The problem with whiteness: Ferial Haffajee

2013-03-31 10:01

White people still accrue benefits from their whiteness, even if they claim victimhood.

I started out bored with the idea of whiteness and its attendant studies, but after attending a short part of the “Negotiating whiteness in 21st century South Africa” conference, I am now viscerally opposed to them.

While the stated purpose of whiteness studies is to expose white people to the legacies of post-colonial and post-apartheid privilege which still take racial forms, in fact the field continues to place privileged people at the centre of the gaze of the academy.

As I sat looking out upon a roomful of largely white faces, I couldn’t help but think: “So it’s still all about you.”

I find the field to be one of obsessive navel-gazing that achieves exactly the opposite of what it intends to do – it continues to privilege the privileged and to pathologise their honestly minor issues in the bigger scheme of things.

It is as tiresome as the goings-on of that crew called #blacktwitter on the social media site, Twitter, who continue to believe they are oppressed and exploited despite evidence of rapid social mobility, autonomy, voice and power.

For me, these two groups symbolise a fetish of victimology that underlies so much of South Africa’s lack of self-belief and our inability to capitalise on all our opportunities.

A professor at the whiteness conference has commissioned focus group research where people earnestly pondered their victim status because they had had swimming pools when fellow students had none in apartheid times.

God help me! We have academics who spend their precious days studying this?

And we have people so seriously obsessed with their former privilege they have turned it into a “pathology”?

Why not just share your swimming pool, sponsor a kid’s school fees or give half your wealth away as businessman Patrice Motsepe did?

This is a better salve than self-obsession.

Imagine that woman’s excellent skills put to good use examining why Anene Booysen and Thandeka Madonsela, two teenagers raped and mutilated, came to such sorry ends – the gruesome symbols of a rape epidemic which we still don’t understand well enough to vanquish.

Or to understanding our ticking time-bomb: the two to three million young South Africans who are locked out of the shining South Africa of privilege through an absence of education, skills and networks.

Surely, this is what universities’ sociology and humanities studies are for?

To find insight and assist nations to understanding the fundaments of our legacy.

If whiteness were a small specialisation, sure, but from the conference it is clear that tens of millions of rands and much high intellectual time is going into this intellectual folly.

The topics included a panel called “Theorising whiteness”, “Whiteness in visual presentation”, “Whiteness in print and visual culture”.

It goes on. And on?.?.?.?For 24 papers over two days.

As a country, we have largely?killed non-racialism, and the whiteness obsession is symbol of that.

Non-racialism is under-examined, though it should not be as the philosophy is a constitutional pillar.

It does not mean race-blindness nor is it the easy amnesia of some latter-day adherents (“Woolworths can’t implement employment equity because it’s against non-racialism”).

Non-racialism is the injunction to us by the founding mothers and fathers to find ways to transcend race, not identity, and the congealing ways in

which race has divided South Africans.

It is an injunction to see ourselves and each other as human beings and brothers and sisters before we see ourselves as racialised holograms.

It is the ubuntu we preach but so often fail to practise.

Today, it is almost as hard to find adherents of non-racialism as it is to find whites who benefited from apartheid, and I fear the whiteness movement only entrenches division instead of moving us to the path of informed unity.

Whiteness also renders white people as lesser citizens.

Dotted through its scholarship is an injunction to think twice before speaking out, to know your place because of your previous privilege.

Again, this is the politics of subjugation and not an effort to live out the constitutional principles that provide for equality and for redress.

It enshrines equality upon all of us as citizens of South Africa, but it also commits us to redress for the past.

I would rather our white compatriots commit fully to employment equity and black economic empowerment than engaging their whiteness inside their communities.

All this while maintaining a stoic silence on important national debates from the state of our roads to that of our hospitals.

Supporting transformation would be a commitment to look forward rather than backward.

But instead, these two policies suffer a neglect by both the academy and the privileged in the corporate and managerial suites, all of which are still largely white-led.

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