The White Elephant in the Room

2016-01-20 14:22

Hey white people,

This is a fairly long article, but I challenge you to read it to the end. You may get uncomfortable, but it’s necessary. This article isn’t an ode to white-bashing. Quite the contrary. I’d just like to debunk a few myths that thrive in the world of whiteness. And even if you’ve miraculously never said or thought a racist thing in your life, I urge you to keep reading anyway.

Firstly – The Great Colonial Way:

Depending on which way you look at it, or the context you approach it from, you could either view our colonial history as magnificent or deplorable. Our ancestors, those valiant European sailors, steered their big wooden ships to all corners of the globe (which used to be “the flat”) during the glorious (read: notorious and infamous) days of global conquest, and decided to either enslave or civilise whichever exotic tribes of humans they encountered. They also took minerals and metals out of the ground and sent them back home to Europe where they became crowns, and thrones, and coins, and furniture and who knows what else. White priests brought religion to the so-called “godless masses” on the continents of yesteryear, but then used that same religion to justify the slavery and oppression of others. Yikes! But wait, there’s more!

Our fore-daddys expended a significant amount of energy building new cities in the colonies, all whilst drawing up legislation that completely excluded the locals. They took every step necessary to ensure that indigenous humans didn’t come near their new-found treasure and land. But the pilgrims weren’t completely devoid of compassion (sarcastic? me? never!), because they also took the time to try and “civilise” the locals.

That’s an interesting word – civilised. Who set the bar for civilised behaviour? Every human settlement in the last 50 000 years was called a “civilisation”. White-defined normative social behaviour is not (underline that “not”) the epitome (did I say that properly Andrew Barnes?) of civilisation. This entire notion is entrenched (read drenched) in whiteness. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be global standards to aspire to, but I’m saying that those standards should not be dictated by whites alone. Not anymore, at least.

So, the great colonial way, hey? Magnificent? Nah. I think it was pretty deplorable. Did you know, just by the by, that the foundations of Western civilisation were heavily influenced by the Egyptians, who were Africans living in Africa? Yes, that’s right! Amazing!

The lame-ass-butt of white rebuttals:

I can already hear some white folks yelling, “it’s not that simple because colonialism did many good things too”. That may be so, but the legacy of colonial history is largely devastating, far-reaching and long-lasting. There are so many diverse defences that white people assemble from the false notion that Africa would be nowhere without us, and those #defencesmustfall. It’s arrogant – sies.

It’s also ludicrous to use that very tired old argument in defence of colonialists, which goes something like: “but remember they were merely a product of their time.” That doesn’t mean they cannot be held accountable for their actions. It’s like saying we should forgive Hitler because he was a product of his time. That is flawed reasoning. Within all of us resides an inherent basic instinct to know when we are being evil. If you continue to propagate evil behaviour, that is a choice. You have chosen that path. And you and your followers must take responsibility for that choice when you are called out on it.

Another favourite white rebuttal is this little gem: “but black people are also racist.” Now how does that help us whities to address our own racism? It’s tantamount to primary school children shouting, “but you did it first!” – it gets us nowhere because it’s a circle that goes round and round forever. It’s more appropriate to look inward first and foremost, before we point out the flaws of others. Ask yourself why you have been called a racist. It’s much better to live by example, than to clumsily defend yourself by exposing others.

Check this goodie: “white people are successful purely because of hard work and effort.” That isn’t true. White people have a massive head start in life, because the system was aimed to benefit only whites, at the cost of suppressing black people. It does not mean that white people don’t work hard, but work isn’t the only reason you got to the top. When a black person, who was previously oppressed and disadvantaged, proceeds to educate them-self and rise out of their circumstances to reach for a better life, that is Black Excellence. It’s not the same as white excellence, because black excellence is something that was achieved despite the fact that the system was against them. I’m hearing another rebuttal now, but it’s disingenuous to talk about white poverty in South Africa when the percentage of underprivileged whites is negligible.

I constantly hear whities ask, “Why do black people keep voting for the ANC?” But listen, white people can’t dictate the way that liberated Africans will vote after colonialism, because the dynamics around who people choose to keep in power are very complex, and I’m not really in a position of authority on the matter, but I do know that this question makes an inaccurate assumption that black people are ignorant. I see more and more black people holding the ANC to account every day. We must give our youthful democratic process the space it needs to settle and grow.

We can’t keep saying, “ja, but like Apartheid ended 20 years ago hey”, because we haven’t addressed the inequalities that originated from Apartheid. Twenty-two years is but a drop in the ocean of our long-suffering history. We have to concede that drastic measures need to be implemented, successfully, if we are to begin to dismantle white supremacy.

The white supremacy delusion:

So why do white people suffer from a superiority complex? ….. *crickets* ….. No really – why? We’re all humans. In fact, on average, the genetic similarity between any two humans is 99.99%, according to the Human Genome Project. All races of the human species have the same brains, the same flesh and the same blood flowing through them. It’s only really our skin colours and our cultures that differ. And that’s to be expected, considering how we migrated and settled in different parts of the world.

Skin colours developed according to the climate we lived in. More melanin meant very effective protection from the harsh southern sun. Less melanin meant less protection was needed because the northern hemisphere sun is very shy. That’s all. No biggy. So why is it then that skin is such a big issue? It’s just an organ that we all have. The fact that white skin has become the symbol of success and progress is a major problem. The fact that we are privileged because of our white skin, is incomprehensible.

Oh, so you don’t believe in white privilege?

Tell me, have you ever thought about how your skin colour might affect how people perceive your financial responsibility, style of dress, public speaking skills, or job performance? Have people ever assumed that you achieved your career success purely because you are white and have benefitted from some sort of empowerment or affirmative action program? Have people ever been surprised at how well-spoken you are, you know, being a white person and all? Have you ever had to worry about being the victim of police persecution, or being the suspect of a crime, just because you are white? Nobody will ever suspect that you stole the fancy car you drive. Have you ever been told, by an estate agent, that the house you’re wanting to rent is “suddenly” and miraculously off the market, merely because they figured out your were white?

Consider this: when you are taught about history and civilisation, you are taught that white people are the reason the world is so amazing. As a white person, nobody will ever make fun of your children being killed, or wear “whiteface” because “white people are so funny.” You’ll never have to prepare your kids for the harsh realities of institutional racism. You can dress in any way you like without being labelled a criminal because of what you’re wearing. Nobody in your neighbourhood-watch will ever text you to warn of “two suspicious white males standing on the corner of your street.”

You won’t ever need to explain why cultural appropriation is disrespectful. You’ll never be told to “get over” your painful past, as if that pain is insignificant because you weren’t directly harmed by it. Imagine that – get over it.

Denial Syndrome:

While we’re on the path to understanding terms like “white privilege”, “white supremacy” and “whiteness”, we cannot be in denial about them. Denial completely negates the possibility for growth. For growth to occur you have to assess your flaws, and find ways to improve them. Nobody has ever claimed that it’s an easy process, but it’s worthwhile if you are prepared to do it. I haven’t always viewed matters this way. I used to deny white privilege too, but over time I started to investigate to try and understand why these terms were being tossed around so much. Eventually I saw what my whiteness had previously blinded me to.

Are whites generally racist?

We need to start having uncomfortable conversations with our peers. You know, the ones we usually avoid because they’re taboo. The, dare I say, white elephant in the room. In white company the word “racist” usually inspires nervous jitters and comical attempts at changing the subject. If someone says “racist” while mom’s dishing up Sunday lunch, she’ll no doubt titter and drop the roast chicken in the chocolate mousse. Honestly, we know that even if we aren’t necessarily racist, we have moms and dads, or aunts or grandfathers or cousins or friends who are racist. There’s no point in denying it. And the more we deny it, the sillier we look.

So let’s talk about it. Of course these conversations won’t be easy. Things will get very uncomfortable. But that’s a necessary thing. We’ve been comfortable for far too long, enjoying our lives in our lily-white bubbles. Think about the fact that black Africans have been uncomfortable in Africa for hundreds of years. Surely some discomfort on our part is necessary in order to advance?

Speak up!

Achille Mbembe recently wrote a piece in City Press titled “The Year of the Monkey”. Incidentally, according to the Chinese calendar, 2016 happens to be the year of the monkey – eat your heart out Penny Sparrow. Mbembe wrote: “Now is the time to steeply raise the cost of being racist in South Africa. To achieve this goal, we need to create an environment where to be racist amounts to putting at risk one’s fortune, reputation, professional standing and friendships, and one’s international connections. We must make the life of the racists in our midst so uncomfortable that their only remaining option will be to pack up and leave.”

When the likes of Penny Sparrow utter their bigotry most white people are silent. Yet, when Velaphi Khumalo wrote about the extermination of whites, I saw #BlackTwitter release a torrent of condemnation at him that matched, perhaps even surpassed the backlash Sparrow had to endure. I was delighted to see this, but also embarrassed. Embarrassed because white people, on the whole, remain mum about other white people’s blunders. Let black twitter’s response to Velaphi Khumalo be an inspiration to whites to actively call out racism in our own ranks.

Support your comrades.

I think the new, revived, Black Consciousness movement, being lead and driven by dazzling young black intellectuals all over the world, is one of the most important processes of our time. After colonial domination ended, white supremacy did not. The racist structures that unfairly advantaged white people all over the colonial map still exist today. And it’s not for us whites to determine how or when those structures will fall. Take note of what’s happening within these movements. And please, pay no attention to the few rouge vigilantes that make a mockery of the movements. Stay focused on the genuinely altruistic motivations behind these important events.

I was once one of “those whites” who dismissed the #MustFall protests as violent and unproductive. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Once again I was blinded by my whiteness. After taking the time to get to know these movements, I feel very differently. It’s a constant process of learning. And it requires listening, rather than talking (read shouting) down to those asking to be heard.

Where to now?

First of all, don’t be ashamed. White shame doesn’t advance the cause. Rather help to shake up the status quo and rock the boat. There’s no point in hiding in comfort, enjoying salmon Col’Cacchio pizza, when so many of our fellow South Africans are having to choose, daily, between maize or canned-pilchards.

Call out your racist family members and friends.

Listen. If you can’t put away your pride and listen, then you will stay behind. Don’t fear difficult debate. For example, if black people want to talk about land and economic reforms, then talk about it, with mutual respect. And don’t panic, nobody is going to come in the middle of the night and remove you from your homes and resettle you far away – those are the kinds of things white men do.

The painful colonial legacy is something we should be clambering to shake off in an active, engaged and meaningful way. Help to crack the foundations of white supremacy, and watch the structures tumble down, one hardened block at a time. This is the year we clean our own white house, before we presume we have to clean anyone else’s.

In conclusion:

I’d like to mention a few of the names of living black people who have helped to shape my current views on the complex matters above. I think it’s important to mention their names because we should all be reading their work. You don’t always have to agree, but engage with their ideas. It’s liberating. Read the essays and books of Achille Mbembe, Panashe Chigumadzi, T.O. Molefe and Eusebius McKaiser. Also read some Ferial Haffajee and Siya Khumalo. Also read Andile Mngxitama, he’s radical, but he makes many valid points. Follow Nomboniso Gasa on Twitter. Also follow Sisonke Msimang and Nomalanga Mkhize. Appreciate the art of Ntsiki Mazwai, Phillip Dikotla and Nkoto Malebye. Listen to Redi Tlhabi on the radio, and watch Justice Malala on television. There are many more. Find them, and then listen to them. Engage. Respect. Learn.

If you aren’t prepared to do the work, or you think I’m just a self-hating lefty, then you have missed the point and I release you to go back to your gin & tonic, you white supremacist, you – *squeezes your cheeks like a vexatious aunty*.

Follow Pieter on Twitter: @PieterHowes

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