Marianne Thamm

White Like Me

2007-04-26 09:21

Marianne Thamm

The response is usually quite predictable. Attempt to unpack what it means to be white in contemporary South Africa and soon all sorts of heavyweights shuffle out from the shadows cruising for a bruising.

It's almost as if the mere mention of "white" in relation to identity sends pale people into a sort of defensive state of denial.

Thirteen years after the country's first democratic elections - which we celebrate this Friday - it appears as if the majority of umlungus are still unable to accept that we are only pigments of our own imagination.

I suspect much of the irritation at having to engage with issues of whiteness is that white people generally do like to consider ourselves as "other". The singling out of "whiteness" for discussion or debate is often viewed as an attack or a criticism rather than an interesting opportunity to think about things differently.

"Whiteness" to the majority of this minority is a default position, the norm, a position, a meta-narrative from which all else is viewed as "other" - black people, Muslims, Indians, Chinese; actually the rest of the universe that isn't American, British, Australian, European, Canadian - Western, so to speak.

Ask white South Africans to define themselves and many will say we're English or Afrikaans-speaking rather than white.

Few are able to articulate what it means to be white and to live actively in contemporary South Africa. Many are very, very good at whining.

The pigments of our imagination

President Mbeki is likely to touch on the issue sometime soon as his office has apparently called for a copy of UCT academic, Professor Melissa Steyn's 2001 book, Whiteness just Isn't What it Used to be: White Identity in a Changing South Africa (Albany State University of New York Press), a study of how white South Africans view themselves in the new(ish) South Africa.

Prof Steyn identified five "narratives" that contemporary white South Africans use to make sense of themselves.

The first is the clinging to a continued notion that white culture and thinking is "superior" and that its mission is to teach and civilise the rest of the world.

The second sees whites as helpless victims of a reverse order (De La Rey fans?) and as a group that has forfeited power and is being marginalised.

The third position is one in which white people remain entrenched in the idea of a "white culture or identity", accept that they live in a new political/social landscape, believe in racial equality and democracy and resolve to use these "qualities" to succeed.

The fourth narrative is one that denies that whiteness has any implication in relation to black people and that a sort of "colour-blindness" has been achieved. Steyn found that white people who supported or participated in the struggle and who believe in an idea of non-racialism often assume this position.

But it is Steyn's final narrative - "hybridisation" - that offers white people the most liberating and liberated view of themselves and that is perhaps the most difficult one for white people to engage with given the myriad of complex defences, denials, acknowledgements or issues that still need to be confronted.

It is in the process of this "hybridisation", or the creation of a new subjectivity beyond whiteness, says Steyn, that whiteness is unmasked as a "deliberate mechanism of social advantage, rather than an ineluctable biological given" and where we might begin to find a comfortable identity as new South Africans.

Whitey, know thyself...

For years white Zimbabweans withdrew from political life in that country and increasingly white South Africans are doing the same.

"I don't care anymore" or "it's not our problem", are common responses. Other excuses for a lack of engagement are that white people "don't matter" or are branded as "racist" should they dare to criticise.

All of this is nonsense of course.

Intelligent, informed criticism - much of it offered by South Africans who find themselves in a variety of skin tones - will always triumph over bigoted, defensive ranting.

So I leave you (and myself of course) with one thought this Freedom Day week.

Whitey, know thyself.

Send your comments to Marianne.

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