City Press published an online story about the hostel gang-rape of a black student by his white school seniors. Understandably, everyone in blogosphere and social media world has been outraged and disgusted. They’ve all condemned what has been broadly understood as an act of racism. Many have also asked what kind of home the student-rapist-monsters came from, as though they were not normal South African kids from normal South African homes.
Which they are.
If our formerly black, coloured and Indian schools are notorious for gang violence, “standard” heterosexual rape and a shortage of teachers, then former Model C and private schools are equally notorious for initiation rites. In the States, these rites of passage are called “hazing”, though in that context more foreknowledge and consent exists. Nobody talks about the abuses though they are part and parcel of “white” schools and institutions.
Masculinities are strange things. In their organic developments, some are receptive to the message that they have to “belong” in some hive or tribe. The apartheid government in South Africa and the military complex in America took advantage of these types of masculinities by teaching them to channel sexual power and violence into expressions of dominance. With the help of some strands of Christianity, the whole affair was christened as “godly”; it was a tacit part and parcel of each young man’s learning how to defend “the tribe” “the Volk” belonging to “die Vaderland”, “the Chosen Nation” from “them”, whether “they” were the blacks, the reds, the natives, the slaves or whichever “other” any given government has found it lucrative to oppress and dominate. All this fell under the banner of “Manifest Destiny” or other beliefs that God had blessed those white people, at those times, with the right to rule and sweep aside opposition (you know, like Jacob Zuma tells ANC MPs to “crush the opposition” so that the ANC, which is the only party that is blessed in heaven, can rule until Jesus returns? Yeah, like that. Same system being replicated, but now black).
With the onset of puberty coinciding with the crises every boy goes through in working out his identity, sex became military training. Failure to use sex as “power over” others was and is seen as a precursor to failure to serve under conscription, whichever military service it was that was defending whichever land in whatever name of whichever God.
The imperialist agendas of their respective governments needed for their white men – both in the States and here – to experience a guided transition between childhood and adulthood, a transition that would prepare them for the military training they would be subjected to later on. As a result, male sexuality and power are never spoken of together but they are never experienced or expressed apart. This is where the culture of school initiations, rugby and other expressions of “power-over” come from: they are that culture’s way of easing young boys into the military service they will someday be required to perform in the protection of “us” from “them”. Or as a commenter stated, “This kind of nonsense happens in many school or university hostels. Initiation traditions etc. The report I read said black boys were watching. So this is bullying at its worse and not necessarily racism” and later that, “I also recall from more recently, the active participation by the black head-boy of a prestigious KZN Midlands school in an initiation ritual, where he beat the new boy with a piece of reinforcing steel. The youngster happened to be white”.
In case someone is keeping score to point out that a black kid has also inflicted harm under similar circumstances, I stick to my belief that the culture of initiation is largely white, though it is potentially replicable. The reason is that this above example intimately links the hierarchy of prefect-hood with the ability to wield “power over”. In just about every school that plays active rugby there is the expectation that the captain of the first rugby team will be head boy or deputy. The system, as we can see by the black boy’s participation, is transferable and replicable to anyone prepared to buy into the culture of “power over” regardless of his race. But the system, as we find it, has been handed over by “white” patriarchal culture.
Not one of white society’s cultural symbols alone stand for all evil but brought together to reinforce tribalistic messages, they prop up systematized and unspeakably brutal system of domination – justified in the name of God. The kind of system which will be copied and pasted into a replica of the same old system should we plunge unthinkingly ahead into a white-free Utopia without questioning what black people plan to do with exactly the same powers and privileges they’ve pretended not to want from white people. Accusing someone of racism/anti-revolutionary tendencies/disrespecting heritage and culture, can be one way to bypass such critical questioning even as one plays with the same matches. It shuts down conversation and deflects questions.
Oh, reader, never, ever, stop asking questions.
But is racism a solitary evil, or is it composed of a mish-mash of other evils?
The rape of slave women across colour lines in American cotton plantations 90 years ago cannot be explained or expressed by solitary understandings of “racism” because rape includes touching someone of a different skin colour. And racism, at its most basic, means despising and fearing “the other’s” skin, its smells and its colour. Why all the forced intimacy, then?
Forced sex forces race into an expression of a power dynamic whereby some men prove themselves worthy to rule. Reducing these acts strictly to “racism” without allowing for a definition of racism that questions the very handling of power we each are tempted towards, allows whoever names that racism to stand apart from his own tendency to someday do the same. It allows us a blind spot to what we’re letting our leaders do.
We overuse the word “racism” in our attempts to stabilize the complexity of what are really “racialized social dynamics”. Was the incident not racially motivated, then? Partially, it was. I will go into greater detail about the part played by racist humiliation and slurs in this rape, but I see it as rape with strong racist overtones, akin to the way interracial sexual contact and assault is “glamorized” by racial slurs. Had the rape victim been a ginger white kid with freckles, his rapists would have picked on that instead. So while South Africa convulses in shock over this disgusting act of “racism” and follows the #RacistSchoolRape court case in the next few months, other boys and girls will be raped around the country. And whatever happens to distinguish them from their rapists will be turned into the set of slurs that glamorizes and romanticizes and fetishsizes those instances of sexual violence. “South Africa has a race problem!” they say. But I promise you now, exactly the slurs that were said to or about that boy during his rape have been said in moments of consensual sex between members of different races sharing beds across this country. Look up the Locanto ads for gay interracial sex requests. So the vectors are very slippery, in some ways, interchangeable; in others, not; either way, we cannot afford to make them seem more stable than they really are.
The rape of transgender people of colour on the east coast of the United States cannot be expressed or explained solely in relation to “transphobia” for the same reason, for if the rapist were that disgusted with transgender women he wouldn’t be caught dead on the same side of the street that they are on. What he has for them isn’t disgust so much as it is contempt. Disgust makes us move away from the object of our disgust: contempt allows us to step on it. In this instance of so-called transphobia, the rape helps the rapist distinguish himself from, and demonstrate power over, that which is weaker, feminine, failed-masculinity, and “other”.
It’s important to understand the distinctions because if we have a hope in hell of fighting misogyny, this is its groundwork. It is therefore more accurate to phrase the discussion along the lines of masculine power instead of silently sheltering masculine power behind the closest available labels. Had the rape victim been an old lady, we wouldn’t call out patriarchy but ageism; disabled, ableism. Anything to avoid a conversation on patriarchy.
Because that is what was at stake when the student was raped in the hostel – the same thing that is being negotiated, violently, in every rape: power. That’s the more urgent discussion: the core, as it were, of that composite experience we eventually call “racism”, however many social layers it is filtered through that disguise its patriarchal origins.
A friend of mine commented, “Once again, we cannot ignore colour in this situation. It is one of the underlying reasons if not the most obvious reason for that boy being chosen to be abused. It could’ve been a small frame, a funny facial feature, a weird voice, a personality perceived as weak, a skin colour, a difference in status / class in society or a lack of sporting ability for example that lead to this boy to being picked on. However, it’s idiotic to ignore the obvious ie the race issue. How many hostel incidents have we had where racial tension lead to brutal and demeaning acts. I can personally attest to being in those type of abusive situations. It’s an evil that must be uprooted.”
This comment was posted in public. If I told you the number and frequency of men who’ve attested “to being in those types of abusive situations” in coffee shops, in my Facebook inbox and on other platforms, you’d break down. Racism was incidental in those other stories – they were stories about male-on-male violence. From this, I gather that the evil of racism cannot be understood or confronted apart from the evil of “othering”, as well as the insistence on defining identity and power along the lines of distinguishing oneself as above “the other”. We could flush out white privilege tomorrow and still be stuck with that problem. How do I know?
Consider the racially mixed group that observed this incident. From the City Press write-up, I gathered that the first accessible family respondent was the boy’s grandmother. She confirmed that the boy was new at the school. I suspect he was also “new” in the social setting, unknown to the other kids. I may be stereotyping, but I cannot help picturing a family not quite as well-off as the families of the other black boys in the hostel. When you’re the poorer and newer black kid, you are what the other black kids could have been and possibly once were; you become an eyesore for them too because you become the reminder of where the white kids in the room subtly remind you that you come from and belong to. Defending this kid would have “cost” the other black kids.
So through peer pressure, white privilege has been transferred to class privilege among black people, and the transaction happened as black kids watched over the coats of those who raped one of their own. The system merely changed hands and distinctions, but it’s in essence the same system. We could flush out white privilege tomorrow and still be stuck with the basic problem. When the problem isn’t named but its shell is dismantled, the problem reincarnates.
Were none of the kids confirmed racists, then? No doubt some were. As another commenter said, “I believe that this should be laid at the feet of the white parents. I am sure their kids hear them speaking disparagingly about JZ, Robert Mugabe, the government etc. all the time and the take away for the kids is that all black people are crooked and lazy and not like us. These kids grow up with a sense of superiority and entitlement which makes them believe, not only that it is ok to do something like this, but that is it cool to film it”.
So I’ll leave the racism-dismantling to people who’re actually good at that, and instead continue on to other examples of male-on-male rape in similar settings.
As a commenter said when he read this story, “Not necessarily racist. I remember a similar incident at a university quite a few years back (during apartheid) when a first year student died as a result of internal injuries sustained after a similar incident”. A replica of the old homophobic/patriarchal system, our new ostensibly tolerant one has no tools with which to critique the very power it seeks to wield. Jacob Zuma has no interest in dismantling patriarchy. So he has no choice but to prime everyone into a state where expressions of male domination are seen, firstly, as racial acts (or something else), and later, as rape. The former relies on the latter for its reality. Racism relies on patriarchy for its expression, not the other way around. The distinction between the one and the other is as important as where the X and Y axes belong on a Cartesian plane. Get that wrong, and your math is out.
Some sites describe how “pulling train” or “gang rape becomes a normative part of fraternitys’ behavior and group identity”, identifying “the pledging process as an important means of socializing men to endorse such attitudes and behaviors”. They also say that “If a young boy plays with a doll in the presence of older boys, it is likely that he will be teased and will quickly learn that having a doll is outside the bounds of acceptable masculine behavior. This is particularly troubling when one considers that having a doll is an important way for young children to develop important human qualities of nurturing and care-giving. Beginning in early childhood, boys learn to de-value activities that are associated with female-identified qualities while they simultaneously learn that rough and aggressive play are acceptable for boys.
“When hazing occurs among men, regardless of the type of group, it is often framed as a test of ‘strength’, ‘courage’, and “determination” as well as the ability to withstand humiliation. So the racist slurs in the rape must also be examined through the lens of hazing and initiation. Anyone remember Shrien Dewani? He liked racial slurs during degrading sex acts. In other words, in what communication among masculinites has been reduced to since patriarchal society got too scared to look at the monster it had unleashed, humiliation became yet another syllable in a language of violence. The terrifying thing – and I’ve seen this when dealing with bullies – is that the perpetrator will tell you afterwards that he didn’t mean it that way. C’mon, he’ll say, back to being his family’s responsible, wonderful son. Normal, like normal society. He’ll say that what happened that Sunday in the hostel… it was, it was…
It was me finding the limits of my identity by pushing your person-hood and psychological endurance to its limits, because that’s the language I know that really resonates with the only facet of me that anyone else can get to see as the dominating bully. It was me expressing myself in the language of manhood, which is an echo of the preparation young men my age had to undergo before they were fitted to defend their people, which language shall be replicated among black people even as you focus on the racism of this act, neglecting that I’ve raped other juniors that happened to be white. It was, it was, it was –
It was boys being boys.
Because we wouldn’t have them as anything else. Society has stunted their development at that point and they grow up to become violent men.
And we replicate the power structures they understand themselves called upon to dominate within. We replicate them when we focus on one aspect of the attack as it eclipses the replication of similar power structures.
“While many of these attacks have taken place in the context of sports culture, they have also occurred outside of athletic settings, as well as on and off school property. In the past year, more than 40 cases have been documented across the nation, in California, New York, Colorado, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Massachusetts, and other states. A decade ago there was an average of two or three cases of any type of sexual violence reported among high school-aged boys” states an American site. “High school hazing rituals among adolescent boys once involved upperclassmen stuffing freshmen into lockers or garbage bins, teasing, or towel-snapping in the locker room. But recent cases have introduced new and disturbing dimensions to these abusive practices that now seem tame by comparison. Unlike the type of hazing that takes place in college contexts, these practices are absent the initiation rituals commonly found in fraternities, where excessive alcohol consumption or other behaviors play a role in establishing one’s worthiness for admission into the brotherhood. By contrast, in recent cases of anal hazing, there are no pledging objectives propelling the acts, no alcohol is involved, and both victims and perpetrators are minors between 13 and 17 years old”.
So what happened in the South African school isn’t new: it’s the vestige of an old system that contained patriarchal domination in racial boxes and taught its young men – who were all white at the time – to practice on one another. The danger with the rally cry to dismantle white privilege is that it may be followed by a replication of the same systems of domination because the patriarchy underlying all systems of domination will still go unquestioned. “Between April and August 2012, three soccer players at La Puente High School, east of Los Angeles, penetrated other students with a javelin and a broken flagpole. The perpetrators were convicted (of ‘sexual penetration with a foreign object’) and sentenced in May 2013. Also in California, a Fontana high school student was sodomized with a broom handle and metal concrete-reinforcing bar during masonry class”.
“At New York’s Bronx High School of Science, three members of the school’s track team were arrested for pinning down a freshmen teammate and penetrating him with their fingers, a ritual that repeatedly took place over a three month period on school property. One of the attackers reportedly told the victim: ‘you need a good fingering!’ In Missouri, a boy was sodomized with a water bottle in the school’s locker room while being held upside down by two other students. At Maine West High School, just outside of Chicago, prosecutors report that older soccer players regularly penetrated younger players with fingers and sticks before and during practice. In this case, the coach of the soccer team, Michael DiVincenzo was charged with fostering a hazing culture, one in which he personally threatened younger soccer players with anal penetration by varsity players, should they miss practice or fail to communicate effectively. DiVincenzo was fired from Maine West for sanctioning a hazing culture and failing to report the abuse. In the summer of 2013, three junior varsity soccer players from Somerville High School, just west of Boston, entered a cabin and sexually assaulted three freshmen at a summer camp in western Massachusetts.
“…After the principle [sic] contacted police to report the incident, residents of the town turned against him”. Notice how we don’t want to talk about it. “The ‘townies’ directed their anger at the principle, his 13-year-old son, and their family for reporting the incident, which they believed brought trouble into their town. As Sheldone Cline, a town electrician insists, ‘it should have been left alone’.
“Another woman, Jennifer Long, a local waitress asks: ‘How [are] you going to be tough if you don’t get bullied sometimes?’ Residents of Norwood overwhelmingly blamed the 13-year-old victim and sided with his attackers, much like the recent Steubenville case from Ohio, in which the town turned against the 16-year-old female rape victim, accusing her of lying and subsequently siding with the two popular high school football players who raped her”.
“Jessica Bicknase, the mother of one of the attackers in the Norwood case, had t-shirts made with slogans in support of her son and the other two attackers. More than a dozen students wore these t-shirts to school because they believed they were doing the right thing by supporting their hazer friends”.
See? Normal families. Normal family values. Not monsters. Normal human beings.
“The standard explanations offered by clinical psychologists and other professionals now widely cited in interviews in mainstream media, pin the blame on the presence of an atmosphere that increasingly values hypermasculinity and accompanying acts that demonstrate one’s masculinity and power, especially by practices that humiliate or subordinate members of the peer group.
“Nowhere do we find any mention of patriarchy or internalized homophobia as possible factors propelling the adolescent fascination with anal hazing”.
Patriarchy. Heidi Hartmann describes it as “a set of social relations between men, which have a material base, and which, though hierarchical, establish or create interdependence and solidarity among men that enable them to dominate women”.
“Children internalize domination by observing the myriad ways in which men dominate women in the private (in the home) and public spheres (society at large). Connecting the link, they soon realize that patriarchy is also effective in dominating other men, or in this case other boys. In this way, they learn that ‘patriarchy is not simply hierarchical organization, but hierarchy in which particular people fill particular places places: those who dominate and those who are dominated’. As boys intuitively begin to understand the need to dominate rather than be dominated, they fulfill such patriarchal expectations through anal hazing, which then becomes a vehicle for releasing patriarchal pressures”.
“Nowhere do we find any suggestion that internalized homophobia plays a part in fostering an adolescent culture that views anal penetration as a form of punishment, indeed, the most extreme form of male humiliation. It is after all, gay men who are penetrated, simulating a practice so abhorrent enables the hazer to ‘faggotize’, that is, to subordinate and degrade the victim with the taint of (passive) homosexuality; for what could possibly be more humiliating for a man than to be anally penetrated? Indeed, even our language alludes to the widespread fear of anal penetration. Common expressions such as ‘dropped the soap’, ‘I got screwed’, ‘I got reamed’ ‘I’m not willing to bend’, or ‘cover your behind’, enforce this paranoia, because leaving one’s behind exposed entails that one risks getting fucked”, observes Massachusetts’ University philosopher Bassam Romaya.
The Ultimate Point
Keep your head.
Don’t hold back on hugs and affection when dealing with your sons.
And stay awake.
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