I hate SPUR! Assuming that there are those who do not know, SPUR Steak Ranches is a restaurant chain themed around Native North American culture very popular in South Africa. Its branches have names such as ‘Texas Spur’, ‘Red Hawk Spur’, ‘Silver Mountain Spur’ etc.
The idea being to give you an authentic Native American experience through its menu that consists of spicy beef strips, calamari, nachos Mexicana, cheesy chicken quesadillas. If you feel like a warrior you can take on their famous pork ribs and a variety of steaks. There is even a “secret tribe” your child can join and enjoy various benefits like a birthday meal and a free soda every time you visit one of their franchises. As you can see nothing about SPUR is Native North American except for its use of a Native American chief-like figure on its logo and Native American-esque names and themes. In truth, rather than Native American experience or culture, the imagery used by SPUR is that of the frontier US West and Southwest. Spurs are what cowboys wore and it was the conquest of Native American land, the making them subaltern, which is subsumed in the image of the Native American warrior image in the brand (a brand also largely of Hollywood’s making).
It’s disgusting. An entire people with multiple histories of struggle, multiple ethnic groups with unique lifestyles, languages, cultural symbols and social systems are used to sell chicken-schnitzels.
The erasure of black and other minorities through the removal of cultural meaning and rendering of cultural symbols into one dimensional products or dumbification through commercialization is a staple of the corporate world. However, this racist cultural appropriation by corporations in their advertising is something we rarely explore in South Africa. By erasure I don’t mean absence, I mean symbolic annihilation. Symbolic annihilation is the process of erasure under or misrepresentation of some group of people in the media, this is usually based on race, socio-economic status or religion. A particularly egregious form is erasure through the portrayal of harmful stereotypes and/or invisibilisation through the reduction of history and culture into products or commodities that are then used for profit. This form of erasure is astoundingly offensive as it minimises entire histories and cultures rich with meaning and legacy, rendering them one-dimensional caricatures. This is by no means incidental but part of a system which is inherently racist and which maintains inequality through locating and concentrating privilege in whiteness. Wealth enables those at the top of the hierarchy to continue this system of racial inequality by recreating and perpetuating images of minorities that confirm ideas justifying oppression.
This makes sense of course, if an oppressor can maintain the idea that those they oppress are deserving of their oppression then it becomes difficult for the oppressed to mobilise against them. It reallocates the blame onto the oppressed and allows the oppressor to take comfort in the idea that their privilege is deserved. A collorary is that it allows the oppressor to engender a seraphic image of themselves in the imagination of the oppressed. Centring only them as capable of expressing complexity – a central aspect of being human. The act of dehumanization needs a parallel act of humanization in order to root its legitimacy.
Junot Diaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao articulates it best when he says “if you want to make a human being a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” You might be inclined to dismiss this as “only advertising.” But the advertising world is particularly dogmatic in its insistence on being present in every aspect of our lives. You cannot opt out, you have no choice whether you see them or not – this is precisely their goal.
The images we see are symptomatic of the capitalist-racist culture of South Africa. In such a society everything is a potential product, everything can be commodified. Nothing must stand in the way of the drive towards wealth accumulation.
Within the South African context, we see this in the imagery of dancing, happy blacks in adverts and the use of singular cultural representations. For instance, a particular vernacular word such as AYOBA or a textile design such astraditional prints.Cultural icons as marking gimmicks either to speak to the ‘emerging markets’ or act to spice up high end designs. The latter example uses a cultural symbol in order to add ‘authenticity’ to a product in order to make its target – white people – feel they are part of the rainbow nation. This creates a sense of cultural cohesion where there is none. SPUR Steak Ranches is a great example of this. A beautiful composite of capitalist-racist cultural mis/appropriation, it is truly disgusting and South Africans love it. The joy South Africans take in U.S. racist tropes and cowboy dramas displaces the hard work of dealing with our own racist past.
Perhaps I disagree with Diaz slightly, to render a people monsters on a cultural level, deprivation of cultural reflections is not through denial alone but through symbolic detachment – caricaturising them and making them complicit in it. It is to invisibilize and caricature them to an extent where their annihilation becomes their pleasure. In the case of Spur, this happens for South Africans at one remove, in another place’s history. It is also, increasingly, happens as a form of abstraction.
Racism is disconnected from the body. Complicity then is about the pleasures of consumption, some purported equality in the marketplace. Previously racist-capitalism was focused directly on the black body and mind as the primary sites of violence and/or exploited labour now that that avenue is unavailable it has morphed. Racist cultural appropriation has slipped into the daily routines of normalcy and sediment into our cultural psych. The normalcy of racist mis/appropriation has made us complicit in our continued oppression. It is important we are constantly critical of the things we consume and patronise in South Africa.
Of course SPUR is not the only one to do this, OUTsurance did it with Ashley Taylor, who can forget “All Zee flavours Mochachos” offers and retailer Woolworths has a TV advert, a tribute to Nelson Mandela, with blacks singing ‘Asimbonanga.’ BTW, I love when black people sing; I have enjoyed church songs even though I am a reluctant atheist but the imagery of black workers singing whilst an appreciative white audience enjoys specticalized blackness makes me very uncomfortable. Within the capitalist-racist context of South Africa these images continue to reinforce the ideas which sustain systematic racial inequality. When you do not reflect alternative narratives of a people you often justify their continued oppression. Anyone who buys from Spur is – even if unwittingly – complicit in this.
* Thank you to Lihle Asante Ngcobozi for her contribution to this piece through critique and supportive advice and debate.