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White fragility debunked – be part of the solution


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

White people, who have gained so much from oppressive systems such as apartheid, are curiously reluctant to engage in meaningful conversations and actions which concern such substantial structural advantages.

A good read of Dr Robin DiAngelo’s book, White Fragility: Why it’s so hard to talk to white people about racism, is a fascinating interrogation of the topic. She indicates that as a white person living in the US, she will develop opinions about race simply by swimming in the water of our culture.

She writes that mainstream sources such as schools, textbooks and media do not provide whites with the multiple perspectives they need.

She goes further in stating that whites develop strong emotionally-laden opinions, but they are not informed opinions.

In other words, their socialisation renders them racially illiterate, she says. When adding a lack of humility to that illiteracy, you get the breakdown often seen when attempts are made to engage whites in meaningful conversations about race.

Social scientists understand racism as a multidimensional and highly adaptive system – a system that ensures an unequal distribution of resources between racial groups.

DiAngelo contends that because whites built and dominate all significant institutions (often at the expense of and on the uncompensated labour of other groups), their interests are embedded in the foundation of US society. This very sentiment can and does apply in the South African context.

White South Africans have had a 342-year (1652-1994) history written exclusively in their favour, as well as a politico-legal, militaristic system yet again favouring them – Broad-Based White Economic Empowerment B-BWEE, “helpmekaar” schemes and government aid for more than 64 years. Furthermore, exclusive and sole access to 87% of the land mass of South Africa, backed by laws.

I have written about this extensively elsewhere.

All the mineral resources of the land belonged to whites for the better part of the last century with minor ownership pattern changes in the last 20 years. Coupled with that are all the marine resources in our oceans through a number of monopoly companies dominating that space.

Needless to say, whites had access to decades of National Party government budgets and seven banks designed to cater for their business and personal needs. This meant that they had access to cheap personal and business credit and loans at very favourable terms.

Twelve multimillion-dollar State-owned Enterprises were created for their employment purposes primarily. A total of 1,500 laws were exclusively designed to put them first in every area of human endeavour at the expense of their black counterparts.

On the education front, they had a dozen purpose-built “whites only” colleges and universities spread across the country, while black learners were subjected to Bantu and gutter education to ensure that they remained subservient and sub-human at all times.

An indentured labour force of 15 million people for 46 years (1948-1994) subsidising their lifestyles – in other words, cheap labour under brutally exploitative working conditions.

As for security in this highly unequal society, a 150,000-member police force catered to their security concerns and the strongest armed forces south of the Sahara were on hand.

Throughout apartheid’s dark days, white South Africans had the tacit backing of most of the Western powers and, as a result, easy access to cheap Western capital, for infrastructure projects primarily in white suburban areas. One trillion rand looted over five decades to fund a utopian, white-centred society, leaving the country bankrupt at the time of the transition to democracy in 1994.

More than 90% of the ownership of the total capitalisation of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange is in the hands of whites to this day. A higher rate of potential employment opportunities across all sectors of industry and commerce remains for whites, contrary to the popular believe that young white males are at the receiving end of Black Economic Empowerment.

This is coupled with a higher rate of monthly remuneration and benefits across all sectors of industry and commerce. Whites have had access to the finest healthcare systems, services, professionals, clinics and hospitals.

In light of the new debate on land ownership, whites have the highest per capita ownership of private homes, vehicles and firearms.

There exists a very clear perception among black South Africans that whites got “hands down” the best political deal in 1994 that money can buy, which enhanced wealth and employment-generating opportunities for them to this day.

Yet, the media, social media and dinner-table conversations have been choked for 24 years with them discussing just how “bad and genocidal” it is for white people to live in South Africa, under a black government.

DiAngelo goes further in the book; she says while individual whites may be against racism, they still benefit from the distribution of resources controlled by their group. Yes, an individual person of colour can sit at the table of power, but the overwhelming majority of decision-makers will remain white, she says.

Whites have organised society to reproduce and reinforce their racial interests and perspectives. Further, they are centred in all matters deemed normal, universal, benign, neutral and good. Thus, they move through a wholly racialised world with an unracialised identity (e.g. white people can represent all of humanity, while people of colour can only represent their racial selves).

So, tell me this: is there any more perfect set of laboratory conditions to study white fragility and cognitive dissonance, anywhere in the world, than the South African white population?

Over the last 24 years of our democracy, most whites have not provided any solutions to the challenges above. They provide no meaningful input to the challenges of land that was stolen from blacks in this country. They provide no solution to the trillions that white monopoly capital and captains of industry sit on, not investing it in the local economy at the expense of growth and job creation.

In addition, they certainly do not provide any solutions to the race question in our country, instead opting to spread falsehoods about a white genocide taking place against their kind.

White fragility, I have concluded, at its core is racist in a South African historical context. We must conduct dialogue about these taboo issues and find common solutions if we are to build a nation and country to be proud of.

Be part of the solution and not the problem, white people! DM

This article was amended on July  9, 2018, to reflect statistics on market capitalisation provided by a  recent report commissioned by Treasury.


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