Stop feeling guilty

2011-07-22 00:00

WHAT do philosophy lecturers in Grahamstown do in the long months bet­ween festivals? In the case of Samantha Vice, senior lecturer in the department of philosophy at Rhodes University, they are wracked with guilt, shame and regret about being white and about enjoying "whitely" privileges. Vice expressed her views in this regard in a recent article in the Journal for Social Philosophy titled "How do I Live in This Strange Place?"

Vice's point of departure is that white South Africans, whether directly implicated in apartheid or not, should be consumed with guilt and shame because of their continuing and conspicuous "whitely privileges".

"In this country it is difficult to avoid thinking of oneself as guilty just by being white, irrespective of directly racist actions, and irrespective of whether one was responsible for acquiring whitely habits. One is — even if unavoidably — a continuing product of white privilege and benefiting from it, implicated in and enacting injustice in many subtle ways; it seems to me that feelings of guilt are appropriate."

She asks what it would take for whites to be good people. She states that whites cannot unproblematically see themselves fitting into, or contributing to, the post-apartheid narrative. She argues that guilt, regret and shame are appropriate emotions for whites and that to be morally successful, they should manifest humble and silent restraint. According to Vice, whites — recognising their damaging presence —

"... would try, in a significantly different way to the normal workings of whiteliness, to make themselves invisible and unheard, concentrating rather on those damaged selves ... One would live as quietly and decently as possible, refraining from airing one's view on the political situation in the public realm, realising that it is not one's place to offer diagnoses and analyses, that blacks must be left to remake the country in their own way. Whites have too long had influence and a public voice; now they should in humility step back from expressing their thoughts or managing others."

Should one really worry about Vice's anguished and introspective ruminations? Unfortunately, one must. Even Max du Preez, hardly known as a defender of "whiteliness", was jolted into responding. The trouble is that ideas — even from the deepest recesses of provincial academia — can have consequences. Vice's views must be challenged for the following reasons.

Firstly, because they are profoundly unconstitutional. The whole idea of our new democracy is that we are equal — and that all of us matter. There is no longer any place for the notion that some South Africans are morally, or in any other way, superior to any other South Africans. All South Africans have a right — and indeed a duty to participate in public affairs, to express their views and to enjoy the rights afforded by the Constitution. The idea that any section of our society should withdraw from the public debate, simply because of their race, is appalling.

Secondly, and probably unintentionally, Vice's views are racist. The essence of racism is the prejudicial treatment, or attribution of negative qualities, to people because of their race. Vice makes no distinctions at all between different classes and categories of white South Africans. Are the 600 000 white Afrikaners who have reportedly subsided into poverty still the bearers of whitely privileges? Are whites who fought for the African National Congress just as guilty as those who supported the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging? Were whites, like Bram Fischer, who advanced the totalitarian dogma of the South African Communist Party, morally superior to genuine democrats like Helen Suzman? Of course they were not. People should be judged as individuals according to the content of their character — and not the colour of their skins — in the memorable words of Martin Luther King Jnr.

Thirdly, Vice is simply wrong about the whole idea of white "privilege". A substantial proportion of whites cannot be described as being privileged at all. The vast majority have acquired whatever wealth they have through the same means as their counterparts throughout the rest of the world: through hard work and enterprise. They pay their taxes, lead their lives as best they can, and make a disproportionate contribution to the economy and to the wellbeing of all of the people of the country. There is nothing wrong with the pursuit of wealth.

Ironically, the privileged, and probably crass, white industrialist who employs 500 workers in all likelihood does more real good than all the philosophers in the country combined or than most of the others who "affect to trade in the public good".

Finally, we must challenge Vice's views because they are dangerous. They will be eagerly grasped by a new generation of black racists who will use them to justify their increasingly aggressive campaign of anti-white stigmatisation and exclusion. It is a short step from the concept of collective racial guilt to dehumanisation. In volatile multicultural societies like our own, such attitudes can lead us back to very dark places.

We South Africans come from a dark place. Our virtue as a people, including vast majorities of all our communities, is that we transcended our deeply divided history and reached agreement on a new society based on the precepts of non-racialism, equality, human dignity and the enjoyment of fundamental rights for all. We have a very long way to go before we achieve these goals. However, the national consensus that is embodied in our Constitution provides an excellent moral compass to keep us all moving in the right direction.

Dear Samantha, stop feeling guilty, stop philosophically flagellating yourself, become involved as an equal citizen in the great issues of our day, and work towards the vision of non-racialism, human dignity, equality and justice that is articulated in our Constitution. If you do, you will find it much easier to live in this wonderful and challenging place.

• This article originally appeared in Die Burger. Issued by the F. W. de Klerk Foundation, July 20, 2011.

Download the PDF of Samantha Vice’s article titled “How do I Live in This Strange Place?”

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