Language, power and privilege in SA and beyond

2014-12-16 12:20

Speaking English as a first language is a privilege. It means you have been raised to attain mastery of the dominant language of global commerce, science and diplomacy. It’s also quite obviously a limitation.

Native English speakers are so often monolingual because learning another language is a luxury, an indulgence that expands our cultural range. We can only envy the French banker fluent in three tongues or the German scholar whose reading ranges across the continental canon.

Still, while it hardly makes sense to call the European middle classes underprivileged, the requirement that they all learn “our” language clearly demonstrates something about how power is wielded and by whom. In this sense, at least, the notion of privilege is less about individuals than about power relations; it is not necessarily a comment on those caught up in those systems of relations. You may be wealthy and in many other respects powerful yourself, but you are still bound by dominant cultural norms.

Similarly, jokes about needing to learn Mandarin express an anxiety about the decline of Anglophone global pre-eminence.

Inequalities of power are a fact of history and can be more or less of a problem. The serious trouble begins when the culturally dominant don’t grant the dominated cultural parity or, more accurately, when the dominated are prevented from expressing their cultural heritage.

Again, this is about how power is wielded: it has nothing to do with how proud or embarrassed you are about your language or how tolerant or jingoistic is your culture, but about the extent to which your language and cultural practices can be expressed and the degree to which acquiring the dominant culture’s practice’s is necessary to flourish or even survive.

When I was growing up, South Africans spoke three tongues: English, Afrikaans and a “black language”. That was how everyone I knew talked: “I couldn’t understand her, she was speaking a black language.” This monoculture presumably made it easier to communicate in a black taxi. Another handy catch-all for any Nguni or Sotho-Tswana language was “Zulu”.

Speaking a black language had obvious limitations. If you wanted to be a part of the modern world, it was obviously necessary that you spoke one of the languages of modernity. And just as black people aren’t interested in theatre, modern finance and society are white creations, conducted in the white man’s language.

But that wasn’t all. The South African case was peculiar because it wasn’t necessary simply to learn at least one of the languages of the dominant race, you were also expected not to gain too fine a mastery of the white man’s tongue.

Race-based education was both a means of ensuring that black people knew their place and an acknowledgment that black culture was not something that any white man would need or want to familiarise himself with – other than out of a detached anthropological curiosity.

Only one of the many consequences of this overwhelming deployment of hegemonic power was that it radically restricted the consciousness of the dominant classes. To white people, black South African cultures were homogenised and rendered invisible.

Needless to say, the cultural attenuation white South Africans brought on themselves is insignificant compared to the prosperity this system of power relations brought them and the economic and social devastation it wrought on black South Africans.

But it is essential to trace the lineage of this attitude in order to make clear that politically motivated ignorance was both necessary for and a product of white supremacy.

The root problem, then, is not white people’s sense of entitlement but the conditions that enable, and are enabled by, that entitlement.

Failing to situate white attitudes in their historical context skews our conception of what white privilege is.

Serious discussions of privilege consequently tend to take two well-meaning forms. One is the white person’s notion, expressed in varying degrees of intellectual sophistication, that we need to change. We need to be more tolerant, more culturally aware. Maybe get some black friends.

In its most basic form, this consists in an appeal for more love and rainbows. In its more intellectual form, this can mean creating art works that seek to destabilise the exclusivity of the canon or newspaper articles decrying ahistorical accounts of white privilege. If you’re a white person, this is a convenient attitude.

Yes, white privilege is a lingering stain on our society, but luckily we hold the power to change it through motivational quotes and subversive performance art, with the latter often critiquing the former. But privilege is not an attitude, it creates an attitude.

Right thinking people have only interpreted privilege, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it. Yet just as recycling and driving a hybrid help smooth over the contradiction of endorsing unabated industrial production, our critical commentary is a nice way of feeling good about not relinquishing, or being deprived of, our privileged status.

The second common form of well-meaning discussion is less self-reflective. It is the view of those who think the rules of the economic game are basically good and equitable and that the principal crime of apartheid was that it was exclusionary.

The system is great, but it’s only fair to the degree that everyone gets to play. On this account, the term “white privilege” is a character reference. To call people out for their white privilege is to accuse them of outdated attitudes. What else could it mean in an open society?

And like “playing the race card”, the scattershot accusation can be a politically loaded way of shutting down discourse. As characterised by journalist Gareth van Onselen, wielders of the term “dish it out fairly and unfairly in equal measure, ironically, all with some kind of morally superior disdain, as if they have discovered some great truth to ‘whites’”.

No doubt this is occasionally true; there are surely instances of the phrase being used to do nothing more than question a white person’s attitude and right to express an opinion. But this line ignores both the everyday usage and the analytical value of the term.

Take the Twitter hashtag #BlackLivesMatter that trended following a recent series of well-publicised incidents in which American police killed black men and children under contentious circumstances.

Clearly, the construction is not intended to remind or persuade anyone of the literal contention of the statement. (“I didn’t think that black lives mattered, but then someone on Twitter told me that they do. You learn something new every day.”)

Very obviously, the hashtag is intended as an indictment of the perceived systematic issues that that lead to black American men being killed at a disproportionate rate by police.

So why did Helen Zille respond on Twitter that, in fact, “all lives matter”. How could she possibly interpret the hashtag as denying that all life is valuable, as a black supremacist statement that “only black lives matter” or “the lives that matter are black”?

Such a silly misreading only makes sense as a defensive manoeuvre. As the expression of an ideological commitment that seeks, consciously or not, to refigure structural critique as an act of identity politics trying to game the system to benefit group interests.

After all, if running a polity on the basis of an “open opportunity society for all” (of which the US is the example par excellence) has the real life consequences of devaluing a segment of that society’s right to safety and freedom then we might have to ask how fair such a system really is. We might even have to consider redress.

This is the sensibility that makes naming a street after FW de Klerk seem reasonable. He ended apartheid, after all, by agreeing to make capitalism inclusive and convincing whites to change their attitudes. And now that we live in an open society (dastardly ANC cronyism notwithstanding) we need to stop pointing fingers and being lazy and get to work, pursuing excellence and innovation.

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