Comment and Analysis

Racism and the Whiteness Default

Gillian Schutte

As white people we are raised to think we are central to everything, especially in relation to other races, writes Gillian Schutte.

As white people we are raised to think that we are central to everything  - especially in relation to other races. (Supplied)

I was invited to debate Pretoria University political philosophy lecturer, Dr Louise Mabille, at the Café Riche in Pretoria on Friday. I initially agreed, always open to sharing views on the topic of whiteness and public participation in a current South Africa. Mabille, who lectures at the University of Pretoria, had suggested the topic: 'Do white people have an obligation to withdraw from the public sphere?' 

I have never argued that whites have an obligation to withdraw from the public sphere. Rather I have argued that as whites we need to find it in ourselves to listen to and hear other discourses, as well as to reflect on white privilege. I have also said that not every public utterance is central to whiteness and sometimes white folk should butt out. There is a tendency in the larger white population to make every public exclamation about them, and sometimes, reasonable critique is viewed as a racist attack on whites, which is apparently always outrageous. This is the narcissism of whiteness.

As white people we are raised to think that we are central to everything – especially in relation to other races. I call this the "Whiteness Default,"which I view as a phenomenon that works against other views and indeed attempts to thwart real transformation, often willfully.

Whiteness has, for the past 350 years or so, been the spoken and visible default setting of South African life – as a result of invasion, colonisation and the systemic oppression of aparthed. Over the past two decades of democracy, however, and with the dwindling public space for open right wing discourse, the entrenchment of liberalism as the dominant discourse has resulted in whiteness becoming the invisible, unspoken default.  

White liberals may be more open to other races, but this does not mean that they do not enjoy the privileges bestowed upon white folk in a system of white supremacy. White supremacy, in this case, is simply a system that favours whiteness at the expense of other races – so while we associate this term with the Klu Klux clan and the Boeremag –which is right wing white supremacy –  even middle class, liberal and politically radical whites are part of the system of white domination. We cannot escape that point and we cannot escape the unearned privileges afforded to whiteness in the global sphere. We can, however, help dismantle this system of supremacy and navigate the world of diverse humanity with consciousness.

Most white liberals do not generally make overt racist public commentary, but they are loathe to discuss the issue of white privilege openly and are often unaware that unacknowledged privilege plays itself out as 'invisible' racism. This racism is not invisible to people of colour because it is only they who are the recipients of it. It is invisible to white people themselves, and this creates a major problem in public discourse. Often discussions that involve white people in the public, even when the participants are diverse, are framed within what white people see and what they think. Indeed, many white gatekeepers are quick to openly pooh pooh other views and dominate the discussions with a great deal of confidence in their views – which they view as correct whilst all else is seen as lacking in substance. 

But what does this belief of "white as right" actually mean?

A deeply held conviction that is entrenched into whiteness from the moment we pass into the realm of language – is that to be human is to be white. This is where unconscious racism stems from – growing up in a world that has pushed a narrative of colonialism and white supremacy which excludes the humanity of people of colour. From the moment white children of my generation could comprehend their surroundings, we were exposed to a system in which whiteness was central to privilege and blackness was marginalised. We have to ask how this conditioning still plays out in the contemporary collective mind of whiteness. Even if we had parents who were more conscious, the system that we grew up in, that pushed blackness into the shadows, onto the outskirts, into prisons and poverty stricken homelands, played out in our unconscious as black people being less valuable than white people. It is pure neurolinguistic programming brought about by witnessing the same racial mantra over and over.  

It takes years of deep self-reflection and understanding to fully overcome the message that was etched into our consciousness from the very beginning of our childhoods. I would go as far as to say that any white person who claims to be untouched by this supremacist programming is not being honest with themselves. I do, however, believe that it is possible for white people to deconstruct and reject this archaic binary thinking. In order to do so, though, we need to be brutally honest about our conditioning. Only when the monster has been fully acknowledged can it be transcended.

It is a painful thing to come to terms with our role in the subjugation of other races – so painful that many prefer to not look inward and grapple with their personal reality of growing up in a racist world. If this work is not done though – then the residue of racist programming is always there, lurking just beneath the surface and it will rear its ugly head when least expected.  How can it not? It is the dark shadow of shame about the oppression of fellow humans.  It is a psychological and emotional cancer. It must be thoroughly examined, dissected and then discarded as the barbarous madness that it is.

Unfortunately some do not see this conditioning as hate-based and irrational and this plays out in the public sphere in a pathological, repetitive, racist pattern. For these people whiteness is the default and that is final. They are not interested in how this impacts non-white people at all. When black people, for example, complain about the insults hurled at them via white satire or are openly insulted by media put downs, or called the K-word in Virgin Active gyms by fellow gym goers or patronised at places of work – they are often told by whites to stop being so sensitive or to take the context of politics or history or humour into account. 

That capacity, to dismiss and belittle people of colour for being oversensitive, is itself one of the unacknowledged privileges that whiteness confers. 

It is the broader arrogance of whiteness that has occupied the self-proclaimed omniscient position in the system – including the media, academia and other public spheres – that has to be named, exposed and then finally deconstructed and destroyed, because this is where the mass damage occurs to those who are subjected to this one-sided omniscience. 

For example, when a white academic, who holds a PhD, publishes an article that displays the utmost backward racist thought as though it is customary – what does this say about the system except that it upholds these views? If this is acceptable to her superiors at university, what does this say about the university's relationship to their students? How can they possibly teach black students in an accessible way when they openly despise and denigrate blackness in public discourse?  

This is exactly what was revealed in Mabille's recently published article on Die Praag – and were it not for a group of Afrikaans activists and individuals who took action and reported this racist diatribe to the university, it may well have been overlooked entirely by her superiors.  After four days of occupying the public realm the article was removed as a result of a complaint lodged by Dr Piet Croucamp, political analyst and lecturer at the University of Johannesburg (UJ ), who wrote a letter to the UP. In it he said her remarks were blatant racism and hate speech and called for her suspension.  

In her article, ostensibly dismissing contemporary feminism, Mabille writes: "One of the strangest [most curious] phenomena of our times is the widespread notion of feminists to associate themselves with the non-West – Africa and the non-white world generally and then also the Muslim world [of all things!]. Gay activists also sometimes associate themselves with this."

In relation to this comment she writes:

"Of course it is much easier to moan endlessly about 'Calvinism' than to ask the question of why raping babies is a cultural phenomenon among black population groups"

This is a direct assault on the humanity of the complete black population. How is this unscientific conjecture and abysmal racism acceptable in her academic circles?  This is hate-speech in its most blatant form.

She later bestows inherent criminality onto the entire African population when she writes (about feminism):  

 "What is especially appalling about contemporary feminism is the forced association with the Third World, socialism and even criminality.  If feminism is to have a future, supporters ought to rather position themselves to the right and address real problems.  The first step will be to acknowledge the Western civilisation that gave birth to feminism, as well as the white men that acknowledge and protect the value of women."

And then of course, she does not miss out on the usual attack of Zuma – not as a president but as a catch-all that represents the worst aspects of blackness in her imagination.

 "What leftist feminists conveniently avoid are the real threats to women. We find that, for example, proper feminist critiques of Jacob Zuma and his crude patriarchal practices shine in their absence. Personally I think that it will be a priority to make mincemeat of a polygamist that was accused of violent rape and in whose language a word for this crime did not exist prior to the arrival of whites.  Not to mention his charming habit of making children with every woman that crosses his path." 

If this ludicrous thinking is part of the white scholarly bastion we have to ask how white supremacy will be undone? 

Mainstream post-race liberals who want to comfortably transcend the issue of racism and largely ignore white privilege cannot, in the end, facilitate this change.  Nor can lone voices that shout out into the dark or speak clandestinely to friends about issues of racism.  

In the end it is up to those whites who are consciously anti-racist and at least aware of issues of white privilege to gather together and collectively tackle this issue with real intent.  It is up to us whites to fully acknowledge our historical privilege and the impact that the whiteness construct has on those who are recipients of its failings. It is up to us as white people who are anti-racist to work to challenge and change this minority group that still insists on dominating the public sphere.  It is up to us to apply the type of pressure that sees consequences for those who spout hate speech and racism in the public sphere.

It is us who must also be vigilant, vocal advocates for fair treatment, decency, openness and representation in public life. If South Africa is to transcend its long conflation of whiteness with humanity it must fall on white people to let go of white privilege in the end. 

There are small dissident groups of alternative Afrikaners taking apart white supremacist thinking. There are many individuals who are consistently vigilante about calling out racism. This is all good. But there could be so many more white people working towards this cause – to ultimately change the dominant white narrative into something flexible, respectful and transformative.  Something that is tolerable to others – not arrogant, bullying, disrespectful and dehumanising,

In conclusion then I am obviously not going to validate Louise Mabille's hate-speech by actually debating with her. Rather I will end by saying that she has presented a shining example of how whites should not participate in the public arena.  It is a good thing that Louise Mabille has handed in her resignation and that the University of Pretoria has accepted it.  We can only hope that is a wake-up call to those hate-speech peddlers who think it ok to pollute the public sphere with toxic racist discourse.

Topics In This Section

Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus