Opposing politics in art

Everyday, many of us wake up to a drone of white noise demanding borders of where it is and is not appropriate to engage with politics. Sport must not tolerate black men kneeling before the American National Anthem, while their families are murdered by people trained to “protect” them; computer games should avoid confronting issues that plague the lives of everyone who isn’t a white cishet man. The effort and sweat put into these cries could generate change toward inclusion, but rather it’s used to reinforce the gates of the status quo. Instead of criticising the systems hurting us, privileged people criticise our response to the systems designed to make us fail, make us suffer and, with their criticism, they provide cover for systems of oppression. White supremacy has age behind it. But, like all old things, it is crumbling. I’d love if the erosion of white rule wasn’t equated with the end of the world by ostensibly Not Racist white people, rather the beginning of a more inclusive one.

One way they can start reflecting on this is through confronting the idea of separating art and politics.

No politics, no art

I realised recently that my first reaction to the constant drone of humdrum opposition to discussing politics in art or sport or whatever was one of confusion.

Growing up in the politically volatile environment of a pre- and post-apartheid South Africa, public displays of creativity were constantly used to oppose white rule. This was because white rule itself was a public display.

Credit: KNewman 1

The apartheid Government wanted people of colour to “know” their place and that place was beneath or far away from white people. The only reason I was born in my neighbourhood was due to apartheid laws that prevented my parents being able to live elsewhere.

(Of course, even to have a home is itself worth celebrating as it is today — but especially so during times when policies did everything to prevent people of colour succeeding. As they do today, still.)

Art was not a luxury but a weapon, a tool. People wrote and performed and painted to say: “No more”. Every act was one of survival, including the creative. While there is no denying there is joy in creativity, few would claim art for its own sake was the purpose. The creativity behind slogans, group names, banners, satire, (and, I think, even legal arguments) was all aimed at opposing the constant nightmare of apartheid.

This is not some distant memory. This is a world I was literally born into, that South African children all learned about not merely through textbooks but personal stories of the adults around us. In terms of sport, too, just look at the film Invictus, that dealt with what the Rugby World Cup meant for the new South Africa.

Our nation-wide revolution was not hundreds of years ago, but, for those of us growing up in the 90’s, months or years. Our first democratic election was held in 1994. I was eight.

I don’t know what’s like not to grow up with such a blatant example of white supremacy shaping every facet of your and your family’s life; where confronting it wasn’t merely a brave act of defiance but one of necessity. Such opposition was central to the art and literature we experienced.

That’s why it’s alien and confusing to me when people “demand” politics be removed from certain spaces. I just don’t know what that looks like.

The irony, of course, is the point of the anti-apartheid Struggle was to remove politics (of white supremacy) from areas it did not belong — i.e. everywhere, except the dustbin of history.


It’s a mark of deep privilege to be able to separate politics from art, sport or any other facet of your life. Neutrality in a world so broken might be ignorance but aggressive apathy is a cover for oppression. When people who are historically and currently marginalised engage with issues that affect them daily, not listening is a luxury.

As a man of colour, I yearn for days when we’re over race issues: but tell that to the continued aggressive racist policies, such as travel bans — or maybe the literal Nazis who want to see me and my family dead?

Perhaps instead of criticising people who have to deal everyday with the legacy of oppressive systems, you use your finite time and energy to criticise those supporting such systems?

This is why, when I hear cries for removing politics, it tends to come from those who can “check out” of politics when they like. They don’t have to deal constantly with racism, sexism, transphobia and so on. They aren’t seeing public displays telling them their existence is wrong all day and everywhere; whether it’s never seeing yourself represented as a hero and always a villain, public toilets that you can’t use because your idea of your own gender is somehow “dangerous”, or your skin colour “driving” heavily armed men to view you as inherently dangerous, even when you’re on the ground with your arms raised.

To live as a marginalised person is to live with public displays and policies and reactions constantly telling you that you don’t belong. This is not something we can turn off.

It’s why we speak about it, fight back, point out when its philosophies are bleeding into areas you may not realise (see, for example, #OscarsSoWhite.) To say we should simply “let go” of politics in areas where people arbitrarily assert politics does not belong is not only ignorant, but actively awful. One of the most potent reasons why systems of oppression build up is through the many dams of complacency lovingly put together by aggressive apathy.

You don’t need to care about racism or sexism or transphobia. But when you speak out on these issues, only to be angry at those dealing with such oppressive systems, you should question who exactly benefits from your anger and the expense of this energy.

It’s certainly not us.

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