How our heritage is reduced to ash

As a person of colour I feel confident that most of us have experienced the galling effect of a white person centring their narrative when we discuss the facets of being black and brown.

More galling is when Heritage Month rolls around and whiteness, aided and abetted by white supremacy, forces us to debate something that shouldn’t even be a question: that Heritage Day is not “Braai Day”.

By now, many have explained why appropriating it is an affront. How it puts our heritage “over the coals”. How it is yet another form of commercialisation by a white man, as TO Molefe deftly explained in The New York Times, profiting off the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that benefits folk like Jan Scannell, aka Jan Braai, and their self-interest. Where the original intention is suppressed for a white man’s ego and profit, and for the ego and psychological profit of all of white South Africa.

All the analyses have been spot on but I want to add another lens. There’s is a missing piece in the subverted fiction that is “Braai Day”; a psychosocial understanding of why whiteness not only accepted and runs with it but how it allows white society to centre whiteness in successful pursuit of a thing to comfort the collective ego. Achieving, at once, the suppression of black heritage while forcing us to speak up to reclaim it, putting people of colour once again in a burdened position.

In any celebration of culture and heritage in a world constructed by white supremacy, white people feel left out when people of colour celebrate history and heritage. Whiteness is the norm, the default. When a Black History Month or Heritage Day appears, a psychological tension forms and the unasked question: “What is white heritage?” forms and white fragility results. White people feel distressed in not being able to participate in the way persons of colour can. To be more blunt: What is the white equivalent of a Zulu man in battle dress, of a Sotho person in a colourful blanket, of a Xhosa woman in intricate beadwork?

White society has forced us all to conform to the norms of whiteness, and so white culture lost any specialness: it’s a culture of what it is not, rather than what it is. “At its hollow core, whiteness is nothing in particular, an airless vacuum, bereft of any affirmative quality,” wrote Talia Lavin in The Village Voice in an article headlined “It’s okay to be white, but it’s not enough.”

This analysis applies well when dissecting the response of whiteness to Heritage Day. That feeling of whiteness not being ‘“enough” for a day set aside to celebrate the depth and richness of cultures.

But what is white heritage exactly? What are the artefacts and symbols of white culture and heritage for white people to celebrate? The historical record on this shows white heritage is synonymous with abuse. If that is too harsh, consider the colonisation of Africa, the Americas, the Far East and the atrocities that accompanied that. Consider the genocides of Native Americans and the Aboriginals of Australia. Consider indigenous South African erasure and ongoing exploitation, consider the Herero and Nama genocides in Namibia, whose descendants still wait for bodies to be returned. Consider Jim Crow America and Nazism, apartheid in South Africa and intentional famines in India and Ireland. White supremacy in this form, globally, has made “white pride” a dangerous slogan. It cannot be equated with Black Consciousness and #BlackLivesMatter, because white pride is about celebrating oppression and the latter about reclaiming identity and dignity.

By no means is this all of white heritage but this is what is dominating and resounding. Whatever good there was has been sublimated, pushed aside from the supremacist narrative. The historical record shows that white people who stood against violent white supremacy were excommunicated, banished, killed. And so have their stories.

John Brown’s uprising against slavery in the United States is not well known, nor is the story of World War II veterans in South Africa — many of whom were white — who protested against apartheid on their return home under the banner of the Torch Commando. When it’s written about now, instead of celebrating their defiance against apartheid just as that, they’re portrayed as an inconvenient truth to the modern ANC-driven narrative of what and who qualify as “struggle heroes”, once more pushing the need for whiteness to be foregrounded.

An empty whiteness and white heritage of pillage and plunder combine into a subconscious need to sublimate the meaning, intention and richness of Heritage Day into a relatively more ego-soothing “Braai Day”. I call this white narcissism.

It is white narcissism because it denies persons of colour a claim to even the name of a day dedicated to our histories and cultures, while foregrounding fragile whiteness. It obfuscates violent white heritage through denialism, while being unable to define a positive white culture without once again contrasting it with black culture.

It’s done via commercialist patriarchal capitalism at the expense of the histories and heritage of persons of colour. It is white narcissism par excellence because its centres an act by a white man with superficial goals of multiculturalism on a day dedicated to rich and, more importantly, ignored histories. The braai being a traditionally male-coded act furthers the narcissism of cisgendered white male politics and speaks damningly to how our gendered past and present continues to be erased and ignored.

The implication of interrogating white histories is too threatening to whiteness’s psyche, so appropriation and rebranding of cultures is the psychological security blanket that maintains the fiction that racism is over. It perpetuates a wilful culture of not acknowledging how white people were drivers of the violent, brutal history of oppression. It is white narcissism because, yet again, instead of white people doing the work to build a just and fair South Africa, on a day when it can be relatively easier, “Braai Day” silences a richer celebration of heritage.

It is white narcissism because dealing with the horror and terror of white heritage and history has deep implications that white supremacist capitalist society and psyche are not ready or able to confront.

“Braai Day” is not just “another nice marketing tactic” as some are likely to say in critique. “Braai Day” is part of white capitalist supremacy, and is integral to it. Whiteness, exploitative capitalism, white supremacy, gendered oppression and racism depend on each other in a malignant, incestuous loop of never-ending exclusion and violence.

The persistence of “Braai Day” is a manifestation of a collective psychological distress and a psychosocial response by whiteness. It results from deep denial to confront the brutal oppression of colonialism and apartheid done in the name of white people. I, too, would be horrified if that were my part of my heritage, that the terror and violence done to “the other” was done for me, even if I had no say in it, even if I still benefit from it.

But responding with “Braai Day” only perpetuates soft bigotry and oppression. Acknowledging the workings of whiteness, honing in on it and exploring it, can help us to decipher subtle forms of contemporary racism, help us understand its perpetuation, its effect on people and how we can then resist, challenge and deconstruct it. And put the burden not only on persons of colour but white people too — where it belongs.

Ayesha Fakie is the head of the Sustained Dialogues Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation

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