The first few days of 2012 have seen much-needed conversations about race and the nature of racism. Unfortunately, these debates have also been marred by a particular defensiveness and a failed attempt to understand, never mind empathise with, the experiences of racism put forward by non-white South Africans.
When Lindiwe Suttle tweeted about her experience of racism in Cape Town, several other non-white South Africans voiced additional experiences of racism in the old city. These voices soon joined forces in the controversial and contested Twitter hashtag, #CapeTownIsRacist. Helen Zille, in a rash and petty tweet, called the claim “a baseless assertion” and “complete nonsense”. Zille’s comments were met with anger from several tweeters, including Johannesburg-based singer Simphiwe Dana, who responded: “It is embarrassing that as a leader you would deny people their experiences. Try live in a black skin for once. You have the power to change things. Use it!” And in poor taste and lacking insight, something which she appears to have had in short supply in recent months, Zille accused Dana of being a “professional black”. Originally coined by Jacob Dlamini in a critique of Jimmy Manyi, the term is meant to refer to someone who “trades on his [or her] skin colour”. In a display of Zille’s notoriously thoughtless cattiness, the Premier almost shut down the possibility of reasoned and open debate about race-related experiences of non-whites.
This kind of blind “reactionism” and defensiveness displayed by the Premier also proliferates in less esteemed company. It happens among white peers, as well as online public spaces. When the Mail&Guardian’s Verashni Pillay last week described her experience of racism in Cape Town, her column was met with hostility, not on the merits of her writing or arguments, but instead on the credibility of her claims that she experienced racism. One commentator called on Pillay to cite specific cases of racism she experienced: “I challenge you to list and describe the ‘racist incidents’ which made you ‘flee’ Cape Town. Easy to make allegations, not so easy to back up. Methinks you’re full of sh*t.” Similarly, Zille has begun her own search for empirical evidence of racism in Cape Town, encouraging her followers to tweet their experiences of racism at Cape Town businesses as and when they happen.
While it may be admirable, this kind of pragmatism and positivism in the face of complaints of racism in Cape Town (or anywhere in South Africa) ignores the complexity and nuances of racism. Overt and explicit racism, the likes of which includes denying racial groups access to services or the acts of hate crimes and hate speech, may be dealt with pragmatically. Implicit racism, however, is a much more complex beast to conquer, and its prevalence and existence is often denied by many white South Africans.
This attempt to discredit the racialised and racist experiences of non-white South Africans by white South Africans is common. But who are we, as white people, to deny the racialised experiences of non-white people? What gives us any kind of authority to “legitimate” (or “de-legitimate”) these very real experiences of our fellow South Africans?
I believe that Zille’s blindness – and that of many white South Africans – to implicit racism is a symptom of her “whiteness”.
“Whiteness”, just like race, is a socially constructed element of identity, and is in no way an inherited or genetic trait. But being a social construct does not make it any less real. “Whiteness”, as identified in critical whiteness studies, refers to the invisibility of “white” as a racial category – race only applies to the non-white. The race of white people often goes unnamed, whereas members of other races are frequently identified by their perceived race. Instead, white people and their experiences are centred as the human norm. This is partly exemplified by Zille’s initial denial of the claim that “Cape Town is racist”. A better example would be the comments on Jacob Phamodi’s column in Daily Maverick , wherein he explores his experiences of racism as an “articulate black”:
“Another poor bloody victim.”
“Jacob, after reading your article three times, I have come to the conclusion that the only one ‘preoccupied with your blackness’ is you. The world you describe is not one that I recognise, and your article ends up being nothing more than an anti-white rant.” (my emphasis added)
The first commentator not only appears to deny Phamodi’s experiences of racism, he makes a throw-away comment frequently heard among white peers: that non-white people, specifically blacks, suffer from some kind of victim pathology. It alludes to the racist and privileged belief that, were we to acknowledge the validity of Phamodi’s claims of racism, Phamodi is just another black shackled by his victimhood; another black with a “chip on his shoulder”. Consequently, Phamodi must “just get over it”. A more insidious allusion of this comment, however, may be that black peoples’ experiences of racism is nothing more than a projection of perpetual victimhood, and has no basis in “reality”. When a second commentator states that Phamodi’s description of racism “is not one that I recognise” in an attempt to discredit the author, this blindness of “whiteness” comes to the fore. So, simply because this commentator does not share Phamodi’s experience of racism, it must therefore be irrefutably invalid?
In reference to “whiteness”, Richard Dyer wrote in 1997: “There is no more powerful position than that of being ‘just human’. The claim to power to speak for the whole of humanity. Raced people can’t do that – they can only speak for their race.” When we “race” white South Africans, will they/we stop speaking for the racial and racist experiences of other races? Experiences that, by nature of their being born with a white skin, they/we are often shielded from experiencing themselves?
The denial of white privilege as an element of “whiteness”
In a South African context Dyer’s concept of “whiteness” appears immediately problematic, as many white South Africans feel victimised by policies of affirmative action and BEE that discriminates against them/us. “Reverse racism” is a term often bandied about among white peers and commentators. Such comments try to assert the domination and power of specifically black South Africans to deny their own privilege as white South Africans. They cite non-specific comments made by Julius Malema and other powerful black figures as evidence of “reverse racism” or “white-on-black racism”. In commenting on Pillay’s column on her experiences of racism in Cape Town, some white commentators opted to whine about their own experiences. “Why don’t you write about all the white people that have fled Jhb or Pretoria because of the racism by the black people there, or is it that they, the white people, are being the racists?” asked one. Instead of engaging with Pillay’s experience of racism, the commentator opts to deflect the issue from that of racism experienced by non-whites, to that experienced by whites at the hands of non-whites. Why does this commentator think the racism experienced by whites is any more important than Pillay’s experiences of racism by whites? Is this another element of “whiteness” at play?
But these policies and Malema’s comments are a far cry from being any kind of “reverse racism”, especially in a South African context where millions of non-white South Africans have still not recovered from the dehumanising effect of apartheid. Where these policies are definitely discriminatory, they are definitely not prejudicial and are not racist. Although political democracy has been established, the racial capitalism that has been created by segregation prior to 1948 and apartheid thereafter continues to prohibit the formation of a valuable democracy in terms of socio-economic rights, and South Africa still continues to exhibit an extremely racialised class system.
This was made glaringly obvious by the Income and Expenditure Survey of Households (IES) of 2005/06 and the General Household Survey of 2006. At that time, the collected data yielded results that indicated where non-white races – black, coloured and Indian/Asian – made up 90.7% of the South African population and earned 54.6% of South Africa’s income (which includes both work and grants), whites made up 9.2% of the South African population and earned 45.3% of income. While this study is dated, it is highly unlikely that seismic shifts in these figures have occurred in the last seven years.
This may be further exemplified in the private sector of the Johannesburg Securities Exchange in 2002, where “98% of executive director positions of JSE-listed companies were white (and mostly male) [and] only 64 such directors were black”. In 2006, black directors held only 25% or 558 of South Africa’s 2,245 board positions. Two years ago, of 269 CEO positions, black people occupied 9% and white people 91%. In addition, provinces containing former homelands undoubtedly suffer the greatest degree of poverty – in 2005/06 the poverty rates ranged from 24.9% in Gauteng and 28.8% in Western Cape to 57.6% in Eastern Cape and 64.6% in Limpopo – indicating the prevalence of a black under-class.
These statistics confirm the existence of a largely racial class system in this country, where black South Africans exist in the lower-classes and white South Africans in the upper-classes, that was created and maintained by segregation and apartheid.
“Unless you are going to argue that blacks are ‘naturally’ inferior to whites (which is an outright racist position), you have to admit that there is some mechanism that is limiting black opportunity,” writes Hepshida for Daily Kos. And as we know, many white South Africans do argue that those non-white South Africans who fail to break free of the poverty line are somehow individually and personally at fault. Some argue that black poverty in South Africa could not possibly be the continued effect of apartheid: “I mean, it’s been 18 years”. Others argue that, because their own family members were “arm blankes” (poor whites) prior to 1948 and worked their way out of poverty, non-white people are “lazy” and “just don’t work hard enough” and “are always looking for a hand-out”. All of these comments not only gainsay the depth of the denial of human dignity and humanity of non-white people under apartheid, but also the privilege of many whites to have been excluded from that process. It denies the simple truth that, where millions of non-white South Africans struggle and scramble to feed themselves and their families, most white South Africans have not been at this disadvantage.
This denial of “white privilege” is symptomatic of “whiteness”, just as it denies the extreme disadvantage of non-white South Africans in an untransformed and racialised class system. “Whiteness” as a social construct has taught many white people to be blind not only to the disadvantage of other races, but to the advantage that arises from such a disadvantage. These advantages need not only be economic. In fact, most of this privilege exists in “invisible” social interactions among white peers and groups dominated by white South Africans.
But how are we socially privileged where other races are not?
“White privilege” in social interactions
In “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” Peggy MacIntosh attempts to identify and list instances where she experiences white privilege. Below are some of those instances most relevant to our South African context:
Again, while race and racial identities are merely social constructs, they are very real in their effect on how we move throughout society and interact with other human beings. And these social constructs both give and deny privilege, power and advantage to different groups depending on their race. “Whiteness is not a blank slate, it is not the de facto absence of racial identity any more than maleness is the de facto absence of gender,” writes Kristin Craig Lai. And if we can make whiteness strange, we can identify it as something that is not inalienable to our identities as white people. As a white person, I do not have to act “with whiteness”. It is my choice to be self-reflexive about my interactions with non-white people, and acknowledge that I may never share their experiences by virtue of being white. I can acknowledge that, because my white privilege shields me from experiencing explicit or implicit racism in my daily life, this does not mean that other races do not experience racism. I have the choice to engage and empathise with the experiences of others both like and unlike myself. And then perhaps we may begin to bridge the (often great) race and class divide in South Africa.
“White guilt”, accusations of black-on-white racism and defensiveness are not appropriate responses to the vocalisation of racism experiences by non-white people. “Identity is a complicated and ever shifting thing. If you engage in the ‘more oppressed than thou’ game everyone loses. The point is to think consciously and openly about what kind of privilege you benefit from and what that means,” writes Lai.
This requires humility, and a willingness to engage with and listen to the experiences of others without defensive posturing. If we do this, perhaps we can shrug off the pall of whiteness that blinds us from engaging with the experiences of our peers and fellow South Africans. Perhaps, as Pillay suggests, we can “we can lower the cordons in the locations of our heart”. DM
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Michelle Solomon is doing her Masters in journalism and media studies at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, where she also works as a freelance researcher and journalist. When she's not out sniffing for stories, she takes a particular interest in research about media ethics and self-regulation.
"We spend the first year of a child's life teaching it to walk and talk and the rest of its life to shut up and sit down. There's something wrong there." ~ Neil deGrasse Tyson