[OPINION] It’s 2017, but white is still right
The part of Michael Jackson in a series called Urban Myths was given to a white actor.
White opportunists are done colonising land, cultural appropriation is last season, so now, in a desperate attempt to cling on to power they have started to colonise black identity. The episode has since been pulled because Jackson’s daughter called it disrespectful and disgraceful, but the necessity of this conversation has not.
Joseph Fiennes of Shakespeare in Love fame was to play the pop legend in the satirical comedy series. Obviously the director Ben Palmer defended the casting of a white actor to play one of the biggest and most highly acclaimed black pop stars of all time by saying that: the performance is really sweet and nuanced. “It is a really lovely, sweet film. I’m really looking forward to seeing how people react once they’ve actually seen it,” he said.
This is just one example of an airy-fairy, willy-nilly, head in the clouds response by people of the fairer race. And frankly, it is becoming tired. The jig is up. It has become exhausting for me personally to keep listening to these “cute” justifications, nodding my head with a fake sense of sympathy while I listen to the endless struggle of being white in the face of all this opportunity.
How hard it must be to have so many options and take them all, and face castigation and questioning. Tough times. If it’s so hard, say no. Nominate someone else. You can. You just don’t want to. While I am sure defending your decisions are expressed with the best of intent and possibly a lot of sincerity, they are no excuse for literally claiming, in this case, an entire identity.
Michael Jackson is not just a person. He part of a history, he is a cultural icon, a hero. He is one of the biggest contributors to the Motown music catalogue. He is a member of the black family - universally; a stalwart in the black struggle and his presence was a walking-talking representation of several political hurdles when it came to the norms of identity and the definition of beauty. He is especially significant and important for this reason.
He is also the change in perception of what it means to be black. He is an inspiration and one of the biggest contributors to charitable organisations, with over $300 million donated (as recorded posthumously). A healthy portion of that money went towards funding the education of black children and students in arts and entertainment on a basic education and tertiary level. They are there, out in the world. We just don’t see them. Because instead the roles that they should play are given to white artists instead.
The United Negro College Fund (UNFC), America’s biggest education organisation for minorities, still offers a Michael Jackson scholarship for students looking to pursue degrees in social sciences and communication arts. So no, it is not cute, nor sweet that a white man gets to portray a legacy of an entire era, a people even. It is disrespectful and backward. It is shallow and opportunistic. And instead of selling it to us or anyone else as anything other than that, why not just admit that when you accept opportunities like these that apparently go against your beliefs, and which you are “vocal” about, you do not believe in what you’re saying enough to say “no”. Why not just blatantly come out and say, “I was looking out for myself”.
The South African context when it comes to integration is exactly the same. We are still frolicking in the shallow end of a very young democracy, but the water is filled - now more than ever - with a lot of liberal noise. If they’re not on the frontlines of a struggle that isn’t theirs, they are balls-deep in some real intense armchair discourse on the state of equality. They spit in the face of privilege, and are on the frontlines of Twars, armed with the righteous opinions on diversity, but who still just cannot say no. Being heard is a privilege as well.
In the case of the Michael Jackson episode, Fiennes himself contested the role and discussed it with the producers because it just was not right to be cast in this role as a white man. But off he went and did it anyway - a poor victim of circumstance among so many others like him.
Opportunity is not just work. It is money. It is fame. It is voice. It is recognition. It is experience. It is the possibility of making skill and talents known. It is the opportunity to be heard and the possibility that others will listen. So every time you say yes, and run home with your tail between your legs, because your heart is in the right place, you still get to sit comfortably with the thought that because you said yes the first time, and the time after that, opportunities will knock and you will say yes again. And again. And again. Even though your mouth says it’s not right.
Please stop pretending like you have a PhD in enlightenment and “woke-ness”, we, (I), have run out of sentences like these: “I understand, at least you're trying”.
If you don’t like the proposal handed to you by peers, colleagues, industries etc, if you disagree with it, if you know someone better and more talented or someone who could be more recognised if given half the chance (and you do), then recommend them. But stop being a saviour in long grass.
The struggle for equal opportunities and diversity is actually real. And it is not your struggle. Your rise to fame is not a tearjerker, made for TV drama story that you can share at your mother’s braai.
Haji Mohamed Dawjee is employed by Code For Africa at the head office in Cape Town as programme manager for impactAFRICA - the continent's largest fund for digital-driven data storytelling. She is a regular commentator on gender equality, sexuality, culture, race relations and feminism as well as ethics in the South African media environment.