Defend Truth


Stealing meaning: Don’t be that guy

Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

There are things, advantages and privileges, that white people have that black people don’t. These serve as a reminder of intangible advantages like generational wealth and social capital; things that white folks may simply take for granted. Even if you’re a middle-class or wealthy black person living in an affluent area with access to healthcare and other advantages, chances are you’re still facing invisible prejudices, or you don’t have the advantage of generational wealth. So if you're white, you probably shouldn't be using the language of disadvantage to describe your experience.

There’s a disturbing trend growing among some of the country’s more privileged to claim they’re being discriminated against whenever they’re criticised. What’s going on?

Earlier this month, to mixed reaction, Siya Khumalo wrote a column entitled “Some stuff white people just don’t get”. It was a considered, patiently written piece that explained in careful detail the consequences of connotation, and why people standing on two sides of a word or phrase could experience it so differently. It was a pity the headline leaned towards clickbait, because the text itself was so gently constructed. It explained, without rancour, why certain phrases can come across as racist when used by white people; or conversely, why certain phrases may be experienced as racist by black people, but not by whites.

On social media, many readers said it was thought-provoking. But others – overwhelmingly white – said it was racist. Let’s get one thing straight: I’m not in the school of thought that believes it is impossible to experience racism if you’re in a position of privilege. But I’m sick to death of the term being abused to deflect responsibility.

I know I’m probably preaching to the choir, because if you got this far in this column, you’re probably someone who listens, instead of automatically becoming defensive. Am I right? Between Penny Sparrow, FW de Klerk and Zuma Must Fall, and everyone in between, living in South Africa the last few months has felt a little like being stuck in an eternal episode of Divorce Court or Jerry Springer. You see peoples’ lives as they are imploding, and they don’t have the common sense to stop shouting. I use the marriage example intentionally, because many of my political beliefs have been influenced by being married to a person of a different race. In such a situation, when the other person says something that offends you racially or politically, you do not have the option of shouting, “That’s racist!” and walking off with your lip on the floor. You have to put on your big girl pants, and have an adult discussion, because it’s your home and you both live there. The thing is, the same is true of South Africa. Yet, despite this acute need for life-saving listening, the ongoing whine remains: “That’s racist.” “Not all whites are like that.” “Don’t talk to all whites like we’re a homogenous group, it’s patronising.” And don’t forget the FW de Klerk Foundation’s claim that blacks are more racist than whites.

There seems to be an increasing trend for whites to respond to criticism – or even having their privilege pointed out to them – by howling, “That’s racist!”

But listen, considering the vast inequalities that are still ongoing two decades after apartheid came to an end, surely it’s not unreasonable to request just a normal amount of perspective. The South African Institute of Race Relations SAIRR has reported that the average white income is nearly nine times the average black income, the Gini coefficient differs markedly by race – it is only among whites that it decreased in recent years. Among Africans it increased by a whopping 7% and among Indians and coloureds by nearly 4%, with The Conversation writing that inequality is here to stay for some time.

Numerous studies have shown that crime and violence are not not equally distributed, with Politicsweb adding that “although all races and classes in South Africa are unduly affected by crime, black and poor people are disproportionately affected.” However, the lion’s share of financial resources for the crime response – most of this private – are spent on affluent areas. “The view that whites are being disproportionately victimised needs to be debunked,” the report notes. Your risk of suicide, depression, unemployment and a number of non-communicable diseases (preventable through access to quality healthcare, healthy food, safe places to exercise, etc.) are all higher if you are black.

Then there’s the Mail & Guardian column entitled “Six things white people have that black people don’t,” which serves as a friendly reminder of intangible advantages like generational wealth and social capital – things we white folks may simply take for granted. Even if you’re a middle-class or wealthy black person living in an affluent area with access to healthcare and other advantages, chances are you’re still facing invisible prejudices, or you don’t have the advantage of generational wealth.

I give these examples neither to self-flagellate nor to wag a finger, but just to give a little perspective. There are people earning unliveable wages, getting shot in areas with zero policing, fearing for their lives, getting sick, having to worry every day about prejudice, and when they bring it up, there are some among us who want to have a little whine and a moan about their feelings. Because despite all of these real problems, their priority is to remind everyone that they’re not a stereotype. There is one way to fight stereotyping, though: just don’t be like that.

It’s so easy to say, “Can’t we all just get along?” when you’re winning.

This dogged insistence that you’re an individual, which blocks all dialogue before it even starts, is itself such an undeniable declaration of privilege that the claim of racism should be dismissed out of hand. As Pastor John Metta wrote in his sermon “I don’t discuss racism with white people”:

White people have the privilege to interact with the social and political structures of our society as individuals. You are ‘you’, I am ‘one of them’. Whites are often not directly affected by racial oppression even in their own community, so what does not affect them locally has little chance of affecting them regionally or nationally. They have no need, nor often any real desire, to think in terms of a group. They are supported by the system, and so are mostly unaffected by it. What they are affected by are attacks on their own character.”

Metta goes on to argue that when one is unable to differentiate one’s participation within a racist system (where one is upwardly mobile, not racially profiled, where one can or does live in largely racially segregated suburbs) from an accusation that one is individually racist, and instead vigorously defends one’s own personal non-racism or defensively point out that racism doesn’t exist because you don’t see it, the result is an incessantly circular argument. The black person says, “Racism still exists. We live in a racist system,” and the white person responds, “You’re wrong, I’m not racist at all.” Metta writes of his aunt, who is white: “My aunt’s immediate response is not ‘that is wrong, we should do better.’ No, her response is self-protection: ‘That’s not my fault, I didn’t do anything. You are wrong.’… Living every single day with institutionalised racism, and then having to argue its very existence, is tiring, and saddening, and angering. Yet if we express any emotion while talking about it, we’re tone policed, told we’re being angry.”

This is where the FW de Klerk Foundation’s claim is problematic. The data – assuming a representative sample was used and data collection was accurate – may indicate that there are angry or violent social media posts coming from black South Africans, but it fails to take into account systemic and pervasive racism against black people, which is the underlying problem. Bringing forth a counter-charge simply brings us back to the Divorce Court/ Jerry Springer scenario, and perpetuates the myth of white victimhood. It’s only going to make everybody – black and white – angrier.

Incitements to violence are not acceptable. But they should be dealt with wisely. Fanning the flames will cause us all to get burnt. And as for that ongoing white sensitivity? As Matta puts it, “Millions of Black lives are valued less than a single White person’s hurt feelings.”

For the privileged to appropriate the discourse of disadvantage when they are challenged is outrageous. No, it is not racism when you are called on your privilege. And to abuse the language the disenfranchised are still struggling to use to describe their experience, seizing it to describe your mere discomfort with criticism of your privilege, is the grossest type of entitlement. It’s a linguistic colonialism; a thoughtless conquering of words. Don’t be that guy. DM

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