There’s a saying in isiXhosa that I reveal with great circumspection - it might even be frowned upon to do so - but I’ll take my chances. The saying is, “Umlungu mdala”, directly translated as, “the white man is old”, although a more fitting translation would be, “the white man is wise”. It’s a saying old people use and maybe still let out in amazement at the inventions assumed to originate from white people.
Recently it has found a particular resonance for me in the midst of a new wave of talk of racism and white people’s continued disregard of blacks.
In the reading I’ve done and the conversations I’ve had, two things stand out. The first is that white people are dismissive of and insensitive towards the wounds and disadvantages blacks have suffered and for which they are responsible or, at least, were beneficiaries of. The second is that they refuse to recognise their privilege or shed their supremacy.
As far as I’m aware, sensitivity isn’t shown to everyone. Anyone who’s been in any kind of relationship will tell you that sensitivity is a grand quality that is found in the wise and mature, and those who possess it are usually known to be “special” to their loved ones.
Thus, to me, statements about gestures from white people such as sensitivity and recognising their privilege, rest on the assumption that they have such a natural capacity. Perhaps it is not known to all, but an admission of privilege is also an admission that one is just not that great. It asks that white people accept that their achievements are less than they seem because they are elevated not by their effort, but by their skin colour – even worse, that they are only good because blacks have been made bad.
To expect that white people must be sensitive, mature and so grand to the level of muting their own perceived greatness is to me an expectation borne of the belief that they all obviously have such qualities. It is indeed, the same expectation we have of black people who must suddenly be grand and confident in our new society despite the many years of systematic beat-downs.
To act in the way black people ask of white people assumes that they are indeed wise and almost God-like. In my view, this cannot be true of either blacks or whites. This is the reason Nelson Mandela has been elevated almost to sainthood.
My worry is that we have assumed that all white people are wise and mature – able fully to know how to speak or treat a people they have hardly had any contact with beyond the power gradient – where they sit at the top. But qualities of sensitivity, humility, maturity and wisdom are not present automatically in all humans and all at the same time.
Bram Fischer called on white South Africans to “… shake themselves out of their complacency, a complacency intensified by the present economic boom built upon racial discrimination.” We can ask, and maybe demand, that white people attempt to be like Bram Fischer, as we can ask and demand blacks to be like Nelson Mandela.
As Njabulo Ndebele said in his Inaugural Steve Biko Memorial Lecture, “We are all familiar with the global sanctity of the white body… The white body is inviolable, and that inviolability is in direct proportion to the global vulnerability of the black body. This leads me to think that if South African whiteness is a beneficiary of the protectiveness assured by international whiteness, it has an opportunity to write a new chapter in world history. It will have to come out from under the umbrella and repudiate it. Putting itself at risk, it will have to declare that it is home now, sharing in the vulnerability of other compatriot bodies. South African whiteness will declare that its dignity is inseparable from the dignity of black bodies.”
It is a myth that the “white man is wise” as much as any stereotype about blacks. Recognising this will move us closer to a non-racial South Africa where no one is assumed or accepted to be more or less than what they are, neither superior nor inferior. We are all individuals with flaws and vulnerabilities. DM
While we have your attention...
An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money - though not nearly as much as its absence.
Every article, every day, is our contribution to Defending Truth in South Africa. If you would like to join us on this mission, you could do much worse than support Daily Maverick's quest by becoming a Maverick Insider.
Click here to become a Maverick Insider and get a closer look at the Truth.
Xhanti Payi is a writer short of a few best selling books and a Nobel Prize. He works as an economist, researcher and advisor to various institutions. A staunch believer in clever blacks and would-be clever blacks short of opportunity. Proper pronunciation of the click is optional.
"Look for lessons about haunting when there are thousands of ghosts; when entire societies become haunted by terrible deeds that are systematically occurring and are simultaneously denied by every public organ of governance and communication." ~ Avery Gordon