It can be tricky in this day and age explaining to some people exactly how they are misogynist, racist or any of the other ‘isms’ that we’re all proud not to be. In the good old days, misogyny was easy to call out – and still is sometimes today – because people would turn round and say ‘Don’t try and rig that light, Cat Webb, you’re a woman and won’t do it right.’
These days its more subtle than that, but just because it’s not as blatant doesn’t mean it’s not there. It’s there every single time I have to repeat myself three times; every time an idea is rejected off-hand and then embraced when a man says it again, less well; every time I’m asked if I can do things which are the bare minimum of competence, and then people are surprised when I can. Every time someone mansplains the most blazingly obvious crap at me, and defends their actions as ‘just making sure you’re ok’ when I point out that they’ve told me how to do my job.
It’s there. It’s everywhere. You feel like a bit of a pillock when you try and call it out, because often you’re left flailing going, ‘no, I know you THOUGHT you weren’t being sexist, but the way you didn’t listen to me and kept on not listening to me and then went and listened to that man… that’s sexism, yeah?’
Then sometimes a gem comes along, and you read it, and you go ‘no, but seriously, what?’
So here you are, reading a book about the Boer War, and suddenly…..
Page 1: There has been a conflict of cultures here, a “race problem,” for as long as men can remember….
Ok. Given this is a book about the history of South Africa, you’re already using some interesting language, because let’s not kid ourselves, “race problem” is massively difficult in many ways. There’s monstrous oppression of one ethnicity by another in the name of protecting white privilege, which has been wrapped up in the language of “race” as if somehow skin colour implied biological superiority, and as if humans with one pigment in their skin were somehow fundamentally different from humans who have less. That’s what “race” means here – a fundamental difference, and that’s leading to a problem. And all of that is oppressive bullshit, but it’s ok, you used quotes, though interestingly not around “conflict of cultures” but this is page one, maybe you’re going to build the argument we live in hope…
… the survivors were perhaps the ancestors of the Bushmen and the Hottentots. These first known inhabitants of the Cape were yellow-skinned people, short in stature… the men had protuberant bellies; the women had pendulous breasts and enormous buttocks.
Whoa there. This isn’t even my field, but even I know that Hottentot is regarded as a derogatory word, used to demean and belittle people. And this is still page one!
And you know what else I vaguely recall about Hottentot? I recall the Victorians putting on a traveling freakshow in which they took one woman and exhibited her as evidence of the strangeness, the ‘otherness’ of foreign peoples who they were duty-bound to civilize and oppress.
Because with their ‘protuberant bellies’ and ‘enormous buttocks’ these people were freaks, right? All of them. All of them at once. Freak freak freak. Let’s go conquer in the name of muskets, tea and Queen Victoria.
The book then goes on for a while, explaining how there weren’t really people in the Cape of Good Hope when Vasco de Gama arrived, only Hottentots, before extolling the virtues of the Boer people who fled from British rule.
Page 7: [The voortrekkers] became a nomadic, pastoral, self-sufficient people, leading remote and isolated lives, yet united in their common language, religious beliefs, occupations, race, cultural attitudes, and, above all else, in their fierce desire for independence, for which they willingly faced savage beasts, lived among primitive men, and suffered all the hardships of a life almost completely divorced from civilized comforts.
World: a tip. In much the same way as female politicians object to being ‘Mary Smith, Prime Minister of the Universe, Saviour of Mankind, cutting a dashing look in her new trouser-suit and clearly loving the her motherly role’ … putting the native peoples of South Africa in the same list of problems as ‘savage beasts’ and a lack of ‘civilized comforts’ is a fuck-up. It’s a straight up-and-down fuck-up.
This is not a book about racism. This is not a book which sets out to discuss this much at all, for all I can tell. It is quite possibly a very good history of the Boer War. But until we all sit down and start noticing these patterns of thoughts in ourselves and others, we will not overcome all the great big ‘isms’ that we thought we’d got over already. And no – it’s not a dramatic declaration of ‘white people are better’ or ‘women are inferior’. It doesn’t have to be. These ideas are embedded in the very language you use, seeped into your words and thoughts. And it’s that – the discrimination that doesn’t even realise that this is what it is – that is the current poison of our times.