Comment and Analysis

Dear White People: Theoretical wars and podium envy

Gillian Schutte

The debate that flourished around the "Dear White People" letter became a war of armchair theories and personal vendettas, writes Gillian Schutte.

Is it not time that South Africa had a real debate about whiteness and privilege instead of a dysfunctional slinging match that does nothing to change this status quo, asks Gillian Schutte.

While it was to be expected that the right-wingers would rail loudly against the content of my letter Dear White People - what surprised me most was the similarity of interpretation and vitriol from many social commentators. Besides the voices of Jackie Shandu, Malaika Wa Azania, Sipho Singiswa, Koketso Moeti and Sekoetlane Jacob Phamodi – who all tackled the topic from a space of poignancy, rigorous race theory or political analysis – the debate that flourished around this letter largely became a war of armchair theories and personal vendettas reminiscent of turf wars amongst hotdog vendors in London.

Someone suggested that there is only space for about 10 social commentators in our parochial society – mostly white men – but mostly men. A woman, white or not, was going to be treated to a vicious and territorial attack of patriarchal gatekeeping in the hopes of intimidating, admonishing, shaming and even threatening her into submission. And the barrage of dissent that I received in response to my letter came from both the usual haters and social commentators alike.

The white supremacists did their customary victimised blaming and toxic name-calling. They put up blogs and websites with pictures of a white woman's cadaver hanging and beaten with my name beneath it. I received an onslaught of Facebook friend requests with photos of middle-aged white ex South African National Defence Force men with the words "armed and dangerous" written beneath. Website commentary in the US and South Africa referred to me as a "white bitch, evil dyke, whore, black-loving-witch who should be shot or burnt or drowned". I spent a week reporting them all to various agencies and the police – annoying to say the least.

It sent a deep chill down my spine though. But even deeper was the sadness that this is what we are up against – an obdurate wall of hate, fear, patriarchy and supremacy. How does one take that apart?

In between this were the less threatening responses from white liberals, who wrote endless commentary about the "tone" of the letter. They mostly said that while they agreed with much of what I said they could not come to terms with the "preachy", "shrill" and "belligerent" tone of the message. I had to laugh mirthlessly at this because it was a letter written spontaneously in response to the endless noxious and "belligerent" hatred spewed forth by white right-wingers. It was also penned in response to the gatekeepers of the white liberal social commentary bastion – which is saturated with common sense and feel-good "belligerent" superiority. It makes my skin crawl to read this stuff, mostly from white male commentators – steeped in their own unacknowledged and invisible privilege and legitimising their own narrow thoughts while speaking down to every one else's and rendering them illegitimate as if they are the only rational beings to grace this planet.

Columnist Max du Preez exemplified this when he complained bitterly about me in a Facebook status: "A few days ago, one Gillian Schutte wrote a piece headed Dear White People that elicited quite a number of comments. I read it and didn't fundamentally differ from the basic premise, but I found it sanctimonious, condescending, even evangelical and, frankly, so 1990s. I tweeted: "Dear whites, dear blacks, dear coloureds, dear Indians – who appointed you to decide what other people should think?"

Then came constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos's comment: "Goodness knows, we need to talk about race more often, more honestly and with more self criticism. But when somebody like Gillian Schutte essentialness [essentialises] race – as if these concepts are natural and uncomplicated – while railing against racism and displaying a complete absence of wit, irony, self-criticism and humility, it turns me off, even as I agree with much of what she has to say."

Emma Huismans's response to this filled me with glee as it encapsulated my stance perfectly.

"It is STYLE Pierre de Vos, yes, very uncomfortable, very much what we are not used to..aggravating even – but still true. It makes me itch even cough but it makes me think twice . thrice for that matter .. Then I also recall the more comfortable, easier digestible pieces on the same or similar topics by leading opinion makers like yourself and Max du Preez [for whom both I have respect and regularly read] and the fact that they comfort me [or my conscience rather] make me feel better, make me feel right. But it doesn't shake me. It doesn't really make me sit up straight, doesn't make think outside my rather [often] self-righteous group of white thinkers, be-righters, do-righters even as ex-struggler. I had no idea who Gillian Schutte was when I read the letter [spending so much time outside] so I read it uncontaminated – in a changing world [Europe] where mincing with nice style words is beginning to b, seen as untrustworthy and political misleading. Her letter, despite the swaggering at times [which is like it or not part of the South-African "volksstyl"] hit the spot, my head and stomach at the same time ... I am an ordinary person, just "gewoon" love the country and its people sort, not a fluent writer, debater or intellectual – the stuff the majority of the people of South Africa are made up of. But I know for myself that discomfort and unease about what I read and hear is always more effective in changing my way of thinking and acting – than well chosen stylish words that comfort that which I already think and believe. Schutte is a kick in the pants with which we all can do at times. Stylish, swaggering, irritating or not. That letter worked it stirred the holier than though, self-proclaimed non-racist part in the progressive mind."

Following suit came the afro pessimist critique led by Andile Mngxitama – who was alarmed by the huge and largely positive response the letter received from many people of colour which manifested as a collective and celebratory "Hoorah – at last someone from within whiteness has seen and challenged and shouted at whiteness from the inside."

By the time the letter had received over 40 000 hits this self-styled "revolutionary" was beside himself with podium envy. He quickly drew forth his favourite academic paper and stitched together a response with a colleague, which applies a theoretical framework that is relevant to the US onto the South African situation. He then reduces this to an insistence that I was speaking on behalf of blackness so that I could feel like a "good white" and "live happily with my black husband and mixed child" without ever having to deal with my inherent privilege, of which I was "unaware".

Unlike Jackie Shandu's premise of the problem of why a white voice was saying these things about itself when black voices could and should be saying this to whiteness too, Mngxitama launches into a personal attack and tries to disguise this with some theory. In Shandu's well-written article the critique lay in the fact that my white voice was being heard whilst many black voices may have been overlooked on the same topic. The message was that this white voice must not be held up as "heroic" for voicing problems that blackness resonated with, rather the black collective must rise and take the podiums and demand that their voices are heard. The warning was not be passive because a white person had voiced some issues that resonated.

I mostly agreed with the points raised by Shandu, though I think that he took it upon himself to think on behalf of the people he was addressing… and when I penned the letter it was not with the hopes of becoming "a national hero", if that is what he was inferring. I was speaking to white people as a white person and not on behalf of black people or as their mouthpiece. So Mngxitama's insistence that I was speaking on behalf of blackness so that I could feel "better than other whites" was a vindictive personal attack that was totally off point, especially given our long history of meeting each other and working in the field of social justice and human rights.

Unlike Shandu, who drew from Steve Biko's teachings that white people must speak to their own to challenge them to unlearn whiteness – Mngxitama insists that white folk (barring David Bullard and JM Coetzee, seemingly) must not speak at all – to either black folk or white folk. Rather they must leave the country and begin from scratch like dogs. That level of anger is understandable in relation to the construct of whiteness – especially when rubbing up against those who show no willingness or capacity to grapple with their white superiority and walk a hate-filled racist ideology in their day-to-day lives. I have seen it play out in our biracial family's interaction with the world and though I am not often the recipient of it – the level of anger it brings out in me is already a force to be reckoned with. This is how occurrences such as letter writing happen, to the wrath of white folk who are, for the most part, very comfortable under their invisible cloak of privilege.

Could it be that unlike Mngxitama's assertion that this act of "white waywardness" further entrenches white privilege, it in fact does the opposite? Whiteness has not recently become so outraged on such a massive scale by one of their own. As one commentator suggested: "Schutte's letter to white people has been the most successful act of civil disobedience from a white person since God knows when. It had the same ripple effect as a well-executed political stunt. It did nothing to re inscribe the comfort of whiteness, both liberal and supremacist. Rather it destabilised the notion of certainty on all levels of whiteness ideology. It has done the exact opposite of what many other white South African writers on racism have always done – which is to make white people feel at ease in their status quo. Rather it shook the very roots of this assumption. This is what her dissenters have failed to grasp."

But it was when Mngxitama got personal and in fact began to fabricate lies in order to make sure that my voice was discredited – obliterated even – that he discredited himself too.

In the letter I tell those white people to get over their irrational fear that every black person is out to massacre them in a wholesale bloodbath. I then point out, with much sarcasm, that the system is designed for this not to happen. It is a system that relies on the middleclass as a buffer zone between the poor and the corporate and political elite. This is a clear critique of neoliberalism. It is a statement that reminds white folk, many of whom see themselves as the victims of this country – that they are still the privileged and it is the poor who remain the victims – not only of our post 1994 macro economic policy but also of a 400-year history of colonial subjugation and theft of livelihood.

This was in no way telling whites to relax and get complacent about their privilege. It sought to remind them that they need to get their hands dirty precisely because they are still the wealthy class and the poor are still the poor. It is a stark reminder that poverty is directly linked to their privilege and that this status quo is not acceptable.

I do understand though, that in the war of race theories and ideology, afro pessimism has no choice but to be critical of white voice. But to invent untruths to push your own personal agenda and love of the podium is immature, non-critical and defeatist.

In this framework, I have been set-up mockingly as a "good white"' apparently because my existence relies solely on a "bit of black approval". But in the liberal and supremacist framework I am clearly a "bad white". I have rebelled against my own to the ire of whiteness across the board, save for the white radical thinkers, mostly deconstructionists, feminists, social justice and anti-racism activists themselves.

In between all of these accusations I choose to remain steadfast in my own socialist-orientated ideology and poststructuralist feminism framework and I will continue to rail against a neocolonial system that privileges one race or gender over another.

In this framework it is clear that to be a social justice and human rights activist one cannot ignore white supremacy – just as one cannot miraculously transcend the issue of whiteness whilst fighting the root causes of poverty.

As a feminist one has to consistently deconstruct all forms of patriarchy – and the Western phallocratic status quo is central to this struggle. It is this phallocentricism that places the white male logic as supreme to all linguistic and economic power systems, and as such violates anything that does not serve this alter. It is this that I seek to deconstruct. I fail to see how one can rail against one "othering" and yet not all "otherings". It is my responsibility to understand this and speak against the system from within.

One can only deconstruct a paradigm that is your "birthright" by deep reflection as well as understanding that this deliberation is on going, hard and painful at times. In this reflection there also needs to be a constant acknowledgment that no matter how deconstructive and anti- the construct of whiteness and privilege you are, you still live in a system that benefits your skin tone more than a person of colour. That does not go away. You can only hope to work against it so that bit by bit it is deconstructed, eventually into nothingness, so that we can all get on with being equal.

Mine is the war against the language of patriarchy, white supremacy and privilege. I will continue to speak against this, not for anyone but the collective cause and the intent to wrestle concentrated economic and linguistic power out of the hands of the few and into the hands of the masses.

It is sad that between white supremacy and afro pessimism the important questions have gotten lost in a barrage of name-calling and theoretical word games in which black commentators with cushy jobs at non-governmental organisations are calling black activists "house negroes" and right-wingers are sending intense hate mail while white liberals are dishing out empty admonishing about tone.

In the meantime, few are asking how we deconstruct the systemic violence of neoliberalism, which is steeped in and upheld by white privilege and political elitism. The matter of the poor has been totally overlooked in all this linguistic wanking.

Is it not time that South Africa had a real debate about whiteness, privilege and racism instead of a dysfunctional slinging match that does nothing to change this status quo?

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