I selected the image above for two reasons. First, in purely aesthetic terms, it is a beautiful photograph. The lighting, composition and processing each attests, in its own way, to a keen artistic eye. Taken together, the image is greater than the sum of its parts. The second reason for my choice of featured image, is that landscape painting and photography is positively drenched in ideology. A pristine beach with its natural assets foregrounded, and its function as a public space minimised (notice how few people are present on the sand). Free of informal settlements and shacks, the mansions of the wealthy tumble from the surrounding vegetation onto the beachfront. Neatly ordered palm trees give the impression of a Californian promenade. From its remote vantage point, this particular landscape photograph becomes something to be looked at – rather than something to be lived in. It echoes the same perspective as the colonialists – a gorgeous, “uninhabited”, virgin land free for gazing upon and for the taking. In their eyes, the land was burgeoning with possibility – crying out to be cultivated by their knowledgeable and civilised European hands. They owned it with their eyes and then seized it physically and by force. They soon realised that the land was not empty – there were people living there already – but their imperial and colonial objectives meant that this fact was casually ignored and systematically exploited. Over a number of years, the beast of colonialism gradually evolved into apartheid, and certain spaces like beaches – that should belong to everyone and no-one – became restricted areas for whites only. African people were prevented from walking the same soil and sand as their ancestors, and forcefully removed from areas that the excruciatingly privileged minority lusted after. In 1994, everyone in South Africa was allowed to vote for the first time and a democracy was born. It may still be relevant to ask “whose democracy?” considering that 22 years later, white families continue to be served by black men and women for truly pitiful and, quite frankly, unjust remunerations. The fact that certain white South Africans – including those born after 1994 – can turn red in the face at the mention of their privilege totally astounds me. “Apartheid was not my fault and I never benefited from it. So now I am both accused of a crime I didn’t commit and the victim of reverse racism,” or something along these lines is usually how the argument goes, revealing 1) total ignorance and 2) a complete misunderstanding of the word “racist”. The truth is that every single white person has benefited – and continues to benefit – from the apartheid regime. That most of us can sit in fancy guesthouses and summer homes dotted along the South African coastline, while our African brothers and sisters often have to travel for miles and miles in cramped public transport for one or two days of pleasure on the beach (if they can afford a holiday at all), should be enough to highlight the gross inequality that still underpins our society.
It is in this context that a white South African woman feels justified to say the following:
Needless to say, Penny Sparrow has shocked and outraged not only South Africans, but people all over the world. She, and the frightening number of people leaping to her defence, may claim that her post is really an expression of a distaste for the amount of litter left behind by the numerous happy families and vibrant young people who took to the beach to celebrate, swim and party on New Year’s Eve and the first day of 2016. However, her environmental concerns (if you can even call it that) are totally eclipsed by her provocative and intentionally hurtful use of the word “monkey” (which she very well knows has a long history of being used in a derogatory fashion in this country). Rather than lamenting the state of the ocean, she deplores the “release [of people] on to public beaches towns etc” (inherently oxymoronic), her own “discomfort” at being surrounded by “black on black bodies” (huh?) and the fact that African people now have a say in the governance of their own country (dear oh dear, Penny Sparrow).
Ecological? Sorry, I call bullshit.
Please don’t get me wrong – I am deeply concerned about the environment, the state of the natural world, and how badly human beings treat plants and animals. My heart breaks to see beaches covered in litter just as much as yours does. Although the litter from beach parties is often cleared afterwards, images of these natural spaces covered in junk is symbolic of a much larger problem in how we mismanage and abuse the planet. Please, by all means, use images of filthy beaches as a rallying cry to get people to care more about the way we consume and dispose of our rubbish.
The issue in Penny’s statement is that she attributes the act of littering to a particular group of people, and uses this as evidence to promote the archaic, incredibly violent and unashamedly untrue stereotype that African people are somehow inherently stupid (“obviously have no education”), less than human (“monkeys”), infantile (“cute little wild monkeys”) and brazenly fecund (I can only assume this is what she means by “black on black skins”). It is overwhelmingly obvious that Penny is not protesting against the litter, but that she is fighting against the presence of black people on the beach.
A number of images have been circulating on Facebook recently with the aim of elucidating the intentions of privileged white South African holidaymakers when they complain about litter and ascribe it to a particular demographic. How about what this beach in Thailand looks like after a Full-Moon party, at which there were numerous wealthy westerners present:
Or this beach in Brighton, UK, following the ‘Big Beach Boutique’ Fatboy Slim concert:
Or how about Bali:
Beyond my own general assumptions, I freely admit that I do not know enough about what causes people to litter. I would guess that it is usually a combination of overpopulation, overcrowding, poorly distributed information about protecting the environment, and, when we’re talking about a messy beach, is often the result of a crowd of partygoers, regardless of their skin colour.
It is true that many economically impoverished areas in the world are some of the most polluted and littered spaces on the globe, but 1) the fact that these places are in the condition that they are can usually be traced back to a history of economic and cultural oppression, and 2) how can we expect people who are struggling to survive to care if there is plastic on the ground? How is it possible to imagine that people whose children are starving can possibly want to direct their energy and resources into picking up litter? And, for all we know, perhaps the severely underprivileged are disturbed by the state of the environment, but are helpless to do anything about it. The unfortunate and sad reality is that environmentalism is often associated with white privilege and wealth. While I do not think this is a misconception, I do believe that protecting the natural world can and should benefit everyone.
Back to Penny Sparrow.
Try googling “south africa beach litter” – the photographs are just as appalling, right? But, with a little research, it is plain for anyone to discover that many of the images that come up are not even of South African beaches – like this one, from North America:
Or this one, from South East Asia:
Then try googling “south africa new year beach litter” and see what comes up:
But wait – that’s not litter? Those are people!
What the screen grab above perfectly illustrates is the problem with Penny Sparrow’s post: it’s not the plastic she perceives as litter on South African beaches, it’s the people.
While pilfering Facebook and scouring Google for images of ghastly, plastic-ridden international beaches, I came across the following post by Mitchell Shaun Parker. Initially, I must confess that I’m not sure if “white fragility” really is a thing, and I also think he has been far too generous is equating a difficult year with having to ask oneself critical questions. In my opinion, people should be asking themselves critical questions all the time – it’s one of our responsibilities as human beings. Regardless, he makes some excellent points and entreats his fellow white people in a charming and friendly manner. I truly appreciate his words and, though I have taken a more semiotic/CDA approach to analysing Penny Sparrow’s post, Parker suggests practical strategies for white people who are concerned and want to combat everything that the likes of Penny Sparrow stand for:
In my mind, privilege does not make someone a “bad” person. However, it probably means that, somewhere in your recent personal history, at least a few of your ancestors were “bad” people, even if they didn’t think so at the time. You are only “bad” if you fail to recognise your privilege, deny it, or don’t bother using it to help the world and people less privileged than you. (I’m putting “bad” in quotation marks because “bad” is far too simple and subjective a word in this instance).
One last thing, Penny Sparrow. Saying that you know some “wonderful thoughtful black people” is basically the same as saying “I’m not racist because I have a black friend”. No, it doesn’t make your racist comments any less racist (or stupid!) and it doesn’t make you any less of a bigot.