The explosion of white outrage and resentment that greeted Samantha Vice’s thoughts on white people and how they should “cultivate humility and silence” tells its own story.
We have an angry society, and sometimes people note how there is a particularly insistent white anger that comes through into public debate.
As part of my work I ask people to speak about their early experiences of violence, so that they and I understand better how to move from these towards non-violence in our lives. It is always striking how much violence people have experienced in South Africa, and further just how much violence has been visited upon black people. At one workshop, all participants were black and in higher education positions, part of the middle class, but the same held true there.
This is not to suggest that white people experienced no violence against themselves; it is rather to note the accounts of witnessing violence where you were not the target. The experience of a white child who witnesses violence against black people, or a boy who witnesses the harassment of girls, is qualitatively different from being subject to violence against yourself.
No doubt all violence makes people angry; these continued experiences, which are experiences of privilege, also intensify a sense of isolation from the “other”. They communicate a sense that the “other” in some way deserves that treatment because of their inherent unworthiness; if you are not in control something is desperately wrong. Such emotions characterise so many of the “white” (and male, and heterosexual) responses to the present.
I recall an incident in the 1950s in a department store in Durban. My mother was served by the attendant before a woman who had been there first. Trying to be fair-minded, she said, “Please serve this Mary first,” using the obnoxious way white Natalians had of speaking of Indian women. The other woman responded with anger instead of gratitude, to my mother’s shock; I was mortified by both my mother’s handling and the reaction.
In comparison to what I hear of acts of violence, this is small stuff, yet it evokes even now a sense of shame and guilt in someone exposed as the perpetrator or linked to the perpetrator. Yet because the racism was challenged it was at least an experience from which I could learn – unlike all the other such experiences that I don’t recall because there was no challenge.
Where I want to challenge Vice is on this point: she suggests that there are “appropriate” emotions such as shame and guilt, and that these should be cultivated. Our continued exposure to our white location within a racial system has made people feel not only shame but also fear, anger and resentment, and these emotions come to haunt us in our dealings with each other and with black people.
Instead of cultivating the “right” emotions, I think we should be honest in recognising them and we should refuse to perpetuate them, any of them, from shame to resentment. It is not good for white or black people to be driven by the hurts and emotions that result from our oppressive history. They contaminate our lives and those of others. And if there is a particular white responsibility that comes with our history, it must be to address the needs of the present and not indulge our various hurt emotions. The emotions worth celebrating are those that recognise South African resilience over the wrongs of the past.
I see four pressing reasons not to follow the path of silence and shame.
The first is the need for people to be a resource for each other, including across divisions of gender, race and class. This entails not just emotional or practical support; it includes supportive confrontation that does not draw on resentment or superiority. We cannot form a truly human society if people in their interactions with others stop providing that support out of fear of being seen as racist. As a middle-class person, I have often “helped” black people, mainly to no avail, but the two useful things I did were to listen carefully and to challenge in a way that communicated care and not punishment — the kinds of things they did that were most valuable for me.
Second, expecting white people to maintain a stance that is so different from that of other people fosters the social distance that is an essential element of the racist system. To approach people with a focus on our shame and guilt is not just unAfrican; it serves to entrench distance, just as white anger does. Potentially it becomes another way of imposing white concerns on black people.
Third, we cannot pick and choose which are the white issues where we should speak and which are the black issues where we should be silent. Take for example the racist xenophobia we experience. This systematically privileges white people by making whiteness the judgement of who is an acceptable foreigner. The voices of white people should be heard clearly rejecting such xenophobia, whether the people who carry it out are black or white.
The fourth point is that withdrawal can easily become a way of holding to ourselves the cultural and social capital whites have built up. We need engagement with black people, not just on how to access this capital, but also on how to transform it not least on how such capital has been caught up in structures of domination.
I am thus arguing for a self-aware engagement rather than withdrawal. Such engagement needs to be less opinionated and arrogant. In the end, we are humans together; as for the experiences that racism brought on us, we should find ways of telling our stories — and moving on.
Crispin Hemson is the director of the International Centre of Nonviolence, based at Durban University of Technology.
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.