The rugby Test this past Saturday between the Springboks and the All Blacks was a big affair. The day before the test, a baker at a leading retail store baked and displayed two cakes: one iced black with a silver fern logo and the words, “All Blacks”, the other in green with South Africa’s protea and flying springbok, but instead of “Springboks”, the words, “Quota squad”.
Read as a racist taunt, a picture of the cakes quickly went viral on social media. By Sunday, the retailer released a statement distancing itself from the cake’s sentiment – one employee acting on their own initiative was to blame.
On the face of it, the incident at least reveals that race quotas in sport remain a sensitive question, and to what extent racial perspectives continue to permeate everyday life.
However, the story reveals more complex aspects of how society in public deals with racial incidents. As a rule, the culpable individual is tracked down and named and shamed.
This habitual response reveals a first complexity of public responses to racial incidents, namely that the incident is seen as an upset of the peace. For peace to return, a guilty party must be sacrificed – the very public “drama of scapegoating”. The underlying assumption is that when the baker is dealt with, the incident will have been resolved, the problem of racism addressed and peace will return.
In reality, the entrenched ways of doing that sustain racial distances. Ways of seeing the racial other and racial ways of arranging and making sense of the world have not been dealt with. The only achievement in scapegoating is a symbolic one – a second complexity the story reveals. Public responses symbolise what society values as desirable or not.
However, its risk is they come to believe what they perceive to be real as the only reality, an unreal “symbolic reality”. Perceptions may lead some, even most, to think the baker is white.
A third complexity the story reveals is who is to blame for baking that cake. The baker is considered the culprit, the retailer a responsible corporate citizen when it offers an apology and the public accusers calling for a sacrifice heroes of justice. In the symbolic reality, only these three roles exist but there’s a fourth role, namely the accomplice.
The retailer must ask itself what led its staff to think it acceptable to bake such a cake. The public accusers must question how the sacrifice of one baker in real terms interrupts persistent social hierarchies of race. Test yourself: what race did you assume the baker was, and if you knew, what difference would it make to your reading of the story?
* Originally, published in the Cape Argus