Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A racial storm in a misplaced teacup

The Virgin Active “racism” saga is not sitting well with me, and although I shouldn’t be, I’m a little annoyed.

I’m annoyed because the issue at hand was never about race to begin with; it was about inappropriate behaviour in a public environment, but being South Africa, that card had to be played. It always does.

In a nutshell, a Virgin Active member, Liz Hleza, claims she was a victim of racial abuse when, in a spinning class, she was attacked by a fellow spinner who didn’t appreciate her enthusiasm, which was expressed by yelling ‘yebo’ every so often. Hleza claims she was called a cockroach, a c**t and a k****r.

The Internet and social networks have run wild with this, slamming Virgin Active for not reacting appropriately and calling for the alleged racist to be named and shamed.

Here’s how I see it.

Being an avid spinner myself, I know that it is not uncommon to have the odd over-excitable spinner who likes to make his or her enjoyment known through the odd whoop or whistle. Nothing wrong with that. Spinning classes are, after all, about the energy rush and the pure satisfaction you get after completing a level 10 climb without bursting your main artery. Hell, one of my instructors makes us sing that awful “Hey baby (I wanna know if you’ll be my girl) song; if we don’t sing loud enough, she makes us turn up the resistance. Making a noise is encouraged.

What annoys me to no end in a spinning class are the two friends that sit next to each other and jabber the whole way through the class, straining their voices over the blaring music. It’s enough to make me want to squirt them with my water bottle and tell them to “shoosh”, as the alleged Virgin Active offender’s friend did to Hleza.

So I can understand the guy’s frustration at the continuous shouting throughout the class. Spinning takes a lot of concentration (sticking to the beat while hovering your butt over the seat is no small feat), and that concentration is very easily broken, especially when you’re trying to hear your next orders from the drill sergeant, er, I mean instructor. When you eventually are in your zone, it’s highly annoying to be jerked out of it by mindless chatter or, in this case, constant screaming.

Hleza, who felt she didn’t get the right response from Virgin Active’s management, took her frustrations to the media.

Shock. Horror. Queue social media outcry. Racism is, once again, in the spotlight.

Conspicuously absent from the media reports, however, was the alleged bully’s side of the story or any neutral account from other people in the class at the time.

Granted, if there was tension to that degree in the class, the instructor should have tried to defuse it, asking one or both offenders to leave the class. Granted, too, if the situation did indeed escalate to the point that the ‘k word’ was thrown about, then management should have gotten involved.

Let’s just state for the record that every South African and his dog knows how offensive that word is and how much trouble one can get into for even whispering it under your breath. Throwing it around loosely in the same way that one would, say ‘idiot’, is social suicide. Why would you do that? It’s just stupid.

The problem is, according to a witness account on Ray White’s 702 Early Breakfast this morning, that word was never used. Not once.

According to the witness, the ‘bully’ first asked Hleza to keep it down. In response, she yelled louder and more frequently. The bully called her a cockroach. He deserved to be pushed off his bike for that (with his cleats still fastened). But then … Hleza apparently proceeded to antagonise him, daring him to call her the ‘k word’.

The situation reminds me of a time, years ago, when I would irritate my sister until she hit me, just so I could get her into trouble with my parents. Childs play, really.

This smacks of attention seeking to me. The fact that she took her story to the media and said that he had used the expletive, when witnesses say he didn’t, means something is deeply wrong in our society.

However, what’s even more disturbing is that the media jumped on the racial bandwagon, without once reporting the other party’s side of the story or even bothering to contact witnesses. Unethical and irresponsible reporting to the extreme.

Has anyone ever once stopped to spare a thought for the alleged bully? He’s been made out to be an intolerant racist, yet he was merely trying to enjoy his exercise session.

Added to this the can of worms that has exploded all over Virgin Active’s face. Now people are emerging from cracks in the walls, telling of how they, too, have been victims of racism at the health clubs. Even more worrying is that the Mail & Guardian is encouraging people to share their racism experiences at Virgin Active, designing an entire form for people to fill out detailing the incidents. What are we doing??

Pouring fuel onto an inferno is the last thing the media should be doing.

It’s bad enough that people all over Twitter are supporting the victim, with the word ‘yebo’ even trending and being bandied about like a joke. Mail and Guardian editor Nic Dawes even tweeted: “YEBO! As you heft that weight, YEBO! As you hit the pool, YEBO! On the treadmill and the bike. YEBO!” So much for balanced and fair reporting.

Where’s the other side in this? Where are the witnesses?

The fact remains. This was about inappropriate behaviour, not about race. It’s sad how easy it is to start a racial war in this country. More tolerance, people. It’s the only way we’ll survive.

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