Three projects to “rescue whiteness” were launched with varying levels of intensity in South Africa recently. First was the call by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu for a 1% wealth tax on white privilege. The second is the Mail & Guardian‘s “whiteness debate”. Third, the University of the Witwatersrand’s ethics unit has elaborated on the theme under the energetic guidance of Eusebius McKaiser.
What unites these seemingly disparate initiatives is a commitment to whiteness in the face of threats to its co-ordinates. Increasingly, there is a real possibility of whiteness being “raced”, so that it stops being an invisible norm and is instead exposed as a key component of the silent violence of white supremacy.
What these rescue missions have done, contrary to their lofty claims, is to reduce whiteness and white racism to a mere misunderstanding between friends. They have removed from view the fundamental questions that define the place of blackness and whiteness in South Africa. In these pages, Mark Heywood, without irony, scolded those who opposed Tutu’s call. He wondered why they were unwilling to pay “a bit more for other people’s dignity, rather than whining about taxes that might rob us of a holiday, another car or a few extravagances. A few more rands out of a comparatively bloated pay packet may hurt a little, but it will not break you.”
That Heywood can present this insult to blacks as signifying progress confirms Steve Biko’s suspicions about white liberals and their understanding of black affairs. It would never occur to Heywood that, as blacks, we don’t want some leftovers given to us by those who took so much from us. Perhaps it will come across as a sign of ingratitude and negritude when I say: “We want it all!” Unlike Tutu and Nelson Mandela, who are happy to reconcile with their oppressors without making claims for justice, some blacks want to break the back of whiteness so that all can be truly equal.
But with Heywood’s intervention, we are back to verkramptes being scolded by verligtes. It’s an internal white dialogue that goes like this: “Pay the damn 1% tax so that they leave us alone, fools!”
We see this also in the bizarre notion pushed by Samatha Vice: that whites must show humility, regret and shame for being implicated in the oppression of blacks in the “past”.
Note that Vice is quick to use “corruption” by the black political elite as an example of an area where whites must shut the fuck up. Lost to the well-meaning Vice is the vice of this very gesture, which re-enacts 700 years of anti-black racism. Her intervention suggests that, although the country may be going to the dogs as a result of black corruption, the natives must be left to their own devices as long as whites can retain their ill-gotten wealth in relative peace. She is not attacking whiteness, only providing a more sophisticated cover than the Afrikaner hobos of AfriForum can ever imagine.
Vice’s intervention is a pure example of the “non-performative anti-racism” that Professor Sarah Ahmad warns about. These non-perfomative declarations or acknowledgements of privilege only function to demobilise claims for reparations by blacks. Here, those who continue to enjoy the privileges that come with a historical process of oppression are quick to point out how privileged they are and how sorry they really are about how bad things are for the historically wronged, but that we must all move on because nothing can be done to correct the past.
This is an effective strategy of silencing claims to redress. It is acknowledgement without redress. Non-performative acknowledgement is ironically no less debasing and violent than open anti-black racism, as expressed by those who deny history and assert their right to their privileges as the fruits of meritocracy.
It has been entertaining to see McKaiser begging Vice to speak out. As a result of his concern with whites censoring themselves about the burdens of being white, we are now inundated with the “crisis” of being white in the world, as in the forum for whites to discuss the burden of whiteness recently organised by McKaiser at Wits. Any race theorist who deserves to be taken seriously ought to know that such white indulgence of their “suffering” only serves to entrench the established centralisation of whiteness.
But it seems we live in an era where sophists pass as philosophers. In this new effort to rescue whiteness, some discourses are a priori outlawed. The simple fact that 1994 inaugurated an anti-black political and economic reality that rendered blacks a powerless majority is never factored in. In the main, the ANC has worked hard to sustain the apartheid status quo instead of ending white supremacy, to render whites irrelevant, so that we may all live in peace. It is constantly reproducing new forms of black denigration and marginalisation while a layer of politically connected gain access to some white privileges.
Stuart Hall defines white supremacy as a multidimensional practice of white domination that transcends formal political power and extends to law, economy, culture and even the “cognitive evaluative” and the metaphysical. Transgressing white supremacy has real consequences; conversely, its valorisation has real rewards — more so if you inhabit a black skin.
When we think about privilege, we need always to remember the example of Eugene de Kock, who, like Christ, was sacrificed to cleanse whites of all their sins. We must be wary of schemes that simply irritate whites without confronting the real cause of their historical advantage. I would be damn agitated myself if I was white and told to pay taxes to blacks or told to stay out of black affairs. For blacks like me, the very act of reducing the ending of white racism to acts of benevolence from whites is insulting to the core.
What has ignited the “crisis” of whiteness all of sudden? It would seem ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema’s threats to white capital have a lot to do with it. Malema has spoken some inconvenient truths, even if for convenient reasons. White privilege can’t hide from the glaring truth of Alexandra and Sandton, side by side, one a hellhole with no respite, the other splendour of heavenly plenty, the one pitch-black, the other white with a sprinkling of blacks. The false promises of quelling the hungry and increasingly angry grumblings from the black excluded will not be resolved by neat discussion of white guilt, empty gestures and strategic silences, nor by assurances that it is possible to live ethically from a position of unethically amassed privilege.
The burden of ending white supremacy ultimately rests with the black majority. It is not what whites do that matters but what blacks are going to do to move the country towards a more ethical existence, one not over determined by whiteness.
From where I’m sitting, the most appropriate response to the question of how to be white in the white world is simply to laugh out loud.
Andile Mngxitama will launch a monthly discussion forum, [email protected], on October 27 at 7pm, at Wish restaurant in Melville, Johannesburg, with the screening of the documentary Thomas Sankara: The Upright Man
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.