The politically correct answer to Steve Sidley’s question is, Of Course You Are, Silly! More tea and jam with those croissants?
But politically correct answers are like placebos for Ebola patients, plasters for gunshot wounds, or, to cite a more scandalous comparison, like 1994 rainbowism for apartheid’s aftermath.
While I liked Sidley’s article, I would have preferred one titled This Is What I, As A White Person, Am Prepared to Do About Structural Racism and Inequality. Or Why Aren’t More White Businessmen Concerned About Structural Racism and Inequality? Sidley has probably addressed these topics, but what surprises me how much traction this piece got.
But of course. The question conveniently implies we (black people) have the power to decide white people’s fate and were always ready to use it violently. It conveniently underplays how much economic power white people hold. So this is not about accountability; it’s about victimhood. I submit this is why its resonated.
It is glorified abdication of social responsibility, a sexy way of resignedly asking, What else can I do, but just [pick up my assets while I still can and] leave?
Its a refusal to admit complicity in the inequality that defines South Africa.
If we pretend the displaced shack-dweller has the power to tell the white billionaire to leave the country, we impute powers to black people that they haven’t got and a victimhood to white people that isn’t there. It is for this reason that Sisonke Msimang has said that post-apartheid South Africa allows white people to reinvent themselves as “the strongest victims in the world” at the expense of wronged black people who are then cast as unfair, unreasonable and hostile.
We all did this as children at some point. When numbers and raw strength aren’t on your side, your biggest weapon is exaggerating your vulnerability. Use tears to elicit sympathy. One black person posts a rant against white people? Cry global reverse racism. The newest BEE codes compel you to have at least one director of colour in your business? Tell the world that reverse apartheid and white genocide are everyday business here. But what, I ask, has been taken from white people as a group?
This resistance of historical justice is only possible because the level at which we’ve chosen to bring about redress has been persuasive rather than coercive; dialectical rather than confrontational; peace-based rather than violent. And I’m afraid a respectable, even likeable piece asking whether white people are welcome here may serve, in the end, to legitimize this sleight of hand. Hilarious, this thought, that the noise of white victimhood will probably be inversely proportional to actual white losses (or as my mother used to say, “Stop crying before I give you something to cry about”).
This is not to say the concerns listed in Sidley’s piece are not legitimate. It is to say that a reaction that goes from 0 to asking whether you are still welcome in 4 seconds rushes past questions like What Can I Do To Help? and for this reason reeks of a quest to skip accountability.
What inspired the question was Sidley’s observation of events associated with #FeesMustFall protests. Allow me a tangent?
British surgeon Dr. Paul Brand discovered that leprosy doesn’t “do” anything to damage sufferers’ limbs and eyes. It deadens pain sensors, making the sufferer more likely to sustain a thousand little injuries. Infections accrue to precipitate life-threatening syndromes. This is how diabetics and lepers lose their limbs and lives.
The doctor spent five years trying to develop an artificial “pain device.” He would put electronic pressure sensors inside modified gloves and socks, and those would beep when users’ hands and feet were exposed to undue pressure. But a glove can’t tell the difference between useful force and unwanted stress the way a functional nervous system can. Did you really mean to tap those keys so hard, or is something biting your fingertips? Even if it could tell the difference without seamlessly referring to your background knowledge about where you are and what you are doing, device users would ignore warning beeps from those gloves/socks and continue with strenuous tasks, worsening their existing injuries anyway. This is human nature. So whatever its imperfections and drawbacks, there’s no substitute for nature’s ingenious early warning system — pain.
Since 1994, South Africa’s progress towards equality has depended on white people vicariously, artificially feeling pain they’d been systemically insulated from; pain they’d in fact been positioned to benefit from. So instead of actually entering this pain and dismantling the structures that inflict it, many have turned to two escape routes. The first has already been discussed, and that is resignation disguised as vulnerability.
The other has been to remove the gloves and the socks when the beeping got annoying. And what #FeesMustFall and many other protests is, is beeping from a second-hand pain detector. It’s annoying, but it’s not actual, direct pain inflicted on those who’ve gained the most from the inequality being protested.
At its worst, this has been referred pain. Referred pain is when, for example, your heart isn’t getting enough oxygen and you feel a pain felt in the neck, down your left shoulder and arm. In such instances, the issue is never the issue.
Likewise, Fees Must Fall isn’t about fees. It’s about the unequal status quo that law, order and the 1994 settlement have served to uphold. That’s why the protests, which began so peacefully, have devolved into lawlessness and disorder. This is a snapshot of how even the most peace-loving people will turn ugly if you keep bullshitting them. “They are discrediting their cause,” say those who probably have not suffered half the injustices the protesters are revolting against. But they are no longer playing to that audience because that audience was never going to help them.
Had a dignified life been accessible and affordable to all in South Africa all along, nobody would have thought about protesting for free education. Nobody would have had to. So #FeesMustFall is a proxy #BlackLivesMatter movement with a subversively narrow and indirect focus — or if you prefer, it’s referred pain. The students cannot turn it political (I imagine) because they come from different political backgrounds. But they can still cause unspeakable pain and inconvenience for all of us at an issue they all have in common. So this is about the unspeakable everything. Absolutely everything.
I point this out because an easy way to abdicate the responsibility being placed at society’s feet is to say, “Vote for change” or “Use the ballot.” This ignores that our political options will never have to be better than the audience they play to or the funders they get money from. Quite frankly, our political parties suck. To explain the ways in which they are irrelevant and out-of-touch, I would have to duplicate explanations as to why I think we like being lied to. I would also have to repeat points made in previous blog posts. It is enough to say that the task of questioning our political stars is not the students’; it’s ours.
The violence that’s followed #FeesMustFall protests is more the State’s than the students’, but let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good story. Assuming it came from students, I submit such violence is their rejection of the dangling plastic carrot-stick lie that “someday” they’ll have access to the world they’ve systemically been excluded from. I was sent a cartoon in which a protester burns his own car to reject a fuel price increase. But the analogy falls apart because while the car belongs to the guy in the cartoon, our university spaces (along with our economy) belong not to all who are admitted into them, but to those who have the money to stay and thrive in them. So this cartoon makes the same mistakes as the Are We Welcome Here question — false imputation. The car is not to the driver what the university is to the student protester. That is why the protester will burn the university but the sane car owner will not burn his car. This all reeks of a move to paint rioting students as uniformly insane; by extension, angry black people as hostile and unwelcoming. It is a fucking abdication of fucking responsibility, and yes, I will swear to stress that point.
“But they’re burning the very facilities they’re going to need!” we’re told. Ah, so that, and not the sight of thousands of your countrymen living in squalor, is what makes you sit up and pay attention.
Let’s get back to voting as the solution. Against what standard do we grade our political options? The constitution? The freedom charter? Why are so many South Africans convinced that the constitution is an expansion (and not a dilution) of the freedom charter? You don’t have to support the freedom charter to see that a number of sleight-of-hands have been pulled, and shall continue to be pulled, to keep South Africa from ever becoming anything other than a playground for the obscenely rich and a cheap-labour farm for the obscenely poor.
So are white people welcome on this playground by the badly-paid labourers who maintain it?
Are the bourgeoisie welcome with red carpets by the proletariat?
I don’t know, hey.
A friend of mine — white guy — often says the earth will “sneeze humanity off” because we’ve become a plague, a parasite. Does this mean we’re not welcome on this planet? The question makes it sound as though the planet went out of its way to not want us. That makes it the planet’s fault. Bad planet. Hostile black people. Etc.
But any being’s sustainable occupation of the corner of the universe it finds itself in is dependent on that being’s awareness of its impact on and interaction with that corner of the universe. In other words, rather than asking whether we are wanted, we should each strive to not be parasites. Let us not embarrass other people by putting them in positions where they have to teach us not to litter, or not to exploit unjust power relations. We cannot change a second of the past, but we can fight to act with greater awareness going forward.
For if I say “No, white people are not welcome” I’m the bad guy, the racist.
If I say “Yes” I make it sound as though we’ve achieved rainbowism and I’m pleased with how far we’ve gotten.
If I keep quiet, I make it as though the white people I’ve loved and respected should be left without defense. Or I am seen as passively endorsing that white people still live off of material goods they gained under violent circumstances. Are white people welcome here makes it sound as though I have been deciding whether white people keep those goods or run with them; it avoids the hard question of what white people are prepared to give up so a better South Africa is achieved. That is not a question that should be abdicated to other agents, or political parties. It is personal work and group effort.
Assurances that white people are welcome only serve to guilt black people into feeling they may have been too harsh in their critiques of whiteness, or may have drawn white tears. This makes it about white people all over again.
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