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Ugly power of whiteness

This week, businessperson Adam Catzavelos recorded himself reporting — with some glee — that his sojourn on a Greek beach was bereft of any black people. But instead of using the words “black people”, he used a term that is a product of the systematic othering of black people in South Africa.

It is a term that is as much a product of a racist society as it is a persistent tool of racism. (Quite aside, we do want to point out here that, as with that other racist, Penny Sparrow, there appears to be something about the presence of black people on beaches that really brings out the racism in racists.)

As a result of that video, Catzavelos has been forced out of his family business, banned from his son’s school and his wife’s employer, Nike, shut down its stores across the country on Wednesday, apparently nervous of any reprisals against Catzavelos.

And then came Donald Trump’s attempt to deflect attention away from what appears to be a very real possibility of losing his grip on the White House. After watching a Fox News discussion on land reform in South Africa, Trump said he would ask his secretary of state to investigate reports of white farmers being forced off their land or killed.

His tweet has rightly received condemnation from the presidency and precipitated a summons of the United States ambassador by the international relations and co-operation minister, Lindiwe Sisulu. But Trump’s tweets should not be reduced to diplomatic sparring.

Racism does not just exist in spurts of verbal activity like that of Catzavelos’s alone. It exists within the system that has catapulted a menace like Trump to become president of the US.

Racism is an institution that is upheld. In the greater global scheme where political, social and cultural power is still firmly entrenched in the West, Catzavelos’s monologue and Trump’s tweet are connected. They are a product of whiteness.

It’s not about the presence of white people per se, but the fact that whiteness, as a powerful social construct with very tangible and violent effects, exists because of the West’s aggressive, imperial domination of much of the world over the past few centuries.

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