Why my opinions on whiteness touched a nerve

Outrage met Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s recent remark that it would be appropriate to tax white South Africans for the benefits they received from apartheid. Immediate accusations of reverse racism obscured a deep issue about how whites should feel and act in a country still scarred by the injustices of the regime that benefited so many of them.

In an academic paper that has also caused intense debate in newspapers and on the internet I explored the moral burden that whiteness places on us and was met by a similar outbreak of self-righteous outrage. I suggested that white people should cultivate humility and silence, given their morally compromised position in the continuing racial and economic injustices of this country.

I did not mean that we ought not to reflect on political matters or initiate conversations about them, as I am doing here. Rather, we should refrain from trying to manage and shape a political landscape still scarred by our destructive presence. We stand on no moral high ground, it seems to me, from which to issue public criticism of the government or black politicians, to complain about corruption and revel in scandal. However concerned we might be about the state of the country, it cannot be our role to act as the moral watchdogs of those now in power.

This was controversial enough. But in support of this conclusion I argued further that it is appropriate for whites to feel shame at their white identity, given its destructive legacy and the way it continues to shapes us. Of course, we did not choose to be born white but that does not stop us benefiting from it still — in ways that are far subtler than merely social and economic. We move easily about a world made in our own image, validating our own values and beliefs and sustaining our own comfort, unimpeded by the kinds of structural and systemic challenges black people face daily. That is something to feel ashamed about.

My views were first discussed in the media by Eusebius McKaiser (in Die Burger in June and then in the Mail & Guardian in July), whose article unleashed a torrent of responses that were overwhelmingly defensive and abusive. I have been characterised as a self-hating attention-seeker and directed to commit suicide. As a matter of course I have been labelled stupid, neurotic and blinded by — my favourite insult — “womanly political views”. The university I work for has been criticised for allowing such “bilge” to be published under its auspices — a casual attack on academic freedom.

Some are sceptical I even exist: perhaps the shadowy and improbably named Samantha Vice is a figment of McKaiser’s provocative imagination? McKaiser himself has been denounced by both ends of the political spectrum and, most disturbingly, Stellenbosch philosopher Anton van Niekerk was assaulted for his sympathetic discussion of my views.

Translation to journalism
These responses are extreme. It is not often that a paper in an academic journal receives any attention outside academia, let alone a response of such energy and vitriol. I thought of the paper as opening a space for further discussion; it was exploratory, personal and tentative, features that have perhaps inevitably been lost in the translation to journalism. I may be wrong in my conclusions, but the debate they have generated indicates that this is a conversation we urgently need to have in this country and that my critics lack the good faith, empathy and calm heads it would require. It has certainly brought to the surface the intense and personal nature of race and identity in this country.

The paper touched two nerves. One was white people’s sense of themselves as basically decent. We have an enduring need to think well of ourselves, so it is deeply uncomfortable to be told we should feel ashamed of ourselves. Another was our sense of our place and role in South Africa. It is, after all, the only home most of us have; our personal investment and history give us a stake in its success and so we feel entitled to air our opinions about its development.

It has been said often and stridently in the past weeks that whites deserve their success and comfort because they work hard and are diligent and law-abiding. Furthermore, apartheid is over and everyone is equal, so we should quit complaining and move on.

But a simplistic view of identity is at work in these responses. We forget the vast background of institutions, state support and opportunities that made our success possible; we forget that we do not develop in a vacuum or create ourselves ex nihilo. Apartheid’s dubious gift to whites was the chance to live comfortably, securely and with opportunities for creative development and worldly success. Apartheid cushioned whites at the expense of making life very hard for others — and the effects of this injustice are still present.

So, however attached whites are to this country — and part of my point is that, whether we admit it or not, we are fundamentally attached to its sad history and legacy — and however much we care for its success, we shouldn’t feel completely comfortable. The refusal to acknowledge one’s luck is a manifestation of the careless complacence and arrogance that make whites feel entitled to these advantages — and convinced that their own efforts alone made their success possible.

We see this arrogance surfacing in responses to Tutu’s call for a “white tax”. White privilege has partly constituted our identities and inflected our voices when we speak out. Once we reflect on this, we realise that we are not as we should be and this, it seems to me, is a cause for shame and a quieter political presence.

I am not calling for apathy or withdrawal from all public life. Whites ought to work together with blacks to make the country better — we have plenty to contribute — but we should do it quietly and in the background, working on the selves that are cause for shame before we judge others.

Self-reflective silence is an appropriate recognition of the compromised nature of our white identity: perhaps we should get our own house in order before criticising others. Then we might see our way to taking up Tutu’s gentle challenge and paying that tax. We might create the conditions in which we need no longer be silent — we might have reason to think better of ourselves.

Academic Samantha Vice has caused a storm of controversy with her thoughts on white shame in South Africa. Read the reactions. View our special report.

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