What it means to be white in South Africa has not always been the same. Today, perhaps for the first time, we are expected to make sense of our skin colour, something black people have always had to do. More specifically, we need to make sense of our identity as a white minority at the tip of Africa, who continue to enjoy the privileges, opportunities, networks and accumulated wealth that came to us by means of a violent system of oppression of our own design.
How do we reconcile these truths with our desire to see ourselves as moral and righteous citizens?
Many choose to turn a blind eye in our enclaves of white privilege. But a particularly effective strategy has been to play the victim. Various political movements have capitalised on the notion that white South Africans, as a minority group, are systematically oppressed and excluded by the ruling government, employing discursive strategies of victimhood and marginalisation to bolster support.
One needs to look no further than Flip Buys’ recent post Tien redes hoekom Afrikaners moeg is om verskoning te vra [Ten reasons why Afrikaners are tired of asking for forgiveness, Maroela Media, February 20).
And it is working.
I have observed that white people typically report perceptions of structural discrimination against themselves that not only match that which was experienced by black people under apartheid, but far exceed what black South Africans ostensibly experience today.
Such findings suggest that competitive victimhood poses a significant problem for South Africa. In particular, many white people appear to not only disregard or deny the pervasive, continuing effect of structural forms of oppression that black people experience today, but also feel themselves to be at the brunt of racial oppression.
Such notions of victimhood serve as a double-edged sword — selectively enhancing perceived harm experienced by white people while absolving them from repair of past harm — and is particularly toxic for a country with a fragile democracy like ours.
Whether notions of victimhood are expressed consciously or unconsciously, such mental habits block transformation and keep the unequal status quo in place.
So, what should it mean to be white in South Africa as one reflects on Human Rights Day on March 21? I would like to suggest renewal in two integrated steps that will go a long way towards everyone’s right to be an equal, dignified human being.
Here I want to acknowledge the white people who already take hands with fellow South Africans to help repair the damage caused by apartheid. But the sad truth is that many white South Africans have not yet come to terms with our shared and ethical responsibility to turn around a grave social injustice — a crime against humanity — and imagine a new future, together.
The first step is to identify and unlearn our oppressive ways of being in the world, which requires deep, internal work. From recent neuroscientific evidence, we know that what someone believes, or expects to see, fundamentally shapes what they actually see.
In fact, the brain has been described as a “prediction machine” by Anil Seth, a leading neuroscientist on consciousness.
In a similar way, our attitudes, beliefs, entrenched ideologies (of superiority) and historical narratives function to colour in our expectations and perceptions of the world around us in particular ways that shape our behaviours.
Examples of this are who we trust, who we believe, who we employ, who we rent to, who we socialise with, what constitutes “good” institutions … the list goes on and on.
The only way to shed light on these biases that, for the most part, operate automatically, is through fostering a more critical consciousness and expanding our perspectives. Reading the same newspapers/blogs/twitter feeds, socialising with the same friends/family, and going to the same (white) institutions won’t serve this purpose.
Rather, we should actively seek to expand our worldviews and challenge our automatic reactions. The difference between what the brain is expecting and what is really playing out can be reduced by attention. Cultivating more awareness through contemplative methods may serve this purpose.
Another way of expanding our perspectives involves authentic and honest engagement with our black brothers and sisters. Which brings me to the next point.
As white people, we need to be much more intentional about building meaningful relationships across colour lines. John Powell, the director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society in the United States, said “the opposite of ‘othering’ is not ‘saming’, but rather inclusion and belonging”. Powerful words.
A single identity is not a stable identity. We need multiple identities in South Africa and they all need to be valued and seen as equal. Feeling valued is essentially what every human being needs to thrive. Therefore, finding ways to eradicate internalised ideologies of superiority and inferiority that perpetuate inequality is of critical importance to build a better South Africa for all.
And this isn’t possible without messy, relational work that goes with tangible contributions to fight black poverty.
For us as white people, this is the moment of hard work. Are we going to melt in a puddle of victimhood and self-righteous anger or forge a new identity of integrity and accountability so that our children have a future?
To be clear, choosing to do nothing is still choosing. As Schalk van Heerden said in Time to Trek. The Unthinkable Thought, those who choose to “stay out of it” are “very involved, very active — in a destructive way, contributing to the polarisation of society. There is no neutral middle ground.”
Dr Melike Fourie is a senior researcher in the Historical Trauma and Transformation Unit at Stellenbosch University