I was Catholic in another life and I’ve still got burn marks from where the holy water was sprinkled on my skin to prove it. And while I have discarded much of what the religion taught, I retained its moral introspectiveness. I would read situations from the inside out, starting at my role before other people’s.
Until this morning, when I began to question my focus on my culpability for the situations I find myself in. I saw this in Eusebius McKaiser’s Facebook status:
EVERY DAY I judge a white person, including one born after 1994, for being oblivious to their unearned privileges, for example. I judge FW De Klerk. I judge Wouter Basson. I judge the racist trolls. I judge English speaking white South Africans who think they are a different species to white Afrikaans farmers, say, and oblivious to the ubiquitous nature of white privilege flowing from racism. I judge Max Du Preez, and his ilk, who think that a past that included a few days in jail, or anti-NP media, means they could not be racist ever, as if that past gives them immunity from racial politics in our democracy.
For anyone who’s ever wondered whether there’s enough racism policing happening out there, I only counted six “I judge” statements in this paragraph. And this seems to be the unquestioned norm among black thinkers I read, love and admire. Did I miss the boat on this one? Am I being too sensitive?
I used to assume that some people were assholes, others racists, and that I had to worry more about my part in an interaction than theirs. Because I have to live with myself far more than with other people. Speck in your eye versus log in mine, you know? Also, that nobody can make me feel inferior without my permission? This sentiment seems lost on many, though; it’s another vestige of an antiquated religion that foists guilt on its victims. Perhaps I was just being holier-than-thou. I really meant well; I thought I was taking my personal power back from racists both real and imagined. Because I thought that was the only cure for both.
Some background to the quoted above paragraph: Eusebius has been statusing and writing about Eugene de Kock, FW de Klerk and many other key apartheid players now that they’re reappearing in conversations of national import. So brilliant was what he wrote last night that I remarked, “You’re on fire!” The above paragraph was this morning’s instalment in that larger discourse. Follow him and judge these words in the larger context of those reflections, if you wish. I’ve spent the day turning them over in my head. I do not presume to know his broader message. But I can share the impression that’s developing as a result of these types of messages: some academic utterances justify this kind of wording, and in fact you won’t sound like you’re dealing with the issue of the day unless you’re honest enough to use language like this. The below thoughts show what I mean by “language like this”.
Amidst truthful write-ups about racism in Cape Town, the blogosphere has been saturated with many writers’ white-shaming sentiments. It’s trendy and legal. If you’re one of these writers, if the shoe fits, wear it. If you’re not and it doesn’t, then don’t. If you feel, as I’ve done with Eusebius, that I’ve extracted something out of its original context to show how easily the original point can be lost, I get it. But I cannot remain silent about the impression I just keep getting. Because if I’m right, silence would be complicity.
Subtle, insidious white-shaming, much of which is based on facts. One never runs out of facts in South Africa. Apartheid, colonialism, inequality, unexamined white privilege and so on: pick one, pick all. The key is in the way these facts are narrated, in the way the human storyteller arranges their elements and the conclusions he draws concerning white people, as though his own (potentially racist eye?) stands apart from what he’s observing. Beneath the gentle, concerned tone of the author, whichever author it is, that dissects racism in South Africa, is there a need to wield the pen like a scalpel, teasing the wounds for just enough of bleed to sate the blood-lust and anger of the readers once again? Are we dabbling in reasoned hatred? Are we Trojan-horsing it amidst true stories and legitimate concerns, disguising it as merely an examination of the social dynamics of such-and-such an event, such-and-such a structural inequality or the goings-on of such-and-such an institution?
Do we use it to distract ourselves from problems that are inflicted by leaders who share our skin colour? I didn’t think of the pen-scalpel metaphor myself: I got it from a white reader who, after reading many of these kinds of pieces to see what role she could play in mending South Africa, felt instead that she’d “undergone open heart surgery” and that “the surgeon had nicked my lung in the process, just out of spite, and has stitched me back together again so badly that I am weak and bleeding and not at all in a state to be able or even willing to cooperate with whatever is expected of me”. I’m sure she feels encouraged to face the demons of her white privilege and racism, now. She finally got the message.
Pity this piercing moral gaze is seldom turned closer to home. If apartheid once privileged a few white people at the expense of many black people, and white people failed to immediately do everything in their power to stop that system from the day of its inception, can’t it be argued that we black people are showing streaks of a similar tendency? Right now, we have a group of mostly black leaders that steal, lie and rape; they perpetuate the effects of the very apartheid we still blame white alone people for. We voted these leaders in: where is the meā culpā, meā culpā, meā maximā culpa? that’s supposed to show our awareness of our complicity in perpetuating apartheid’s effects today?
I feel this binge of white-shaming has come with weird timing. Why have we waited 20 years to dump this guilt on “them”? My theory is that 21 years ago we felt, with good reason, that we could rebuild the nation without resorting to heaping guilt on white people. We chose that constitution, we sang along with the songs, we clapped at the sight of the same rainbow formation, white doves, new flag, and so on. We had the good sense to elect leaders like Nelson Mandela into presidency. The rebuilding got off to a slow start but had we continued on that trajectory and learned our lessons as we went along, I submit, we would be having very different conversations today. We would have a different country on our hands. And we’d still have built on some redeemable facets of apartheid’s infrastructure. In short, we could be building relationships with less friction as races. We, black people, have been at that particular wheel (political) for two decades and we’ve been perpetrating much apartheid on ourselves, by ourselves. Isn’t a balanced perspective on apartheid’s lingering legacy a perspective that takes this fact into the equation?
Or at least that’s how I thought until this morning. Now I’m struggling with doubts. When the brightest stars among us so frequently make it seem so okay to just shame white people, and do not often enough annunciate why it could possibly be wrong to do so (or pontificate on when it is okay at such length and complexity that I cannot follow the nuances of their argument) then why not join the masses beneath them and hate white people? Isn’t that simpler? Why continue presenting white people 40 million differing perspectives on what does and does not constitute racism, and just unite in hostility against them?
Someone who takes exception with this piece may say, “Nobody claimed that no good white peoples exist; it’s simply that…” But that sounds an awful lot like, “Some good blacks exist; it’s just that…” Does such a statement become correct when its black-on-white
because of apartheid?
I believed that another reason we refrained from white-shaming for that long was because (and even McKaiser admits this) a lot of white people did fight against apartheid. Others suffered in other ways – think conscription – at the hands of the system that, though privileging them more, also controlled them on many levels. And some black people benefited by colluding with that government against their own. Now that we don’t necklace our own as often as we used to, I find that nothing black people may have done to betray other black people, then or now, can eclipse the halo-nobility of being a black survivor of apartheid. If having been an activist against the old regime doesn’t guarantee one immunity from “racial politics in our democracy”, then neither does having been a black struggle hero guarantee one immunity from any form of evil – as we’ve seen! Yet in spite of this, nothing white people could have lost while fighting against the apartheid government will ever absolve their sin of being white. Blackness is my license to set the terms, determine the thresholds, and judge white people.
You wrote a few anti-apartheid articles and got jailed for those by the old regime? Good for you! I’ve never seen the inside of a jail cell but by this logic I can reserve the right to recalibrate the standard so that in spite of your anti-apartheid activism, you’re still guilty for having gotten a better education in the first place. Because whiteness. It appears I can shift the goal posts and you can’t. It appears you can’t tell me that I’m wrong and won’t tell me what to write. And don’t dare ask how I snuck into a former Model C high school so soon after 1994, or why I don’t boycott all benefits that may have been filtered to me through white institutions. It appears I don’t have to be consistent. Because blackness. If you point this out, I’ll say you’re racist and you shall feel the Old Testament wrath of black Facebook and have to change your profile picture.
Each time I speak to a white person about apartheid, I absolutely do anticipate he will say, “We didn’t know”, to which I will reply, “You had a vested interest in not knowing”. This isn’t condemnation, excuse or judgment: it’s an uncoloured observation. Even the white person who died fighting apartheid had a vested interest in not knowing; he simply chose to forgo that vested interest for a higher truth. How do I know what each white person did with his vested interest in not knowing? See, there is a fine line between ignorance and ignoring, and I am not in the business of figuring out how deep anyone lived on which side of that line. Can I presume to know? If I do, I guess I’ll be forgiven because I’m black. So much moral power: where do I begin misusing it?
I am tired of being reprimanded for how idealistic I am. All along, I resisted the urge to assume that beneath the thoughtfulness, principled sensitivity and whatever else a person of any race present to me, there must exist a racist core, hidden by the niceness, of which even they are not aware. I resisted it because while it could exist in them, it could also exist in me. The bible says, “Seek and ye shall find”. Look for the flaw in the way someone interacts with you, and you won’t be disappointed. Decide to create distance instead of understanding, and nothing the other person does will ever be right – not by your standards and not by theirs. If he learned Zulu* it wouldn’t be seen as an attempt at reconciliation. It would be seen as his attempt at appropriating my mother tongue into his self-congratulatory agenda to “white-wash” just how extensively he has benefited from apartheid. He wanted my approval for learning Zulu when it should be standard for people to learn one another’s languages – I never got a pat on the back for learning English – and maybe I should stop feeling like he’s reaching out across the divide and instead point out how he keeps missing the mark.
If he says, “We’re learning the Zulu language because it’s spoken by the majority of people in this province, which is the only one named after a language, this language”, I can simply point out how he’s now admitting that he’s a foreigner and tourist in this land. Being South African requires internalization; he’s still essentially a European with a racist background. “No, I’m learning Zulu because I like it and I really want to!” Goddamn, that’s my language, a part of my identity. Where do you get off just “liking” it as though it were a triviality that crossed your Facebook timeline?
Once I’ve decided to create distance, nothing anyone can do will ever close it. Once I’ve shut the door, nobody can ever open it.
And if the imaginary person did find the right response to my accusation that he’s learning Zulu or doing what he’s doing to help integrate himself in the new South Africa, he would have stripped me of the security blanket of perpetual victimhood. His rationality would be the final proof of his limitless racism. He’d be taking from me the one identity apartheid gave me: the morally wronged, the righteous victim, the one the world owes amends to. Don’t you understand that I need it so that I never have to look within to see where my feelings of inadequacy begin? Given the bottomless need to be vindicated and affirmed, the charge of racism may allow me to take my insecurities and read them as contempt in your face whenever I see you. I’m able to do this with you because you’re white; you’re “other”. I can’t afford to read contempt, however, in the multitude of black leaders as they recycle lies and treat me with absolute arrogance. Contempt from one’s own people sticks. I need you, and your white face, because once I read racism in it, I can purge away, I can finally expel, the accumulated feelings of hopelessness about my situation, both internal and not, which are as a result of the choices I make and the leaders I choose and the elders I listen to. I can do this by twisting and uglifying whatever you do and are as racism. I then feel superior to you and can live with myself. “Siya, you just can’t see how much the whites really actually hate you”, I’m often told. “They only pretend to want you to have a share in the wealth of the land, and you’re naïve enough to believe them. They’re using you and your blog posts”. Well of course I can’t see the mote of how much they actually hate me: I’m so fixated on the beam of how much we need them to hate us. What would we be without that story? There are enough racists in the world: why does it have to be only and all white people?
Normally I wouldn’t want white people to be white around me on my terms, which on a bad day may be full of resentment, bitterness and judgment, just as I will not be black around white people on their terms, which may be based on their systemized ignorance concerning how “white-washed” the terms have been for the last four centuries. Please ignore the fact that I’m writing this in English. But slowly, I find I’m losing my religion.
Wouldn’t it be refreshing, if you were white, and someone just said it? “I hate white people, and short of handing everything over there is nothing they can ever do to change that”? No more figuring out subtleties and nuances that require advanced degrees in ethics, philosophy and law, not to mention a thorough knowledge of history, anthropology and God knows what else. No more chasing this mirage of getting to know people who are different from oneself, only to find out that one haven’t even started hearing their story? No more emotional cat-and-mouse, tip-toeing, fearing that someone will take offense at an accidental action or word, or that there may be yet another way one doesn’t realize one is being racist towards me (but never vice-versa)? Isn’t it nice that one can finally reclaim one’s pride at being white without feeling like one is offending me, because I have now finally capitulated to the hatred that saturates the blogosphere?
Wouldn’t it be nice if the rigmarole ended? To admit that white people can never get it right? I’m tempted to end it by just giving in to this building impression that it’s okay to shame white people. And maybe attack a few foreigners in Soweto while I’m at it. It’s their fault too, isn’t it?
Sure, such levels of hatred may be toxic for my health and cloud my judgment, but it seems I have a moral obligation to hate all white people while blending that hatred with a love of academic truth. A love of truth that never makes the astoundingly simple observation that the people now perpetuating the effects of apartheid happen to be black.
*no offense intended towards the growing number of my friends and acquaintances who’ve decided to study Zulu. In the spirit of white-shaming, you must suffer for my craft.
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