Thursday, 14 August 2014

Some thoughts on race, SA comedy, blackface and Chester Missing.

I want to talk about race in SA humour, because as an anthropologist and political comedian I am in a unique position, and also, most importantly, I want to open up my thinking on Chester Missing, the brown puppet of this white man. This piece is long. What I want to say is not simple.

Let’s start with a crash course in the politics of race comedy. Race is a construct, first mobilized by white people during colonialism to create an imaginary evolutionary hierarchy between them and everyone else. However, now that people have been oppressed because of race deciding we must all randomly stop talking about race (a naive kind of non-racialism that is popular in some SA middle class) is tantamount to telling people to stop talking about colonialism, apartheid and why the millions of South Africans who live in shacks today generally don’t look like me (I am a white South African).

Many white South Africans are oblivious to the extreme structural and life injustices racialism/apartheid dealt most black people. It’s the small burdens, e.g. the parents who struggled during the 70s and 80s, and who you now have to support, that really hold apartheid’s economic legacy (just one of millions of examples). The simple fact is that if you are born white in SA your life is almost undoubtedly easier than if you had been born black. The idea that affirmative action has significantly made things harder for us white people is just plain false. We are more employed, and have more access to business leadership than any other race group. This historically skewed status quo filters into how our comedy industry works and what South Africans laugh at.

White people often believe they have no race, because their norms are the norms we see in most Western movies, news, print, etc, and are invisible. We tend to see ourselves as ‘normal’.

For example, tagged onto race are of course a whole range of cultural and physical attributes, that in truth we still give credibility to because apartheid indoctrinated all of us. These are perceptions: like all Indian people sound the same, black people arrive late, and a myriad of more subtle biases. The trouble is that we then make assumptions about people’s competence, trustworthiness, and ability to do a job based on these prejudices. Of course we would swear blind that we don’t, but we do. For example a problem with subtle unconscious social bias is that, surprise, surprise, us white people kept all the positive stereotypes for ourselves. How many positive perceptions are there around the rubric ‘coloured’, really? Some of the world’s most inspiring people are mixed race, but for some reason the stereotype doesn’t allow for that.

We believe that reinforced idea about race, stereotypes, are just a joke, but really they aren’t. Beliefs are the products of recurrently reinforced perceptions / opinions. For example, if your white / middle class manager has to make a decision about whether to employ you or someone else he/she will be influenced by how well they relate to you and how they interpret your cultural behaviours, based on unconscious perceptions. It’s a well researched, and blatantly obvious fact that the closer you are to your boss culturally the more likely you will be to get the job. That’s why many black people (Indian, mixed, African, or whatever) change their manner and tone when they arrive in the workplace, because they need to fit in with the dominant status quo. If 70% of our senior management in corporate SA are still white no prizes for guessing what status quo that is.

Of course race is not culture, but the two are connected. In general being middle class in South Africa means being skilled in western norms. This is why we have black people accusing other black people of acting white. Of course this is itself bigotry because Black is a political position inherited from our history, not how you sound. Assuming all people of a race must sound the same is racism. Dankie Verwoerd. However, it’s also fair comment because the more middle class/white a black person sounds the more social capital they will have in corridors of economic power. Our problem is that because of our sordid history sounding like a second language English speaker (i.e. usually having an accent) has become associated with the lesser, and with often with being working class. We conflate class and race so we don’t acknowledge that when we laugh at accents it is often not just racism, it’s classism: laughing at poor people. Nice.

You see western culture has had a 500 year marketing campaign trying to make itself seem normalized and more evolved, to justify how they exploited everyone else. This is the problem in South African comedy. Most of our audiences are middle class, because comedy costs money to get to and get into, so we often trade in mocking people’s accents, or black comedians will exaggerate their accents for middle class audiences. Just because the audience is black doesn’t mean they cant be classist / Afropessimist. Or we make easy associations of race (white people do this, black people do that) which audiences, well trained by the apartheid government, buy into. If you do a working class accent for a working class audience it isn’t as funny, because it’s normal. If you listen closely you will see our comedians often exaggerate their accents on the punchline to drive the laughter.

Socially humor is a primary way of denigrating and issuing social sanction against threats to group norms. This is why the comedy that mocks white / western accents and culture is so much less searing, because it hasn’t had centuries of prejudice to build on, and because the audiences and the normative media culture in SA makes how I sound more normal and credible, not funny and strange.

The problem isn’t just an individual comedian being prejudiced at one gig, it’s that culturally this happening again and again is how racism, classism, sexism, homophobia and normalized bigotry such as what happened at the TUKS campus become enabled. This is why it’s so offensive that people even proposed debating the racism of the event. Only in a status quo that is normalized to some level of racism is that debate acceptable. On the other hand that people are surprised that this racism exists in SA seems outrageously na├»ve. It’s racism central out there people. I know. I am doing comedy there.

This is why, in my view, the only ethical thing a comedian can do is speak back to this status quo, the more so the more privileged you are. There is an irritating habit in some media to think that speaking back to power means only Zuma jokes. White people have the money. Zuma is only half the picture.

Also, there isn’t an “I’m-not-a-political-comedian” option. If you crack jokes you are normalizing something, because your jokes rely on culture to be funny. Always. There are no exceptions.

So, as a white comedian speaking back to power and dealing with culture in SA, the only place for race in my work needs to be to 1) break down the idea of race as a credible construct – how black people can swim, and white people can dance, 2) point out the fact that even though race is fictitious there are huge inequalities people bear because of race (pointing out white privilege), 3) dealing with how culture comes into this, speaking back to western norms. For a black comedian this is about Black Consciousness and comedy / culturally sensitive identity work a la Marc Lottering. For a white comedian this is about dealing with white privilege.

For example, Jacob Zuma must be taken to task for Nkandla. However, there are also dynamics around laughing at an elderly Zulu man who went to jail during apartheid. So continuously joking about how many wives he has is enforcing western cultural norms. If the audience is themselves Black/Zulu I have more leeway because I know they probably will laugh for the right reasons, but primarily my comedy needs to be at how Jacob Zuma has 4 wives, but Larry King had 8, many of them at the same time, to destabilize this idea that Jacob Zuma’s lifestyle is exotic and strange.

This does not mean comedians can’t make any cultural referenced accents, but that it needs to be done consciously. There is a sort of imagined community we create, where we build positive identity with accent and character. Marc Lottering, for example, has been the leader in this, with his usually nuanced, culturally specific characters. I am not talking about this here though. It’s very dangerous in the wrong hands, and can lead to racial essentialism (i.e. idea that all black/whatever people are the same).

Enter Chester Missing, blackface problem that he is:

Chester Missing as we now know him was a product of my MA in social anthropology and working with a director to speak back to myself and to deal with race and current affairs in a more politically conscious, but accessible way. He was designed to be current, modern looking and racially ambiguous (his design is inspired by vinyl toys), but would sound like he might be ‘coloured’, deliberately diffuse and not exaggerated. An earlier version of him was more clearly ‘coloured’, i.e.  engaging cultural references like ‘hoe lyk it’, but that dropped as I became more aware of what I was doing, as well as a more ‘neutral’ accent (yes, my neutral isn’t neutral). The only reason to reference race is of course because we live in a country where most people are black, and a white man speaking back to himself about SA politics and race via a Black puppet has cultural traction.

Of course, as we developed Chester his character became hinged more and more on his real problem, which surprisingly is not being Black / black (Black: political position, black: assumed cultural attributes). Chester’s problem is that he is a puppet. The reality is that Chester didn’t experience apartheid, other than through my own privileged little life. Chester did experience living in a suitcase, and does have to deal with the burden that he can never do anything other than with me. His puppet problems became a useful metaphor for SA race relations and politics.

In my mind, as I was building, he could create an explosive satirical way of portraying SA society, and at the same time undermining stereotypes of Blackness, and speak back to privilege, me playing the role of the racially oblivious white liberal, and him the intelligent, socially conscious agent of change. It’s a debate with two people that are actually one person.

Of course I understand how dangerous this is – a white guy with a black puppet has a violently sordid history. Even now the world's most famous ventriloquist act is blackface: Jeff Dunham's Achmed the dead terrorist, an American laughing at a dead Muslim. That's just hilarious.

At the time I never saw myself like that at all, because those were not my cultural references. I read post structuralist feminist, subaltern and post-colonial social anthropology and then wrote jokes with it. When you do material on stage you can immediately see what the audience laughs at. They laugh at what Chester says, his material, not how he speaks. He specifically does not do the things people do to make people laugh at coloured / black voices (Aweh, eish, naai my bru, etc). This is not to say how he speaks is not in question, merely that it’s not simplistic, and I am very aware of the dynamics. Feel free to let me know when I get it wrong.

With the advent of LNN Kagiso and Loy needed someone with progressive political content, and we built from there. Him being on screen alone without me was a last minute thing, because doing ventriloquism written on the same day as its performed is restrictively hard, and it was fun giving the puppet guy a life of his own, kind of an interesting twist in his revolution against me. We never expected him to get so big, that I can assure you.

Of course, as Chester himself got more public acclaim the question of my whiteness became more and more contentious, for good reason, because with fame comes normalizing power. For some the shock at my whiteness was just naivety – it’s not like I have been hiding under a rock in my live work, and trust me, when Blade Nzimande, Bantu Holomisa, Zwelinzima Vavi, Mosiuoa Lekota, Trevor Manuel, etc, see me arrive for the interview they know I am white… duh. Some people thought I was hiding. They didn’t think that through. The reason these senior politicians were playing along is that if you actually engage with my work, instead of an imaginary idea of it, I am quite clearly not trying to use the puppet to mock and undermine black people, just power. We did find it entertaining that people were fine with Chester saying these progressive things until they found out that I am white.

Bear in mind, the main people guiding me re Chester were Kagiso Lediga, and the LNN crew, and the people coming up with the questions are black (for some reason people always assume the guy in charge of the posse of black satirists is the one white guy. It’s hilarious).

This isn’t a let-the-white-guy-off card, merely that in our actual LNN world this race thing is not one-dimensional. I once had Thuli Madonsela wait an extra ten minutes after a radio interview to get another photo with Chester, so really, come now. Most of my income comes from corporate work where I talk about apartheid, Eurocentrsim, etc, as well as more mundane politics, directly to the people who most need to hear it, not on some blog read only by people who already agree.

However, this does not mean that the status quo is not problematic. In spite of my certainty above, I do question my work all the time, because I am under absolutely no delusion about the completely unjust status quo I have and am benefitting from (in terms of SA history) and that with a ‘blackhand’ (as Kags calls it) puppet I could be very close to the point where I could be confirming the injustice.

My thinking re Chester Missing referencing black identity is as follows:

1)    He is designed to look racially ambivalent, so he could be painted another colour, and of course still be him. Maybe paper white? Maybe Chester the light purple guy, to remind us all that he is just a puppet, and take him out of the human template?
2)    Right now I am working more on him taking exactly my accent, but in his register. The only reason he has any accent at all is because I just haven’t spent the rehearsal time getting the ventriloquism right.
3)    Should Chester end? I know it sounds sad, but if he might be affirming a bigoted status quo then what am I doing this for?

On the one hand I ask myself ‘Why should a white person not use a Black character if that character is used as a foil for his own whiteness?’ Bear in mind, my public audiences are more and more completely black, and when they are white I do deal with my whiteness.

Surely being Afrocentric involves making work that is accessible to Africans? As an artist it is my job to create work relevant to my world. My puppet has 130000 twitter followers, most of whom are black. But then again, apparently black people also love Leon Schuster #thatawkwardmoment.

Why blackface IS a concern. The main problem for me is that it sometimes makes my comedy feel a bit brutal. Because I need to expose some very uncomfortable truths if I am going to have a Black character and not fall into naturalized racial assumptions. I have to smack white people hard every time, to the point that some of my Black comedian friends think I should chill. It doesn't help to question race if I am scaring people away, and the truth is the SA situation is about more than just race. It could be better if Chester were not painted brown / black.

Part of the problem is people seem to really, really like Chester as he is. I once had a few thousand EFF supporters chanting “Chester, Chester, Chester” of their own accord. Chester is asking questions most people can't, and the leaders of all political parties are getting in on it. With the questions around satire in SA do we really want to get rid of / change a satirical object most politicians will talk to? A dynamic is that (because we are SA) some people assume that he can ask these questions because he's black. This borders on imbecilic. As I have pointed out, how would some of SA brightest political minds be fooled into thinking I am black? So if Uncle Gweezy is fine with me, what's the problem?

There are political apparatchiks who question why a white guy is asking these questions of black leaders at all. I disregard them, because the truth is I am extremely vigilant about driving a historically conscious neutrality and have a great team guiding that. To expect us not to ask questions at all is just plain unreasonable. Cosatu themselves regularly reference Chester as the kind of freedom of expression that they fought for (that could be good and bad, hehehe).

But I am still stuck, particularly in my live work away from the Blackness of LNN, with the problem of Chester’s blackness. I have learned the hard way that for the most part our society is too culturally unaware to tell the difference between comedy that laughs at identity and comedy that does not. Hence Leon Schuster’s Mama Jack is somehow OK. That is exactly the problem. There could be a degree to which, by invoking any racial signifiers via Chester I am enabling Leon Schuster and the mindset that leads to these TUKS students (to be fair to Leon Schuster, he had a few candid camera pieces where he did seriously take the piss out of white hegemony, but that’s another conversation)? I think it’s far fetched in that I attack those exact power dynamics incessantly, but we have a history on blackface racism in SA.

More importantly, if Chester Missing truly is speaking back to power then we must ask how a white guy performing a black character can really ever liberate? It is true that the tools of the oppressor can never be used to liberate the oppressed, although they can be used as a Trojan horse to get the idea across. Are you going into corporate boardrooms and talking about apartheid? I am. I’d like to be a bit less intense about it though.

My problem with this ‘white people can’t liberate’ is that the same could be said for white people in general, leading to the Black Consciousnessish idea that white people should stick to white people stuff. It’s 2014, so that’s not really feasible. But it is true that with Chester having black cultural signifiers (skin tone and accent, and very occasionally self claims of Black) I am confirming something of the status quo merely by existing, and I really do struggle with that.

Our last one man show The Chester Missing Roadshow (it’s doing one more tour, see it if you can) dealt with this head one – he rejected race and then claimed it as a political position to expose me, because I am exploiting him, and accused me in front of 3000 people at Blacks Only of doing blackface. They gave us a standing ovation #justsaying. However, there are only so many times I can have that particular conversation so maybe now my character and I need to move forward?

The solution I prefer currently is to make him purple and work on his voice. The advantage would be that he could exist as what he is, the oppressed puppet-in-a-suitcase of a white man, not as this dude who has to continuously counter the prejudice his blackface-like signifiers (voice and paint colour) this might invoke. What will I do? What balance is right? Fuck knows.

Comedy is am amazing way for South Africans to re-imagine themselves in a historically conscious, inclusive way. I am very grateful to everyone who has helped me in my part so far.

Thanks for reading this very long piece of navel gazing. I don’t do online debates because they tend to just be bullying with spelling mistakes, which is why I haven't left the comments section open, but you are welcome to email me:, or harass me on Facebook or Twitter. I might answer, or I might not. Sharp.