White ignorance in a time when #RhodesMustFall

2015-03-27 16:00

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There is a danger in discussing whiteness in the time of the #RhodesMustFall protests. You could rightly argue that it would be detracting from black struggles that are currently receiving more attention than they have in a long time.

I am aware of this danger, but it is because those struggles are so intertwined with whiteness – of higher education institutions, of good schools, of economic power – that I think it is valuable to reflect for a moment on whiteness in (post)-Apartheid South Africa.

As a white South African, watching reactions to #RhodesMustFall unfold is horrifying. It is painful to see how many of the comments made by white people reflect a complete disconnect from reality.

For some reason, be it the design of our cities, the segregated character of our schools, the whiteness of universities or white economic power, us white people seem to think we are the majority and therefore, can dictate the terms of how things should be – white, of course.

We have the arrogance to believe that we can decide whether black experiences and emotions are valid or not and are blind to the fact that this is the very source of their frustration.

We also have the audacity to think that this debate is about a statue. Really?! Where have we been for the past twenty years? Have we not made one black friend in this time, heard their frustrations, wondered how this country has not yet exploded with all the injustice that is going around?

Instead of being overjoyed that there are now enough confident black students at a university to stand up, start a movement and have their say, we roll our eyes at these “unruly students causing chaos when they should be studying”.

“They must be thankful that they have the privilege to study at a university” (but our boys doing their degrees in five years because of too many hangovers – that will not get us fired up).

The fact that students as far away as Canada and England have responded to something that is happening at a university in Cape Town should make us proud of the fact that these students have started something much bigger than themselves and our country. This is a historic moment!

Surely we are the ones who are irrelevant, not them?

Ironically we argue profusely for the statue to stay (you have to laugh at us poor Afrikaans blokes, who argue for it by default, not realising that the Afrikaners hated this guy just as much), saying that we should not forget history, yet this is the very thing we expect black students to do. We expect them to make peace and move on, while their daily lives make it impossible to do so. And in fact, so should it for all of us.

These are some of the depressing realities around whiteness today. Even those of us who think we are progressive, have to constantly face our own ignorance.

But we, as white people, are often confronted with an even more complex dilemma: while it would be easy to react with disgust and dismiss all the comments we regard as ignorant, often the people making these comments are people who are really dear to us, whom we regard(ed) highly and who we believe, in some bizarre contradiction, to be really good people.

The reality is that we are living in a society that is still figuring out how to carry, and ultimately get rid of, the burden that Apartheid and colonialism has left us with.

I have to be careful here. To say that we are all victims of Apartheid is not only ludicrous, but also extremely offensive and dismissive of the horrific suffering and continued struggles of black people in South Africa.

White people are not victims of Apartheid, but we are also products of it.

Does this mean that we should be excused for our ignorance and arrogance? No! It is mind-blowing that some of us still hold the views that we do.

It does, however, point to the extreme complexity of our society that blurs the lines between good and evil.

It reiterates our responsibility as white people to stop pretending that we are South Africa’s saving grace and to call each other out – we cannot sit back and wait for #RhodesMustFall to do it.

But most importantly, it highlights why more inclusive spaces – cities, businesses, universities, schools – for which #RhodesMustFall advocates, are so essential: so that never again we will have a society that is able to foster this kind of ignorance.

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