A letter to John Robbie, for everyone else who heard that 702 interview

Dear John,

I listened to your radio show on 29 August 2016, in which you interviewed Mishka Wazar, journalist and former pupil of Pretoria Girls’ High.

As you, and your network, were possibly well aware, the protest action at the girls’ school was about to bubble over into what has now been called South Africa’s #BlackGirlMagic moment – albeit by those who seem to need to understand our struggles through American bylines (that’s another discussion).

So it was fitting perhaps, for the respected Talk Radio 702 – to get an activist who was present at the school on the line so you could talk about the issue behind the pupils’ protest for the benefit of the rest of the country who still had to get to work to generate the income tax to make such a school accessible to the girls who were protesting. I understand your listenership, see, so I did not expect you to have had a discussion that paved the way for the immediate decolonisation of institutions across South Africa. Your network probably wouldn’t have liked that very much.

What I did not expect was a conversation about the rights of self-expression of black cultural identity in post-Apartheid South Africa to degenerate so eloquently into a defence of your freedoms (some would say “pride”).

I took the time to type out the transcript of your conversation with Mishka, leaving out a few ummms and aaahs and inability to remember each other’s names. I did this because I’d like to point out the breaking points and missed opportunities that you – as a lead news anchor with years of talk-show experience that span both sides of 1994 – had, but did not heed.

Some will say that it is not necessary for me to be the one to point these issues out.

But, unfortunately, you have a loud voice that many people – people including colleagues, relatives and decision-makers – will listen to. And with this influence, comes both a responsibility and a positionality that seem to have gotten lost in the bid to defend your freedoms.

In addition – the conversation between you and Mishka will doubtlessly play out in many closed circles with many other Johns and Janes about topics including, but not limited to, the rights and liberties of black womxn.

I owe it to myself, and others who find themselves frequently in this position, to deconstruct the conversation in an attempt to move towards a truer dialogue.

Before you read on (if you’re even still reading) please note two things:
1. I am not a black, African womxn. I am Indian and a former pupil of another “traditional” ex-Model C girls’ school. Therefore, I stand alongside your interviewee, Mishka Wazar, in claiming solidarity with black African womxn and nothing more.
2. I am concerned about the unchecked, and perhaps unconscious, biases that your conversation revealed. This concern does not imply antagonism. On the contrary, it is the basis for constructive critique.

The Conversation: John Robbie and Mishka Wazar, 29 August 2016

John: Presumably you’d agree that the school has some right to set some rules regarding hair and dress but obviously in this case it’s a difficult one. – Quite a leading question John. You’ve already placed your interviewee on the defensive. Did you do a bit of research on the issue beforehand? Because if you had, you would have known that what was being challenged was institutional cultural and by extension, racial discrimination under the guise of school traditions and values. What was being challenged was the legitimacy of school traditions that have failed to democratize along with its student body. See, not that difficult.

Mishka: Well I did attend the school for five years and I do feel that the policies they have are extremely stringent and borderline racist.

JR: Okaaay. And what rules would you have? – Mishka (whose credibility you established at the start of your show) just gave you qualitative feedback on her personal experience and impression of the school, but you seem to have been thrown off by the labelling of the rules as “racist”.

You then go on to pass the burden of change onto Mishka by asking her for the rules she would rather have. Isn’t this meant to be a discussion? In doing this, you’ve indirectly positioned yourself on the side of the school/parents/administration. Perhaps this could be a function of your age and life-stage, but I am not one to assume.

MW: Well, as an Indian girl… my lived experience is very different to the lived experience of the black girl… but the administration would go on about the need to uphold tradition. My question is: whose tradition?

JR: I agree with you. What I can’t understand is a school like that… with a good reputation.. How have they not spoken to the kids and to the parents already about something which I would not believe they believe is racist. I’m not saying it’s not racist, but I doubt if anyone from Pretoria Girls’ High would say “we are a racist school”. – Your beliefs are great, but they do not disqualify the lived experiences of the girls you were meant to be talking about. You also appeal to the good reputation of the school, revealing either an ignorance or unwillingness to see the cultural architecture of such schools that reinforce anti-black ideas. Racism may be outlawed in direct sunlight, but it is built into the foundations of South African society. You may not see this because you occupy a position in society where your worldview and status is reflected everywhere you go.

JR: Why has this not been raised and dealt with in way that is more… I suppose… constructive than destructive. – What exactly is destructive about asserting the right to protest peacefully? Where does calling in police with guns and dogs to intimidate already-traumatised teenage girls fit on your scale of constructive engagement?

JR: That’s what amazes me. – Your amazement can chill. Understand that we, the public, are only seeing the spillover of what could have been an internally bureaucratic struggle against school rules. It is not often that young girls would take to mass action as a first route to change.

MW: I was in the school for five years, and I was quite involved. What the administration does do is silence people. If you have a complaint all you do is put it on a piece of paper and slide it under the headmistress’s door and no-one looks at it, no one adjusts any rules or comes back to you about the rules. All they do is implement this bureaucratic process…and if the complaint irks someone then you get a disciplinary hearing or you get suspended. The rules literally make no sense. – Mishka has just verified the internal inefficiencies of the school that might lead pupils to take to stronger methods of protest. You might have asked if such a bureaucratic struggle had preceded the public protest action we are now all witnessing.

JR: But all of us in school think the rules make no sense. All of us think we know more than the teachers do. You’ve got to have a boundary line somewhere. There is an element of discipline… and of youthful exuberance that can cross lines… Surely you can accept that? – Instead, you insert generalisations that are likely anchored to your lived experience. It is critical to note that your experience of flouting school rules out of “exuberance” is vastly different to the experience of black girls challenging rules that fail to recognise them as culturally autonomous womxn capable of academic excellence unless they also fit into the mould of European standards of culture. Your understanding of pushing school boundaries is not the same as pushing back against colonial structures.

MW: The problem here is that we’re not talking about youthful exuberance. We’re talking about self-expression; we’re talking about identity – then you go and cut her off right when she’s about to educate you, John.

JR: – but self-expression can also have limits in a school, surely? You can’t have people… half-naked; you can’t have people painting themselves because they want to exhibit self-expression. – What made you pick the examples of being half-naked or painted all over? Is this what you mentally associate black womxn’s hair with? Does the word “tribal” spring to mind?

I mean when you’re youngsters… you say, ‘Hang on – we’re cool. Anything goes. The world belongs to us.’ … later you say ‘maybe that discipline did cause me to become a better person.’ You’ve gotta have some rules, haven’t you? – No John, maybe that’s what you said because you went to a school that reinforced your cultural beliefs and prepared you for a world that was designed for you. If you were a person of colour who went to such a school, you may find yourself in a process of deep unlearning of all the ways in which you were taught to aspire to your culture.

MW: I hear you, but the self-expression we’re talking about here is not painting… it is basic cultural identity: the way that you wear your hair, the types of cultural ornaments you wear. – Mishka did you a kindness here, by steering you back on course. Did you acknowledge that? No, you cut her off again:

JR: – Where would you draw the line on braids? Or would you? – Why the urge to draw lines around people who you fundamentally cannot empathise with?

MW: I would not draw the line on braids because I’m not a black womxn, I’m not a black girl. I have no right to talk about black womxn’s hair. – She’s saying this partly for your benefit too, John.

JR: But I’ve seen braids that are fantastic and I’ve seen braids that are so fantastically over the top that they are show-biz things with hair all over the place… I can’t use the correct term. Would you say anything goes there? – But instead, your view is essential for us to hear. It is also quite offensive. What you seem to be implying by citing “show-biz” worthy braids is that black girls cannot be trusted to wear hairstyles that are suitable for their daily activities. Because – if given the freedom to choose the hairstyle that is least harmful to their hair and to their purses – they will surely go Beyonce-wild. This is why the youth of today also say things like, Fuck patriarchy, John.

MW: Joshhh- I mean John sorry sorry. I think a problem here is that you’re a white man and you really don’t have any right to comment on black womxn’s hair and neither do I. And I think if black girls wish to express themselves –

JR: I have no right to comm-? I thought I had a right when there’s freedom of speech to comment on anything. – Again with the interjections. And now we must contend with how hurt you are that your freedom of speech has been cut off. John, you’re not a very good listener. At multiple points in the conversation, Mishka had pointed out that neither you nor she is a black womxn and therefore has no experience of black hair struggles (the root of the topic at hand, remember). So with the shorthand of “you have no right to comment and neither do I”, I believe that Mishka was not using the term “right” in the strict political sense, but rather in the sense that suggests legitimacy and relevance.

You’d have known this if you had focused on rights of black womxn and had the humility to deduce your own lack of knowledge or place in the conversation.

MW: Nnnno no, that’s not how freedom of speech works.

JR: – Well you tell me what I’ve got a right to comment on, Mishka. – Now you’re just getting passive aggressive and we all can hear it.

Courtesy of Rupert Koopman
Courtesy of Rupert Koopman

MW: You really don’t have the right to comment on the very specific lived experiences of marginalised and oppressed groups in the country. – I think by this point Mishka sounds exasperated with the direction this conversation is going in. It was a great opportunity to interrogate the structural racism inherent in our institutions, but now it seems like it’s going to be a lesson on white privilege.

JR: Then I don’t have the right to comment on virtually everything! – Well, it’s more about the decency to realise how much your people’s voice and ideas and structures already reverberate off the walls of school corridors and boardrooms alike. And given this awareness, you might realise that this is not very cool for an African country with a majority black, African population to be dealing with. You may wish to sit down more often (knowing that you’ll still probably be sitting in a comfortable wicker chair). We cannot infringe on your rights to freedom of speech but you can no longer expect a passive audience.

MW: Black womxn’s hair is an extremely contentious issue and has been a contentious issue since colonial times. And the way that black womxn are reclaiming their hair – or rather – claiming their hair, because they were never allowed to claim it in the first place, is an issue that they have to deal with by themselves. We have no right – or rather – non-black people have no right to talk to them about how they should wear their hair or what goes in what situations.

JR: Not even to discuss it?
MW: I think you can discuss it –
JR: Ohhh I can discuss it. Alright I can discuss – – John. Why you so petty?
MW: But in a discussion if you begin speaking over black womxn – which is often the case – that becomes an issue. – Did you even hear this?

JR: Ohhhkay thank you Mishka Wazar. *ends call*

Alright and don’t get me wrong, because I believe that racism is not something that can be experienced by white people. I’ve told you. I think that racism is something experienced by black people. That’s a lesson that I have learnt. But now I’m told that we cannot discuss issues with, with, well you heard what Mishka said. – Yes John, we heard what Mishka said. But we’re not quite sure you did, because you were too busy trying to put your ideas about school rules and the need for paternalistic discipline on the airwaves, and then getting overly offended when you were reminded that people like you and people like me do not have the legitimacy to decide what constitutes cultural expression for black womxn.

Next time John, maybe you and your network should opt out of hosting a live discussion about a topic you have no lived experience in. And maybe you should have tried to get a learner (with fantastic braids) on the line. Mishka was great, but even as she said, she felt unqualified to talk about the issue at hand.

But now, by the end of this call, we’ve forgotten about the issue of the girls and the exclusion and the systemic racism and we’re reminded of how awful it is that you, John Robbie, had your rights curtailed.

This is the power of big radio. And you kinda abused it.

Author’s note: The “x” in “Womxn” is a gender neutral replacement for “a” or “e”. Therefore includes everyone.
Featured image via Facebook