I am a tutor and the other day I had a bit of a rave at my South African poetry students that I thought I should share with the world (or the part of the world that reads my blog). It was about how one talks about race in texts that reference older mindsets, and (because these things always spill over into real life from literature) how we use or refrain from using, the leftover prejudice language in everyday situations.
Me: What's with the blacks and the whites, folks? I feel like I am talking about playing cards or some alternate graphic novel universe with warring art-deco, mechanical mafia clans. Surely in this day and age (unless you are being ironic) one should talk about Black people and white people? It's like talking about the gays. How much more can one objectify a group of people? I mean, you wouldn't talk about the "Amy"s, you would talk about the tables.
I have clearly not made my point however, as some still talk about the "blacks" and "whites" in their essays, even when there is no such objectification (ironic or otherwise) in the text. They just put quotation marks around them. So I need to get it through to them a little better.
I got my other point about race across to everyone perfectly clearly. I'm sure it will remain crystalline in their minds. Some of my tutlings (they were writing about Herman Charles Bosman) wrote about the "kaffirs" (which are written just like that in the stories) but without quotation marks. If you are referencing an older, more conservative time directly, one needs to quote this word in context and acknowledge its inherent ugliness, but they just inserted quite happily in their arguments with barely a shudder. I was able to illustrate to them - using, I think, one of my more memorable illustrations of a point why (apart from the obvious) one would not use incendiary and prejudicial terms in formal arguments. It went something like this:
Me: I mean, you wouldn't talk about the motherfuckers in your test unless you were quoting directly from the text would you?
Class: scattered laughter and a one or two gasps. A few light-bulbs go on.
Me: (smiling serenely and thinking, "won't forget that one will you?")
So if anyone can think of a similarly pithy example of why one should not talk about the blacks and whites, I would be eternally grateful. Maybe I will inflict it on next year's batch...