Scary stories from a lovely place

The problem with black = bad

On Tuesday in Cape Town, South Africa a bill to protect state information was passed in parliament. Lauded the ‘secrecy bill’, lots of South Africans are now up in arms about it. People are concerned it will make corruption easier to hide and represents a step toward censorship.

The opposition parties have decried it as unconstitutional. This is probably the first time the South African opposition parties have stood as one against the government. This is a step in the right direction for bringing about a potential opposition party to the ANC – making election time slightly more interesting.

I’m still trying to get to the bottom of what the bill will actually mean for South Africa. I wonder if a lot of the concerns I have heard expressed are too influenced by the media and people are uninformed. If government isn’t trustworthy, I wouldn’t have thought the media are much better. The bill can be read here – but a warning – it’s long and hard to read. And here and here are a couple of news stories about it.

One part of this whole thing that really bothered me is the way the media and the opposition parties used the colour black to demonstrate their opposition to the bill. South Africans who were opposed to the changes to the law were encouraged to wear black on Tuesday, the day the law would be passed. The message was clear – if parliament passed the bill it would be a black day for South Africa.

Image courtesy of

Black is often used to demonstrate the negative. There are basic re-tellings of the gospel where black is used to represent sin, green creation, white forgiveness, red Jesus’ sacrificial blood etc etc. It never sat comfortably with me. Representations of Australia’s history that focus on the way the Aboriginal people were oppressed are called a black-arm band view by critics. I think we need to be wary of using the colour black to denote bad. History is too loaded with instances of gross mistreatment against people with dark, or black, skin.

When I was in high school I was a major debating nerd. The best debate I ever heard was on the topic of ‘1788 represents a black page in Australia’s history’ (this was the year English people first came to Australia). The affirmative team cleverly steered clear of the negative definition of the word ‘black’ in the topic and defined it in financial terms. Thus they argued that it was black because it lead to economic growth. I was so impressed. They avoided the whole obvious topic of the mistreatment of Aboriginal people and instead turned it into an argument of definitions by saying it was racist to use ‘black’ to mean bad.

This is why I was surprised to see black = bad in South Africa. Of all places, with it’s history of using the basic black and white colours to divide people, I’m surprised they are still going with black = bad. There’s got to be a cleverer way to represent bad, powerless, misery or oppression.


2 comments on “The problem with black = bad

  1. Kim
    November 24, 2011

    Hey Kim – your post interested me because I think I remember you bringing this up when we were working together in Wollongong. Earlier this year I did a research project on Christian responses to White Australia policy in the newspapers of the day around the time of Federation. Interestingly, with your words ringing in my ears, I didn’t find that ‘black = bad’ so much as that ‘white = good’. There was lots of rhetoric around a ‘white’ Australia that called for a ‘white’ character, i.e. one of moral purity. Sometimes this was pitted against the racial whiteness agenda, but sometime it was confusingly conflated with it. But it struck me how much rhetorical power this virtue of ‘whiteness’ had and how easily ‘white’ people believed that they were more predisposed to ‘white’ souls. Also, another friend pointed out that the Bible most often depicts sins, not as ‘black’ – our cultural default – but as red or scarlet.

  2. Bill Rogers
    November 24, 2011

    I have heard that Aussies are even more racially conscious than South Africans which is credible given that licences to hunt Aboriginals were still issued by the Aussie government less than 100 years ago, & that the population of Australia is predominantly white thanks to previous policies of extermination of black people. The reason that South Africa currently has a black majority is due, at least in part, to the absence of such policies in the past. As a South African who has lived in South Africa for the past 51 years I must say that, in my experience at least, people here do not automatically think in terms of race when the names of the colours black & white are used in contexts other than race: South Africans of all races who are inclined to be racist are likely to use more pejorative terms than black & white, & those of us who are not inclined to be racist do not have a racial connotation to rational & objective, or in this case, idiomatic terminology.

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This entry was posted on November 24, 2011 by in Beefs, Life in Australia, News and tagged , , , , , .
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