- White Privilege and Pedagogy: Nadine Gordimer in Performance
Little Shabalala ran a finger around the inside of his collar, and the girl thought, with a start of warmth, that he was feeling as she was.—Nadine Gordimer, “The Smell of Death and Flowers”
Aren’t the black people happy that the white people have come?—Student actor during rehearsal for “The Smell of Death and Flowers”
My first epigraph is extracted from a piece of Nadine Gordimer’s early short fiction, “The Smell of Death and Flowers,” a story that originally appeared in the 1950s in Six Feet of the Country. 1 Those familiar with Nadine Gordimer’s characters, stories, and techniques will recognize her preoccupations in this narrative. Its central protagonist is a young, white, South African female named Joyce McCoy who participates in her first protest against the segregated Locations of apartheid South Africa. In keeping with the orientation and narratological techniques that Gordimer later refined into a Nobel-winning corpus, the story is more explicitly an account of the complicated psychology of a privileged colonial subject anxiously negotiating intense self-consciousness, conditioned entitlement, guilt, prejudice, and paralysis as she makes a well-intentioned attempt to “de-privilege” herself. 2 The story ends in a scene at Lagersdorp Location where a coterie of white and relatively well-off nonwhite protesters—including a black man named Matt Shabalala who will lose his job for participating—march through Lagersdorp flanked by the bodies and silent stares of its somewhat indifferent, occasionally baffled, and very beleaguered residents. As they walk side-by-side, Matt Shabalala and Joyce McCoy battle different types of anxiety—his due to the threat of economic hardship, hers due to the threat of the unfamiliar and the embarrassment of not receiving a more demonstrative welcome. Joyce watches Shabalala run his finger around the inside of his collar and feels a “start of warmth.” Despite her impulse toward reciprocal sympathy, however, Matt Shabalala was not “feeling as she was.”
The second epigraph is a quote from a conversation that occurred during the production process of my adaptation of Gordimer’s text at Northwestern [End Page 117] University. The discussion occurred during a particular rehearsal when the cast of students—each enrolled in a class called “Adaptation for Ensemble Performance”—tried to figure out how to stage the final scene at Lagersdorp Location and thus simultaneously tried to come to terms with the significance of this textual moment. One young actress expressed her confusion at the residents’ indifference, having thought that “the black people” would be happy. No, two students immediately replied—one gently, the other not quite so—these people were not “happy that the white people had come.”
This essay uses Gordimer’s text and the process of adapting it into a performance as the basis for theorizing relationships amongst postcolonial theory, critical pedagogy, and performance and theatre studies. It particularly joins cultural theorists who try not only to recognize the experience of marginality but also to investigate the experience of privilege with more acuity. In her essay on deterritorialization, Caren Kaplan joins others who argue that “[f]irst world feminist criticism is struggling to avoid repeating the same imperializing moves that we claim to protest. We must leave home, as it were, since our homes are often sites of racism, sexism, and other damaging social practices” (194). The first plural pronoun in this quotation refers, of course, to a privileged white “we”—more specifically in her essay a white feminist “we”—whose membership may not have fully registered its own historical specificity. Certainly such sentiments appear routinely in much current cultural criticism, sometimes occurring as qualifications in an introduction where a white critic “acknowledges” the “politics” of her “location,” other times appearing in a conclusion where she suggests that maybe she should have done so earlier. While the language may be a bit familiar in such cultural theory, the sense of what an enactment of such language looks like is less so. Similarly, it is equally urgent to consider how the predictable language of identity politics can function to distract from other realms of habit, affect, sensibility, and emotion far more difficult to...