This post was first published on connectedafrica.com
“People are so uptight now. You can’t tell a joke without offending someone.”
Yes, we are woke now. We have learned and unlearned, in so doing have grown and shifted our thinking, and have since become aware of how egregious the things we thought innocuous really are. The acolytes of people who say and do offensive things under the banner of art say they long for the halcyon days when being politically correct wasn’t status quo, but I have come to realize that political correctness is a metaphor for treating people with respect and dignity.
A good example is Leon Schuster. His use of blackface went unchallenged until we realised how offensive it was. His use of blackfaced characters isn’t just historically offensive, though that in itself is more than enough reason to permanently gag him. The characters he portrays in blackface are the worst caricatures of black culture. Blackface is a form of theatrical makeup used by non-Black performers to represent a black person. Blackface goes beyond the caricatures; instead of hiring black actors and fleshing out their characters, white actors are dressed as the shallowest perceptions of what blackness is. The practice gained popularity during the 19th century and contributed to the proliferation of stereotypes. A decade ago he was the most popular comedian in Southern Africa, but the wokeness has led to the realisation that the laughs were at the expense of black people. The beauty of living in the golden age of the internet is that one can educate themselves with the mere click of a button, as well as choose to not support problematic causes such as the aforestated films. The biggest source of power as a consumer is your wallet; the loudest statement you can make is to withhold your coins.
We realised that we had internalised prejudices and are working hard to overcome them. Also, those jokes that perpetuate stereotypes? Yeah, we realise how problematic they are.
It’s important to be cognisant of the things we say; it goes beyond semantics. An episode on the past season of Scandal, or the Fixer as it is known in some African countries looked at the topic of “dog whistle politics” which are words or catch phrases that don’t seem offensive to anyone outside the demographic they are meant to offend. For example “thug” is the new age k*ffir, “competitive” is a euphemism for conniving, and the minute someone says “she is well spoken” the implication is there is a silent racial qualifier.
The idea that an offensive statement loses its offensive nature when clouded under the veil of comedy loses sight of the fact that comedy is commentary on real life. A few weeks ago, a petition was created in South Africa after a comedian named Skhumba decided to body shame protestors at the #FeesMustFall strike in South Africa. These women had literally laid their lives on the line to fight for the livelihoods of millions of people who want to study, yet they were relegated to being talking points in a skit because they were not perceived as being attractive. Women’s bodies do not exist for voyeurism. Cognisance of people’s right to dignity and freedom of speech are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they are two sides of the same coin.