Maverick Citizen

BOOK REVIEW

Chandran Nair’s latest offering is a step towards us overcoming our fear of freedom

Chandran Nair’s latest offering is a step towards us overcoming our fear of freedom
Chandran Nair, author of ‘Dismantling Global White Privilege: Equity for a Post-Western World’. (Photo: weforum.org / Wikipedia)

Global white privilege is largely propped up by a system of narratives that painted a picture of dispossession and humiliation as ‘civilisation’; together with the erasure of the history of our first ancestors on the African continent. Africa is not only the cradle of humanity, but also of civilisation.

Chandran Nair (Dismantling Global White Privilege: Equity for a Post-Western World Berret-Koehler Publishers, Oakland, CA, USA) has done the global community a great service by holding a very big mirror in front of all of us. The domination of the world by Western powers has become so normalised that we have stopped seeing it for what it is — limiting the freedom of all global citizens to choose how to shape our relationships in many aspects of our lives. 

It is time to change that.

The beauty of Nair’s book is in the courage of the author to acknowledge his own complicity in promoting white privilege in his personal journey as a child, teenager, sports person, artist and many other aspects of his personal development. The author has a profound understanding of the psycho-social dynamics of normalised domination. 

As young black student activists in the late 1960s, we woke up to the devastating impact of internalised oppression and normalised domination of a colonial and apartheid regime. We had accepted being labelled non-white and non-European, even referring to ourselves in our own conversations in those terms. 

It is only when we began to explore how it was possible for a minority to keep a majority subjugated for centuries that we realised that we had to liberate ourselves from this internalised oppression, to free our energies and creativity to become fully ourselves. The naming of ourselves as black and proud, enabled us to lose the fear of the oppressor and the risk of death that the struggle for freedom carried. 

Many young people died from 1976 until Freedom Day in 1994, but the fear was vanquished long before then.

global white world

Paulo Freire. (Photo: serpentinegallories.org / Wikipedia)

Amongst the tools we used were the insights from Paulo Freire, the Brazilian intellectual and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. One of his quotes speaks to Nair’s narrative in this important book:

“The oppressed, having internalised the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom.” 

Fear of freedom is the embedded legacy of post-colonial societies across the globe. 

It is this fear of freedom that has normalised the domination of our world today by Western countries and their worldviews. This domination is expressed in arts and culture; economics and finance; global governance including the UN and Development Finance Institutions; and many other aspects of everyday lives of people across the world. 

The idea that a group of seven nations — the G7 — could give themselves the licence to set global agendas on important matters affecting the wellbeing and safety of the global community, simply because they are the richest countries, is absurd. There is of course no acknowledgement that their wealth is the proceeds of crimes against humanity through colonial conquest and slavery.

Global white privilege is largely propped up by a system of narratives that painted a picture of dispossession and humiliation as civilisation; erasure of the history of our first ancestors on the African continent. Africa is not only the cradle of humanity, but also of civilisation. The theft of intellectual property, including exquisite arts and cultural artefacts, props up the narrative of the West’s intellectual superiority. 

global white world

George James, author of the 1954 book, ‘Stolen Legacy’. (Photo: Twitter / Wikipedia)

An African American scholar, George James in his 1954 book: Stolen Legacy, details the theft of African intellectual property by a succession of Greeks who had been educated in Egypt and learnt at the feet of ancient priests/scholars. The biggest heist was made by Aristotle, who was a tutor to Alexander the Great (so-called) who accompanied the latter in the ransacking of ancient Egypt. Aristotle took back to Greece all the ancient manuscripts from the first Library of Alexandria. Fire was then set and destroyed the library building. 

Aristotle went on to write hundreds of manuscripts at a pace unknown then in world history. What is known today as Greek philosophy, has its roots in ancient African wisdom.

The failure of the Western countries to acknowledge Africa’s contributions to human civilisation fuels the lie of Africa being a “dark continent”. White privilege not only dispossesses but erases the memory of dispossession to secure its dominant grip on global power. The erasure feeds the internalisation of Whiteness as the standard-setter of “progress and development” which in turn promotes acquiescence of most of the world to white privilege.

My own country of South Africa is a prime example of the devastating impact of white privilege. Our negotiated settlement paved the way for the transformation of ours into an inclusive just society with equality of all citizens and gender equity promoting healthy relationships, families and communities. 

The failure of successive post-apartheid governments to follow through with policies and implementation of programmes to realise the just society many fought and died for, is largely due to acquiescence to white male domination of our socio-economic system. Adoption of the neoliberal economic model of development combined with rampant corruption and state capture, effectively perpetuated the colonial and apartheid impoverishment of the majority by a minority. 

The face of poverty remains black. In addition, African languages, history and cultural heritage remain categorised as exotica. The mainstream language, including in Parliament, government and the judiciary, remains English.

The book concludes by challenging all of us to look in the mirror and ask what we are to do at the personal, professional and political levels to free ourselves from this global white privilege. 

Those defining themselves as white have much introspection to do to let go of the privileged way of life that they are enjoying at the expense of most people in the world. The rest of us have a major responsibility to free ourselves from the unconscious acquiescence to an unjust system that is undermining global equity and a healthy planet.

My criticism of the book is in its implicit acceptance of the notion of “races” as distinct categories of people. There is only one race — the human race. 

We need to learn to be human again so we can open our eyes to our inextricable interconnectedness and interdependence within the web of life. It is this realisation that would free us from the myth of white superiority and black inferiority. We are one human race on a single Mother Earth. Our planet’s health is intricately related to equitable relationships amongst us and all living matter.

My other criticism is the use of the terms “non-white” and “non-western”. These terms, used here for purposes of elaborating on the concept of white privilege, pose the risk of re-enforcing precisely the idea of white and Western being standards or norms. Given that those self-identifying as white and Western are such a small proportion of the global population, it makes sense to refer to the rest of us as “most of the world”.

This is a thought-provoking book that should be read by all young leaders, policymakers and citizens of the world who are committed to promoting global equity for a healthy planet. DM/MC

Mamphela Ramphele is a co-founder of ReimagineSA, the chair of the Tutu IPTRUST, co-president of the Club of Rome. She is a change agent rooted in the Black Consciousness philosophy that enabled many young people in the 1970s to self-liberate from the inferiority complex imposed by racist oppression and inspired the revival of the liberation struggle that ushered in political freedom in 1994.

She is a medical doctor, a social anthropologist and global public servant. She was a Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, a managing director at the World Bank, and a non-executive director of many large companies and civil society organisations. She is an author and recipient of many awards including 23 honorary degrees.

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