In June of this year, Oprah Winfrey accepted an honorary doctorate from the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Oprah’s words, “What has happened here at Free State in terms of racial reconciliation, of peace, of harmony, of one heart understanding and opening itself to another heart, is nothing short of a miracle”, are characteristic of the language most often animated to discuss both the event to which she was referring and the coverage of her own visit to the university. The employment of the language of “reconciliation” and “forgiveness”, as well as constant references to South Africa’s troubled history of racialized segregation throughout the news coverage of this event work to obscure both Oprah’s and the University of the Free State’s own troubling relationships to the space of South Africa. Both institutions – if household and brand names constitute institutions, then Oprah is a transnational one – have a vested interest in obliterating the memory of very public scandals through generous use of the language of reconciliation, which in South Africa can serve as a kind of inoculation against criticism. Oprah’s luxurious school for girls has yet to attract positive media attention, and the University of the Free State was surely the last institution of higher education in the country to integrate its residence halls.
The decision to integrate the dormitories over a decade after the end of apartheid was apparently the occasion which prompted the controversy at the University of the Free State, which in turn prompted Oprah’s visit to the institution. In order to mock the university’s decision to integrate the dorms, four white students coerced five black cleaning staff at the university to participate in making a video that portrayed an initiation ritual specific to the dorm in which they lived.
The language of the appeal summarizes the charges against the young men in this way: “that the appellants did so by preparing ‘a meal of some sort’ or by brewing a concoction of some sort; that they urinated into the plates containing the brew so concocted; that they offered such concoction to the complainants to ingest; that they videotaped the complainants as they were vomiting the concoction so ingested and referred to the complainants as difebe, in other words, whores (sefebe – whore); that the appellants depicted the complainants as inferior and unintelligent human beings; thereby impairing their human dignity”.
In the interest of the appeals process, the young men claimed that they had actually stuck bottles of “harmless liquid” in their pants to simulate urinating in the stew they then offered the cleaners to eat. While I’m sure that there might be a great deal of difference between actually ingesting urine and ingesting a “harmless liquid”, I’m also quite sure that the visceral effect experienced by the viewer of the video is not mitigated by the knowledge that these young men merely simulated urination.
I understand that the persistent invocation of the language of “reconciliation” and “forgiveness” within the contexts of articles chronicling the event are meant to make the reader feel a kind of all-is-well-with-the-world-Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul-greater-good-everything-happens-for-a-reason warm and fuzziness, but such language is not quite accurate. Whatever Oprah’s reason for accepting the honorary doctorate and whatever the University’s reason for extending such an honor to her, the ideas communicated through this reframing of events are incredibly troublesome. On the surface, language glorifying something not quite accurately referred to as reconciliation in a country where the language of reconciliation has deep historical resonance obscures the deeply political dimensions of what actually occurred at the University of the Free State and Oprah’s strange endorsement of the “reconciliation” and “forgiveness” enacted there.
I do not wish to dismiss the workers’ right to respond to the apology – sincere or not – in any way they so choose, and while I would be likely to support a wide range of possible responses on their part, I do wish to problematize the assumption that forgiveness on the part of those who have been exploited should be valorized without any kind of engagement with the accountability of their abusers. In the presence of such skewed power relations, I want to read the situation as one in which the University of the Free State and Oprah collude in order to valorize passive acceptance of violence as a naturalized phenomenon experienced by those whose access to power has been limited by racism, sexism, or classism, the three most powerfully enacted marginalizing discourses here.
Though the gendered dimensions of this particular scenario do not feature prominently in the highly racialized discourse surrounding it, both sexist and racist abuses converge here, as becomes most clear when one considers the usage of sexist epithets in the video filmed by the perpetrators, as described in the plaintiffs’ appeal of the court’s decision to fine them (the prison sentences were suspended on certain conditions, one of which was that they not be found guilty of injuring anyone else’s dignity during a designated period of time). Frequent responses to sexist abuses are that women are told that their lives will never be their own until they can do the work of moving beyond their abuser’s cruelty. Similarly, black survivors of racism are told that they are holding some kind of self-damaging – read: inconvenient – and unreasonable grudge for taking issues of race seriously, especially when these issues are linked compellingly to oppression. In the world of Dr. Phil branded therapy, peddled and endorsed by Oprah, such moving on does not involve an active or communal engagement with responsibility (especially not on the part of the rapist/racist/abuser/aggressor), but a passive acknowledgement and acceptance of violence framed within the context of an inevitable sexualized/racialized violence.
Resisting the language of reconciliation in this particular case does not mean that I wish to dismiss the philosophies of non-violent political resistance of such leaders as Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, or even Desmond Tutu, who was nearly alone in his support of Vice Chancellor Jansen’s decision to drop all disciplinary action against the young men in question and invite them to finish their degrees at the University of the Free State. Additionally, I do not want to be dismissive of the healing and perhaps transformative potential that forgiveness can have for the mental health of the person who grants it. However, I do wish to remove the situation under discussion from the validating rhetorical relationship to such political and personal strategies that the language of reconciliation grants it.
When those who have endured sexualized violence are encouraged to move beyond abuse without framing sexual violence as an issue that demands serious engagements with the accountability of the rapist, the patriarchal power relations sexual violence serves to enforce remain intact. Similarly, when Oprah Winfrey calls insulted and humiliated domestic workers “heroes”, rather than opening a discussion about the physical, psychological, and material damage done by racism or providing the domestic workers with a platform from which to voice their desires or to complete the partial and dehumanized picture painted of them throughout the proceedings as “inferior and unintelligent human beings”, she perpetuates a discourse in which the only way that these women can be agents of heroism is to absolve their abusers.
Though the young men are represented in their ongoing legal proceedings by a lawyer whose services have also been successfully purchased by the country’s political elite, we have inherited piecemeal but direct quotes from them pertaining to the matter. Any knowledge of the desires, feelings, emotional lives, or thoughts of the women and man who were the subject of racist taunting is conveyed through hearsay, and summed up by one sentence punctuating multiple news articles relaying the story. From the Minister of Higher Education, we learn of their desires for new uniforms and a request to work in a different residence hall. A much recycled news article covering the incident is concluded with the statement, “the workers accepted the apology.” It would be interesting to know what degree of choice the domestic workers had in the matter of accepting such an apology. It would be even more interesting to know what would have happened if, instead of accepting the apology, the workers had demanded some form of accountability from the abusers, or in fact, from a world that allows such abuses to occur daily. What if the women had lifted their skirts in a pre-colonial act of punishment-defiance performed by insulted Kikuyu women before Christian missionaries outlawed the practice? Would Oprah have visited the school to celebrate the heroism of women who refused forgiveness?
The silent workers, therefore, become an offering made on the altar of reconciliation and forgiveness. Though we are informed that they continue to be the subject of harassment and taunting on campus, their position within the hierarchy of the institution, or their ability to organize for better pay, better treatment, or even the new uniforms we are informed they desire, are never subjects for our empathy or emotional engagement. They figure in this picture as women who are honored by Oprah in exchange for their public humiliation. And, in fact, Oprah sells little else. Rarely, if ever, does she offer an engagement with transformative politics around women’s autonomy, worker’s empowerment, or freedom from the hierarchies of power that often engender humiliation in the first place.
Though there are multiple debates circulating about whether Oprah does or does not represent feminism, I consider Oprah to be emblematic of the kind of feminism that has been described by Zillah Eisenstein as “well-dressed and fashionable women” who are part of a “consumerist self-help market” wherein those who have endured public humiliation, or you the audience watching, can feel better by buying some of Oprah’s favorite things, which in turn, but not incidentally, makes her wealthier. In this context, “radical possibilities of feminisms are truncated and the struggle for humane democracies is vaporized.”
Invocation of the language of reconciliation and forgiveness in relation to this incident directly circumvents engagement with an ethics around our responsibility to one another as human beings at the same time that it erases the presence of very real dynamics of power which negate the possibility of the parties involved being on equal footing in the exchange. At once, the young men coercing the workers into drinking urine on camera is not only a crass and disgusting prank refusing to recognize the humanity of those at whose expense it is executed, it is a reification of already existing dynamics of power through the exploitation of racialized, sexualized, and classed otherings. But positioning the othered body as the one which is wronged and consequently has the power to enact something called reconciliation results in a discursive shift of the way material power is structured in the world. After Oprah proclaims the violated domestic workers heroes for suffering abuse in a muted stoicism, does their access to power in the new South Africa shift? Does reconciliation mean that those in a privileged relation to power are immune from accountability and responsibility and that those whose access to power is shaped by racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or classism always bear the burden of the kind of forgiveness that erases the presence of their humanity?
Barbara Ehrenreich writes compellingly of the “consequence-abolishing effect” of paid domestic labor: “There is another lesson the servant economy teaches its beneficiaries and, most troublingly, the children among them. To be cleaned up after is to achieve a certain weightlessness and immateriality . . . The result is a kind of virtual existence, in which the trail of litter that follows you seems to evaporate all by itself.” In the case of the University of the Free State, Oprah’s proclamation of heroism discourages her audience from asking serious questions interrogating the kind of world that can produce young men who feel that simulating urinating in food they offer to another human being is somehow acceptable when actually urinating in the food would not be acceptable. It also encourages us not to ask how sincere an apology can be, and by extension, how authentic a reconciliation can be, if, after pleading guilty to the charges and performing a public apology, the young men in question are pursuing an appeal that seeks to absolve them of responsibility in relation to the dehumanizing acts they continue to attempt to justify as satire. If the workers have communicated: “You have hurt me”, and if the young men have responded: “We now know that our conduct hurt you” (as they publicly did), how can their continued attempt to justify their behavior be justified, and on what grounds can an appeal be pursued?
In the same way that Barbara Ehrenreich is scared to encounter a world in which young people do not know how to clean up after themselves, I am terrified of living in a world in which accountability of those with power, access, and finance is irrelevant because those who are power-less are constantly expected to “forgive” in magnanimous displays of self-effacing generosity, the expectation of which functions as an insidious kind of coercion in itself.
Certainly, the workers involved in this incident are free to bestow forgiveness as they choose – and who is to say that they didn’t pity the ignorance of their abusers – but to valorize the voicelessness of the survivors of humiliation without engaging in serious dialogue about the work of transforming the damage done in all parts of the world each and every day by racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism and all othering discourses is to risk setting up victimization as the only act through which those who are marginalized can become “heroes”, and that is not a risk any of us should be willing to take.