/ 1 February 2024

Everybody wants white privilege

Graphic Tl Haupt Oppression Page 0001
(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

Allow me some hyperbole for a moment — it seems that everybody wants white privilege these days.

Of course, there is a long history of local and global projects geared to securing systems of racialised and gendered privilege — white privilege. 

In South Africa, the Dutch settler-colonisers resented being colonised by the British and fought a bitter war opposing British rule. 

At schools, apartheid-era textbooks made use of the verb “annex” to talk about Britain’s invasion of Southern Africa. As a child, I don’t recall history teachers using the verb “colonise” to describe what the Dutch, Portuguese, Germans and British were doing in the region.

History teachers called this bitter colonial war the Anglo-Boer War but, more recently, some historians have become inclined to call it the South African War because all South Africans, both black and white, were involved in it. Some fought with the British and some with the Boers.

Black people who fought with the victors of that war probably hoped for some respite from the violence of colonialism but it was not to be. 

In their efforts at “toenadering” or, more likely, to co-opt those who identified as Afrikaners into the British colonial project, the victors extended the benefits of white privilege to the Boers but not to black people. 

Both British and Dutch settlers would get to partake in the systems of racialised privilege afforded to colonisers. But this was not enough. 

The stigma and shame of being seen as “verarmde boere”, who suffered at the hands of English oppressors, who denied them the hope of a promised land as set out in the Old Testament, was too real from the perspective of Afrikaner nationalists.

They dreamed of an ethno-nationalist state that would construct systems of privilege for white Afrikaners. 

They had positioned themselves as God’s chosen people in the battle for a Boer republic … a promised land, Zion. Read: an ethno-nationalist state that secures white privilege for white Afrikaners using religious texts to justify its racism.

But like the British after the South African War, Afrikaner nationalists needed to offer incentives for those not thought to be white or Afrikaner to participate in their ethno-nationalist project; they co-opted white English people alongside various categories of black people in the form of tribalisation, and the contested “coloured” racial category, to create hierarchical systems of privilege and dispossession — apartheid. 

Divisions among various categories of black people was essential to the success of this system of oppression and dispossession. (Compare Steve Biko positioning blackness as a political affiliation and marker of solidarity with all colonised people.)

The opposite strategy was employed with those accepted as white. From a racist perspective, not all categories of white people were valued equally. 

While Greek, Portuguese and Jewish people were themselves subjected to interpersonal racism and prejudice, the National Party welcomed (perhaps grudgingly) these categories of white people to bolster the number of white settlers who would be loyal to the party and its apartheid policies. 

It is from this perspective that we come to see that whiteness, like blackness, is a political construct that serves political and economic ends. Those who were accepted as white by the apartheid state were given access to the systems and structures that created and sustained white privilege.

Perhaps this is how we got to the paradoxical scenario where we had Jewish South Africans both oppose and support the system of apartheid as the National Party tightened its grip in South Africa. 

Some saw apartheid for the unjust racist system that it was and opposed it, while those with Zionist sympathies saw the opportunity of supporting and benefitting from systemic racism. 

They saw a way to access white privilege and, therefore, supported the apartheid state (cf. Steven Friedman’s book Good Jew, Bad Jew: Racism, Anti-Semitism and the Assault on Meaning).

In an opinion piece on the Mondoweiss website, titled Zionism and Colonial Modernity, Muhannad Ayyad writes about the links between colonial modernity — a take on modernity that challenges racist associations of modernity with assumed European superiority and, instead, highlights modernity’s roots in colonial dispossession — and Zionism, an ethno-nationalist project.

Ayyad argues that the Zionists wanted to join the European colonial project, instead of opposing it: “The problem with the answer of Zionism, however, is that instead of challenging the spurious and violent racialisation of Europeans into ‘Semites’ and ‘Aryans’, instead of standing up to the European colonial project and joining together with colonised and racialised communities across the world to dismantle colonial modernity and the Euro-American colonial project, Zionism proposed an answer whereby they would join the project of colonial modernity.”

Zionists wanted to partake in systems that created racial hierarchies and white privilege. They, too, wanted to be settler-colonisers. 

Intra-Jewish racism became a feature of life in Israel, interestingly. It’s no wonder that the settler state of Israel found a friend in the apartheid state during the era of National Party rule in South Africa. 

Both states employed religious texts to create ethno-nationalist founding myths to justify their systems of racialised oppression and dispossession. 

Israel is now widely recognised as an apartheid state. It is therefore profoundly symbolic that it is post-apartheid South Africa that pursued legal action against Israel in the International Court of Justice. 

Perhaps the people of Palestine will defeat apartheid, just like the people of South Africa defeated it.

But for that hope to be realised, we need to acknowledge that ethno-nationalism is experiencing a revival in many parts of the world — from the dominance of Hindutva in India to the rise of the far right in Europe and the ethno-nationalist, xenophobic logic that brought us Brexit.

Importantly, we see the rise of the far right in the US Republican party under former president Donald Trump, whose supporters seem ready to abandon democratic governance. 

More worrying, the Democrats under President Joe Biden stubbornly support Israel, despite signs that it might openly defy the recent ruling of the International Court of Justice.

The investment in systems of racialised privilege are so substantial that we seem to be facing violent confrontations on so many fronts. 

But there is an upside. These investments are hard at work to construct race and privilege in self-serving ways. Race is a malleable concept; it bends to suit the political interests of those who lay claim to power. 

Biologically essentialist understandings of race have long been discredited as the bad science that brought us the shameful history of eugenics; what is left is for us is to see power and the abuse of power for what it is — bereft of morality. 

Zionists have no moral claim to Palestine — certainly no more than the BJP has to India, Afrikaner nationalists had to apartheid South Africa, Nazis had to the Third Reich or the AfD has to a white supremacist Germany. 

It is time for us to call time on systems of racialised privilege and oppression.

Adam Haupt is professor of media studies and director of the Centre for Film and Media Studies at UCT. The National Research Foundation rates him a B2 scholar. He is co-editor of Neva Again: Hip-Hop Art, Activism and Education in Post-Apartheid South Africa with Quentin Williams (University of the Western Cape), Emile Jansen (Heal the Hood) and 

H Samy Alim (University of California, Los Angeles).