Caribbean, the US and South Africa. I highlight the hyper-sexual part for the reason that it was probably this element of racist caricature that is most easily identified in The Spear.
Simple equation on why The Spear is racist.
The second element of The Spear is the contemporary, iconic manner in which Jacob Zuma is portrayed. Similar to recent portraits of revolutionaries like Che Guevara, dramatic contrasts and bold colours paint an almost heroic picture of the subject. In the case of The Spear, however, this is “visual sarcasm”, satire. The painting basically says: The ANC sees Zuma as an iconic revolutionary, but Zuma must be exposed for what he truly is, a brute in a suit. This is all good and well, but the problem with exposing his phallus for this purpose is that it feeds into an ancient, colonialist stereotype that black men have suffered through internationally for centuries. That black men are amoral brutes that are sexually hyper-active and have no self-control. The artist may not have intended for the painting to be racist (they say you should never judge the painter, only the painting); in fact, some even argue that JZ actually coincidentally fits that stereotype. But considering our own painful past, the fact that the painter is white, and the Goodman Gallery is owned by white people; good judgment should have won out. Surely they should have known that the pain caused to millions of black people due to their racial stereotyping and discrimination would cause them to become justifiably angry? I think it lacked a bit of cultural sensitivity.

Keeping to this blog’s “racism” theme, black Sudanese immigrants in Israel are being socially persecuted because they are “stealing jobs, increasing the crime rate and threatening Zionist nationalism” (the crime rate within the refugee community is actually lower than that in the general population). I hope with all my heart you are as disgusted with this as I am. The Knesset, or Israeli parliament, is considering methods of extraction of these refugees (sounds like ethnic cleansing to me) by different methods, including deporting them back to their war-torn country. The refugees themselves call this trip back home “the trip of death” because the chances of survival through it are slim. Israelis have taken to the streets, torching apartments (attempted lynching?), beating up refugees and sacking their shops. And all this in Tel Aviv, supposedly the most tolerant democratic city in all of the Middle East. Yeah. Sure.

I don’t think it’s an inherently evil thing to categorise people into races. Our minds are naturally conditioned to categorise. In fact, we even do it to ourselves, whether culturally, religiously, or socially. The problem comes in when we bring in a supremacist element to our categories. Once we start thinking “I am better than you because I am..”, we automatically switch on that narcissist that stems from our own insecurities. Race categorisation only becomes racism when there is supremacism involved, and if this influences the way we treat people, then we are part of the problem. Supremacism is an ancient evil that we will never completely defeat, but if we can base our treatment of people as a function of their individuality and not of their race, we can push it to the fringes of our society, where it belongs.

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