Let’s start by examining the the sudden and popular demand for white people to examine their white privilege.
Yesterday I wrote a blog post titled, “Struggling To Master This Trendy White-Shaming Thing. But I’ll Get There” which pointed out that though supported by factual reports of racism in Cape Town, much of the acute anti-white sentiment that’s flared on the blogosphere may be black people’s disguising their disillusionment with national leadership. Reports of racism in Cape Town are popular on the blogosphere because many of them are true and because they feed the story of how bad Cape Town/the DA that runs it/white people are for black people. Because if that stopped looking bad, the ANC would stop looking good.
Peggy McIntosh introduced the “invisible knapsack”. This is a set of privileges that accompanies being white or the member of the dominant group in a given setting. The privileged person makes a list of privileges he may have been unaware of, as this blogger has done, and thusly becomes aware of how being white/a member of the dominant group affords privileges that he has been taking for granted.
But when we ask white people to dismantle white privilege by picking it apart in lists, we risk turning this exercise into another chapter in another module in an expensive sociology course, taught in English, that mostly just white people can afford for precisely the reasons that are being discussed and dismantled within those institutions. Remember that nowhere was apartheid better dissected than in the most sheltered lecture halls in white-dom. So just as those institutions simultaneously symbolized bastions of liberalism and apartheid, so, too, can the exercise of dismantling white privilege become a white privilege. I have far more to say in this direction but I’ll leave it at that point.
We must also ask ourselves whether black people, generally speaking, would act any differently given a complete reversal of circumstances. Remember Nkandla. Look, also, at MPs’ parking lot at SONA so we can have a nice conversation about how white and racialized entitlement and unquestioned privilege are. Or let’s sit and read George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Couldn’t the R700 billion lost to corruption in the last two decades have helped level the playing field? Couldn’t maintaining Eskom the way it was found (because it fell out of the sky after the revolutionary Chinese discovered Africa; we mustn’t dare admit it was left behind
by the apartheid government *covers mouth in shame*) have helped improve our collective lot, and not just the lot of Eskom executives?
Watching white people make lists of their privileges is a bit like watching Jesus on the cross. You may attain spiritual salvation by doing so. Or you may figure that since he’s the Son of God, he could be anesthetizing the whole ordeal for himself anyway. Either way, emotional control of the situation remains mainly with the person administering this treatment – to himself, of course, much the way the ANC investigates allegations of corruption launched against the ANC, or Zuma’s yes-men investigate allegations of misconduct against him. I’ve met white people who seem to have this need to explain how they also helped combat apartheid. Not that I’d asked or given any indication that I was judging them or even that I believe being black gives me the right to judge them. Yet when I’ve heard them, some of their stories impressed much as the ANC’s boast on how it single-handedly shut the burgeoning HIV/Aids pandemic by rolling out medication. Please ignore your memories of their kicking and screaming. Trusting in white people to dismantle the privileges they live in is a bit like trusting Zuma to dismantle his network of corruption. Please let’s not insult one another’s intelligence.
We want white people to question white privilege. And then what? The beautiful catharsis that accompanies the new-found awareness of their privilege becomes another #BringBackOurGirls. The very fact that one has to ask the other to enter one’s felt situation indicates that the empathy isn’t an organic outgrowth in the other’s journey – perhaps for reasons that include his systematic sheltering. One has to make the other aware wherever there are gaps in the other’s awareness. The real bullshit is our collective insistence that this always makes the other a bad or deficient person, as is the case with overseas people who don’t know who Nelson Mandela was. Who said they need to know that in order to count as good people, or, for that matter, that knowing immunizes them from being bad people? Who comes up with these checklists, and does he know the licence for shallowness he gives everyone? Because when the totality of being a good person is being aware of a set of realities that someone else has decided for you, you are under no obligation to figure out for yourself what being a good person actually means. So you’ll get trolls on the internet who’ll spew absolute poison before sanctimoniously reminding you to “check your privilege” as they sign off. Privilege-checking becomes a ritual for those who’ve been initiated into the new clique of apparent social awareness. I’ll pass.
I would hate for black people’s suffering to be another trinket that can be owned, studied, dissected and published in someone’s MS thesis so that the person, having spent some time among disenfranchised black people, can be absorbed back into the sheltered arms of white academia. Or worse: for their stories to become commodities that can be used by the mostly black-personed government to emotionally blackmail a white minority into staying in its corner when blind people can see the nonsense happening in this country.
For white people to not fully empathize with black people’s pain (as complicit as the past and their present privileges makes them) shows that those white people are human and humanly limited. Even when white people have reached the ceiling of their collective empathy, our thirst to make them understand won’t be sated.
For the government to manipulate black people’s lingering pain and use it to emotionally blackmail white people is also normal because that’s what governments do: they mess with your head, tell you that you’re sick, put you in a padded cell and keep you medicated.
But for black people to allow their pain to be so easily used, cheapened, currencied and transacted by their own kind in the further division of the country – that is the final 30 pieces of silver. We sold our souls. Have we gained our own country, let alone the world? Um, no.
We say we want white people to question white privilege. To “understand what it’s like” to be the suspected, the disparaged and the systematically overlooked. This is rich, coming from black people. When blackness gets to question white privilege, at best, it will then replicate the fundamentals of white privilege, displacing it with an unquestioned, unexamined sandwich of “black culture”. Between the bread slices of necessary human recognition for black people will be found the fillings of hetero-patriarchy and other trappings of a “black culture” that can be as abusive as “white culture”. I wish my straight friends (many of whom are black and in no hurry question straight privilege) understood that inasmuch as many of them wanted me to be considerate over my family’s feelings when I came out, I also wanted someone to consider how hard it would be on me to come out in the first place. But I had to consider their feelings, as though I had more power to wrong them than they had to wrong me when realistically, it was and remains the other way around. I had to be prepared to be the bigger person though realistically, I stood to be crushed by them who were really the bigger persons.
Then the same black people think it’s strange when I point out that consistency to their values demands say that black people consider white people’s feelings too, though white people, arguably, hold more power to wrong black people than vice-versa. Demanding that the gay black boy consider the feelings of the black establishment that reserves the right to shame and reject him, is the equivalent (I believe) of demanding that black people consider the feelings of the white people with whom they must now make friends as though apartheid never happened. The one demand is as (un?)reasonable as the other. If the black community’s precious hetero-patriarchy must be handled with kid gloves then so must white hegemonies. We cannot make them feel guilty and terrible for the unexamined ways in which they wield power over the very people whose forgiveness and subservience they seek. The unquestioned rights of the one privileged group (black straight people) stands and falls with those if the other (white people). Unexamined privileges? Just a white thing? Personally, I can’t see the speck in white people’s eyes because I’m so fixated on the beam in black people’s. “But if you do not forgive others their sins,” someone once said, “Then neither will your Father will not forgive yours”.
Shouldn’t we be more interested in how government spends taxes? Building human privilege for all is more important than guilting white people for enjoying their privilege. If I were in their shoes I wouldn’t be any different. I want privilege, I want lots of it, and I know the only real way towards getting it is ensuring that everyone else gets it too. I may have very little company in my “idealistic” beliefs of how we could get and stay there, but I know I am not alone in my desire for a slice of the privilege pie. Now there, I stand in the company of silent black people who, instead of calling out black leaders that plunder like there’s no tomorrow (and there is no tomorrow because they’re taking tomorrow out of our mouths and eating it) are standing in line waiting for them to hand the loot, the tenders, the free houses and the contracts over to us even as we bitch and moan about the unfairness, wrongness, immorality, criminality, illegitimacy, pervasiveness and perversity of white privilege. If half this beautiful, spiteful, judgmental hypocrisy could be monetized into currency, the rand-dollar exchange would flip the other way. I f we could monetize that too, we would. There is no shame. Vultures, the spouses of political party officials form overnight companies that would take advantage of crumbling infrastructures, snatching the business opportunities out of other equally greedy but more-decently-spaced-from-government civilians. If we’re less privileged than white people, it’s because we’ve retained a government that keeps us there. Dismantle that for breakfast.
Further proof that the white privilege exercise doesn’t always work is that the boys that raped their classmate attend an institution where “since 2010,” Northern Cape Education MEC’s Grizelda Cjiekella-Lecholo’s office has been “working consistently” to “build a consciousness among our children and communities of one nation, one community”. I don’t know whether they studied McIntosh but whatever they’re doing at their Life Orientation classes, it only filters in as deeply as each individual wants it to. As one commenter replied to a white boy’s dissertation on white privilege, “One way to shed your ‘white privilege’ is to let go of it. I’m tired of hearing very privileged whites like yourself groveling on about their privilege and somehow thinking anybody cares about your guilt complexes. The right thing to do is to resign from your privileged white job and make space for a black African woman (even when she lives in Sandton and you live in Danville), sell your house and your car or donate it to Cyril Ramapahosa and then go clean some toilets in Alexandra”. The author didn’t engage his challenge. But what if he did those things? “Oh wow. A white person who actually understands what it’s like to be black” would be his next badge of approval. If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is there, does it make a sound? If you do something good, and people see it, was it really good? How good is good enough, and how much awareness is enough, and how many sorrys will it take? Who determines that? Frankly, I’m tired of the race wars. I have nothing to gain from them, and I’m black. If the person who’d stand to gain the most from stock says it’s not worth buying, it’s bad stock. And the race wars are a booby-trap. Stay aware, stay awake and stay away.
Some black people said they wouldn’t vote DA and then gave this strangest reason for this decision: the DA, they said, protects white privilege and interests. I have my own issues with the DA. But I also have issues with this line of reasoning against it: given that healthy people want privilege as shown above, then if the DA can’t be trusted to protect white privilege and interests, can it be trusted to protect human interests and privilege? Say what you want about Maslow’s Hierarchy or the difference between needs and wants, but why should we stop at begrudging white people their attraction towards privilege? Why not begrudge them their gravitation towards being alive? It’s really part of the same spectrum. We already crossed that line with the Soweto xenophobic attacks. For there is no difference: everyone’s our enemy, and they all have done something to intrude on our right to be alive. On our privilege.
Aren’t we scared, now that the tables have turned? We wield so much moral power, the power to decide at a whim what’s wrong and what’s right, who’s good and who’s bad, with absolutely no one to call us to account for the way we call others to account? Aren’t we kids with matches? Are morals real things?
Back to “I can’t vote DA because they protect white interests”. That’s sanctimonious. But is privilege always a zero-sum game? Can it only be had by one group at the expense of another? Isn’t that an apartheid mentality? By refusing continued privilege for another, we have refused it for ourselves as well. If we insist on thinking that there is only so much of anything to go around (instead of working together to build more) then we will precipitate that self-fulfilling prophecy. If we’re less privileged than white people, it’s because we’ve retained a government that keeps us there. Given this, the chronic demand that white people examine their privilege is like insisting that I won’t eat my food until you’ve picked yours apart and maybe even thrown it away. Despite what white people may have done in the past, if we’re now doing it to ourselves can we at least take enough pride in ourselves to make our problems our problems, and nobody else’s?
Black people will not be saved from white privilege by white people making lists of how they’re privileged or, for that matter, giving up their jobs to scrub toilets in Alex. Black people will be saved by putting some thought into their own salvation. Running a country is not a mystery. It’s a science. We need to stop determining who the next president will be by looking at his (or her) skin colour, tribe, gender etc. and make a decision that whoever the best person is with South Africa’s best interests at heart and the best strategy for getting us all there in the quickest time possible, needs to step up to the plate. Or be stepped up kicking and screaming. If the basics are taken care of, “privilege” will follow in good time. Cultures change as people acclimatize to change. This is common sense.
The danger with unskillfully dismantling white privilege is that its exclusivity will simply be shifted to another hegemony or another way of being in the world. Such as being heterosexual, male or ANC. Then someday another Peggy McIntosh will be helping us make invisibility knapsack lists for why being a black man brings with itself unexamined privileges. While we squabble over that issue, all the real power will remain limited to a handful of white boys – the CEOs of corporates that maintain the most discreet, most invisible relationship with the government – and it will be as though white privilege never had been examined. Our distraction with this shiny new obsession to make white people examine white privilege may just reinforce it.
We think making white people face white privilege will begin leveling out the inequalities in South Africa? Unless we examine our entire economy of power on a social level, the inevitable failure of that approach, as explained above, will allow us to legitimize violence against “the other”, whoever the other may be at that time, who is perceived to be the reason “we” are not succeeding. Another hegemony, another dominant power-group, another replica of the same system we’d just dismantled. And within that dominant group will arise the question of which sub-group is supreme. The Zulus or the Xhosas or the Sotho? It’s tribalism, whatever the skin colour and ethnic background of the person wielding the scepter. And under tribalism, nobody wins. Ask 90% of the countries north of ours. Most of the whites there had their privilege dismantled right out of the country but the Shonas and the Ndebeles are still starving and still clawing one another’s eyes out in Zim. No matter how academized and high-minded this fresh call to question and dismantle white privilege is, at this point it could be a lethal distraction. We should have done it 20 years ago when it was still more relevant, relative to the then-nonexistent corruption and uselessness of today’s government.
The answer to white privilege is human privilege. In politics – because politics underpins how we experience religion, politics and sex, making political bodies absolutely accountable for the rape of students’ bodies – this means voting into power a government shrewd enough to invite the private sector into sustainable projects to help build in previously “black” areas, utilities that people of any race would be happy to frequent as an indulgence in privilege. This would dissolve the privilege concentrated in and associated with previously “white” places and ways of being. Instead of renaming old places we must create new ones, and that needs commerce-friendly government. Ot of sentiment, trust and gratitude, we voted in a liberation party. Twenty years later, it’s still liberating South Africa one parastatal at a time. No new things will be built.
BEE was the promise that black people would enjoy privilege as well. That promise was agreed-upon by that white super-elite that had no interest in a communist South Africa, and by the ANC. Once again, these two sides probably still maintain a discreet and invisible relationship.
That promise was kept. Black people became rich beyond their wildest dreams. The new face of privilege was black, urban, middle-class – “black diamonds” – and it was not unusual to see them wear the latest labels and drive the coolest cars. The fact that there were only three or four such black families doesn’t negate that the system we kept choosing worked for black people. But if we want more black people to enjoy the same status, we need an upgrade on government.
We want to question and dismantle white privilege? If all we’ll ever amount to is people on the outside looking in, then fine, let’s have issues with old white money and privilege. But let’s respect ourselves enough to have deeper issues – institutionalizably deeper issues – with the very new but very dirty money that was minted right under our nose two seconds before we were supposedly liberated. The face of that money, I repeat, is black. And we’ll only come of age once we’re grown to the point where we can do to the ANC government what we did to the apartheid government, should the ANC do to us what the apartheid government did to us.
If we don’t clarify the political congestion, then in what I see as a knee-jerk reaction already present on the internet, the rape of the black student by white ones will be simplistically used to justify violence against white peoples the way the shooting of one teenager was used to justify violence against foreigners in Soweto. Instead of examining the abuses of power by the old and new regime (cut from the same cloth but dyed in different colours) we will just escalate and shift abusive power around.
The white boy rapist simply exemplify a hangover from the old version of the same new thing.