Opinionista Emma Fergus 30 April 2015

Whiteness disempowered, deliberately

The law faculty of University of Cape Town on occasion holds an event known as ‘telling tales’. The occasion involves a member of staff ‘telling their story’ to the rest of us (or at least to those who attend). The idea is to encourage openness about transformation and the climate in the faculty, and to improve our understanding of difference.

On Thursday two weeks ago, a professor told her story. She spoke of transformative moments in her history, and in doing so, I understood.

For a long time I’ve wondered what I, classified as I am as a ‘white’ South African, could do to promote transformation and, for want of a better word, ‘reconciliation’. When the law faculty held its climate workshop, the same question was asked by another white member of staff. If I understood our colleagues’ responses correctly, there is nothing for us to do but to acknowledge, to accept and to listen. Trying to repair, reconcile or respond was not the answer. I left the workshop enlightened but also frustrated. How was listening and accepting going to change anything? On Thursday though, I began, or at least I think I began, to understand.

I have had a lifetime of privilege. While growing up my parents were not particularly wealthy (by white middle class standards at least); they were well educated medical doctors, with sound English accents and middle class life styles. They were and continue to be (when compared to some of their white middle class counterparts) also rather ‘liberal’. Aside from having worked exclusively in government hospitals throughout their lives, and my mother having loyally supported the African National Congress (ANC) since 1994, my parents have always spoken out against Apartheid; perceptible racism has never reared its head at home. My aunt’s imprisonment under the 90 day law during Apartheid was something I have always been immensely proud of. My point is that I grew up attending good schools, surrounded by good books and feeling almost self-righteously liberal. Perhaps most of all though, I grew up with the safety and security of knowing that there would always be food on the table and a roof over my head; such rudimentary things in my world, so easy to forget their absence in others.

Whereas no one can fail to see the physical poverty in which so many people in South Africa live, there is another kind of poverty here. The vast majority of South Africans have either personally or through the legacy of their families spent their lives being controlled by other people – white people. Quite plainly throughout Apartheid, there was a radical imbalance of power between the minority and the majority. The disempowerment that followed and that continues to exist is by no means unknown – at least not in relation to the poor and underprivileged people of our country. What I’ve come to realise, however, is that that disempowerment (or at a minimum that sense of disempowerment) prevails even among the privileged few who have access to university education. Where the university in question is run primarily by white people (and here I’m not simply referring to the administration but also to the deans, heads of departments, professors and teaching staff generally), in terms of western culture, it is pervasive.

When the Rhodes statue debacle began, I supported the substance of the students’ protests, but I was dismayed by the lack of due process and the students’ unwillingness to meet with management at all. To me, this was counterproductive and a display of bad faith. It left a bitter taste in my mouth, and slowly my support for the students’ plight was replaced by a sense of bewilderment and discomfort about who I could trust, and what my place at the university was. Most of all, I felt vulnerable – even threatened and accused, although neither the nature of the threat nor of the accusations was clear to me. I, along with UCT – controlled as it is by white, western culture – had been disempowered.

Last week I realised (or at least I think I realised) that that is my role, or at least part of my role. For transformation and reconciliation to occur, I and every other white person in this country must become vulnerable; we must be disempowered. Only in this way, will the power balance shift. So today, I begin that process and make myself vulnerable – not by telling my short tale as I’ve done above – but by offering this explanation of my understanding.

And yet that cannot be all. I think I can accept vulnerability and a measure of disempowerment. Uncomfortable and unsettling as it may be, relinquishing power, some of my power, is fair. Yet, my need to repair, to reconcile, to be trusted, and most of all to be treated as a fellow human being, comprised of more than just skin, is an intrinsically human need. Please don’t ask me to relinquish that. DM

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