/ 11 January 2013

There’s no unlearning whiteness, despite what ‘anti-racists’ say

Acclaimed author JM Coetzee this week received an honorary doctorate from the University of the Witwatersrand.
Acclaimed author JM Coetzee this week received an honorary doctorate from the University of the Witwatersrand.

It's the tragic black celebration of her "acknowledgment" of her white privileges that calls for critical reflection on the new "anti-racism" industry by white liberals such as Professor Samantha Vice, Michelle Booth and now Schutte. Basically, they are struggling to live with the legacy of brutality and racism that brought them about and positions them as privileged. They want to be ethical, that is to say be good people of good conscience, so as to properly enjoy their good white lives alongside their black lovers and children.

It would be amiss for black people to ride this wave towards rescuing whiteness when a long history and present of white supremacy prove whiteness to be unethical and beyond restructuring.

This appeal that white people again admit guilt, ask forgiveness and we can simply move on on the basis of "common humanity" is consistent with the post-1994

reconciliation without justice exemplified by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's impulse of getting some perpetrators of racism to repent, reveal and ask forgiveness, and thus gain moral vindication for the white race. We saw former death squad leader Eugene de Kock going to jail and former police minister Adriaan Vlok washing the feet of Reverend Frank Chikane in a macabre performance of remorse that leaves the anti-black status quo intact.

Essentially this "anti-racism" industry appeals to whites to be nice about their whiteness and white supremacy, and not rub it in black people's faces after black people have been nice enough to let whites stay and prosper on land stolen from them. Schutte wants whites to relax because blacks have no ill intention towards them despite all that has happened in the past. The paternalism and racism of this empty acknowledgment of history but not redress gives blacks a false sense of justice and it is growing fast, expressed in some whites boldly wearing T-shirts with the words: "I benefited from apartheid."

This individualisation of racism has immediate benefits for the "anti-racists" who accuse other whites of racism – miraculously, by this act, she or he transcends racism and its benefits, and becomes the national spokesperson on race matters and a fêted darling of the media. Blacks are hungry for any acknowledgement of white guilt, even if it's given half-heartedly or as an act of bad faith for both commercial and psychological benefit for the white "confessor". The "anti-racist" activists have seen an opening in the market and are moving in on it. It makes better sense if one married a black man and had "mixed" children, who are mentioned in between as if it mattered.

Critical race studies
Tragically, South Africa has not even moved past the first-generation "critical race studies" that populated North America at one point. It has gone through the "race traitor" period, where whites were seriously trying to come to terms with what it means to be white in a world that is structured on the permanent exclusion and oppression of blacks. Such studies and campaigns soon came to a cul-de-sac when it was discovered that there was no rescuing whiteness that is not based on continued black oppression.

Anti-racism by whites became exposed as sophisticated racism. The only solution was the expulsion of whites from black affairs. This is a major test, because white anti-racism activities will have to take Malcolm X's injunction that the best help that whites can give blacks is to do "nothing". Some black supporters of Schutte have distorted Steve Biko's injunction that whites who want to help blacks must work among their own community. But this couldn't possibly mean rescuing whiteness under the guise of working against it. Schutte's biggest sin is the distortion of what racism is: she reduces it to personal misunderstanding and mere bad orientation that can be cured by changed behaviour and admission of guilt.

To end racism, actually, would be to realise the Armageddon that those whites Schutte derides for being paranoid know awaits in some historical corner. It can't be otherwise, given the magnitude of historical transgression against blacks. The coming apocalypse was best described in JM Coetzee's Disgrace.

To his credit Coetzee left the country because he knows, like Lucy in the novel, that whites have to start from the beginning with nothing – like dogs. This kind of thinking offends liberals like Schutte, who just want a little bit of acknowledgment.

Because Schutte and Co can go through life innocent until proven guilty, get intuitive access to property and land, and escape police harassment, they cannot isolate that privilege to being the burden of good whites as though it does not translate to black oppression and marginalisation. In this regard there's no unlearning whiteness. Schutte's "each one teach one" training on whites resolving racism for blacks is unintelligible and disingenuous. The essence of white being, its intrinsic link to domination and privilege, is what needs to be destroyed and the possibility of its structural superiority is what must be ended. Some may think it is unreasonable to ask white people to tutor each other towards this goal – but for black people there can be no lesser demand if white supremacy is to end.

It is a demand we know won't be met. Whenever white privilege has been questioned in South Africa it has felt victimised and retaliated with its power to take up space. Nonetheless, this is a demand we should put into effect by any means necessary. Black political interest cannot bow to the moral persuasion of "white angels" like Schutte. They won't resolve racism, but will only reposition whites to a place where they can think of themselves as ethical. This does not include them ending their white world so we can be human.

Blacks are a majority and we must use our numeral strength and sense of injustice to end white supremacy. The ANC has served us badly and left us to the whims of all sorts of white paternalism.

The authors are black consciousness activists