By: Mawuna Remarque Koutonin
By Gillian Schutte
To be born white in South Africa is akin to being born with a trust fund left to the white collective courtesy of our ancestors.
White people can be guaranteed, even before they are conceived, that they will be born into a 500-year-old (colonial history) white-friendly, socioeconomic system created to advantage them.
When a white person is born they are automatically endowed with a set of benefits, securities and givens that not all black people can guarantee.
Of course there are wealthy black people and a black elite – but we are talking about white privilege in South Africa – and all whites benefited from colonialism and apartheid in one way or another.
Most white people continue to benefit from elitism and neoliberalism.
Most white people are reluctant to shift this status quo and lose their special privileges.
Enduring white resistance to transformation and the dearth of moves towards genuine equality says it all.
This is why 21 years into an independent African democracy around 70% of the top management positions are still held by white males, even though white males often complain the loudest about being pushed out of the economy under black rule.
White people are afraid of losing this set of privileges and thus create a lexicon of nonsensical terms such as ‘reverse racism’ and plentiful negative anti-blackness notions that continue to label black people as incompetent and less worthy.
This says more about white hegemony than it does about black potential or black excellence.
To point out the hegemonic nature of whiteness or write about white privilege does not mean that all white people are ‘black-hating monsters’ or that you want white folk to feel immense guilt.
What you want is for white people to notice how this hegemony thwarts transformation and equality and thus robs our future generations of a world that is equal, celebrates diversity and commonality and is pro-humanity not pro-white.
To point out majority black poverty and the enduring nature of systemic and institutional racism does not mean that you think all black people are victims, have no potential or are not fully fledged and successful vibrant people.
To write about this race and inequality means to write about what is wrong and what needs to transformed in our society – especially in a country with a Gini Coefficient of 0.77 and around 53% of our population living in extreme poverty. That means around 27 million (majority black) citizens are critically poor as a direct result of a white colonial history of oppression and continued blacksploitation.
Yes we know not all whites are rich and spoiled and that those white folk born into wealth and economic privilege have it all the more easier than those of us not born into ‘old’ or ‘new’ money – but this does not cancel out the systemic privileges afforded to the whiteness club.
These benefits, securities and givens are not only economic, because, again, we know that not all whites are actual ‘trust fund babies’ – but whiteness still bestows numerous privileges onto those born into it that are often at the expense of, or denied to, those not white.
This is not to suggest that the zygote or the new born baby is personally racist – but white racism is an inevitable fact for white skinned people, even those who perceive themselves to be not racist.
This is because white babies are not born into a race-neutral world. They are born into a world that has been systemically skewed by white colonial history to benefit whites and disadvantage people that are born ‘not white.’
Contemporary neocolonialism and neoliberalism has further entrenched white privilege – to the point that even Marxists would have to agree that in countries with a settler history, racism is the primary premise of white economic and social privilege.
Surely without the historical exploitation of the black collective body and the subjugation of indigenous people in colonies, white economic supremacy would not be entrenched.
The curse of white skin for race abolitionists is that no matter how non-racist or anti-racist they purport to be they cannot escape the systemic condition of whiteness.
Bringing it down to the basics
- Besides that small percentage of whites that have slipped through the systemic cracks and are also critically poor, on average white new-borns can mostly be sure of the following:
- They will not be born critically poor.
- They will more than likely have access to nutrition, nappies, and a healthy mother.
- They more than likely will never have to watch their mother, father, grandparents or siblings suffer the indignity of the bucket system or porta-potties and then experience the added indignity of having to find somewhere to dispose of their waste.
- They will never see their mothers or relatives walking over 200 meters to a tap, or 2km’s to a river, to collect water for daily washing, cooking and family hygiene.
- They will most likely have access to electricity, warmth, hot water, bathtubs, flushing loos and toilet paper.
- They will more than likely have access to decent housing, education, service delivery and justice.
- They will have access to an education system with highly qualified teachers, libraries and decent facilities.
- They will not have parents who can be shot at with live ammunition and tear gassed or arrested for joining a protest around service delivery or better wages.
- They will be less likely to know personally, or have a family member or friend who has been incarcerated, either for political or criminal reasons.
- A white new-born’s parents are less likely to suffer the same types of stresses that the majority of black parents suffer from because the majority of white parents have more access to economic opportunities.
- They live in areas that are closer to work opportunities.
- Their neighborhoods are built around social spaces, such as parks, community halls, shopping spaces, libraries, schools, restaurants and cinemas.
- They are more than likely able to afford to use these amenities.
- Their homes will more than likely have adequate furnishings and domestic resources.
- They will not have to spend 30% of their meagre earnings on transport and travel long distances to get to menial low paying jobs.
- If they become struggling single mothers they will still, on average, earn a much higher salary than struggling, uneducated single black women.
- They will be less likely to be victims of HIV or AIDS, TB, Malnutrition and related illnesses.
- They will have access to health services and they will more than likely live a longer lifespan.
- They will not have the burden of the history of systemic oppression to work through.
If compared to middle class black society…
- White middle class youth will be less likely than black middle class youth to have to financially support family and relatives when they begin to earn money.
- They will be less likely to have huge economic cleavages between them and members of their extended family if they make it up the economic ladder.
- They will have less guilt about how they spend money on themselves whilst part of their family still uses the bucket system or has no access to proper nutrition.
- They will probably not have a husband, brother, mother or neighbour who can testify to having been suspected of stealing, loitering, planning a heist or spoken to like a child by a white shop owner.
- They will not consistently have to prove themselves by working doubly hard to underscore their intelligence in a white dominated corporate world.
- They will not be accused of wanting to be ‘white’ for joining the economy and climbing up the economic ladder.
- They will not be mocked for driving a smart car as if they bought the car at the expense of their children’s education.
- They will not be forced to adhere to a skewed system that belittles them to gain acceptance in an economy historically built on the backs of their own people’s oppression.
- They will not have to prove that they are not ‘whining victims’ when they complain or protest against delegitimizing white racist discourse – whether overt or covert.
- They will also be assured that their views would be the default position and everyone around them would have to work hard to prove their counter views.
- They will be assured of positive representations of their own likeness in advertising, films and news stories.
- They will have the security of knowing that if you are white, male and rich could possibly get away with murder because the justice system is more geared towards white males than women or black people.
- They will never be accused of reverse racism as a way to silence their dissent against unfair privileges bestowed onto people because of their skin colour in a world skewed to advantage some at the expense of the other.
- They will, on a conscious and subconscious level, be given the message over and over that white humanity is more valuable than black humanity.
- They will be less likely to be brutalized by the state and state mechanisms.
- They will never experience racism.
They will be more likely to deny that all of the above is the truth about white privilege. In fact they will more than likely deny that there is such a thing as white privilege and hegemony and label those who shed light on this topic as a race traitor.
But no amount of denialism or aggressiveness to those who write about white privilege and its negative impact on fellow humans is ever going to change the fact that white people deny and threaten those who shake up their comfort zone or question the status quo precisely because they do not want to give up on their privileges and are more than willing to perpetuate the conditions that allow them to continue living with a set of givens, norms and benefits denied to other people.
(A shorter version of this piece was published in Sunday Independent on 02/02/2015)
When Rachel Dolezal’s story exploded onto the social media two weeks ago it started off as a curious narrative of a white woman who had appropriated a black identity and had used this identity to work her way into leadership positions in Black Rights organisations. Speculations abounded as to what her motivations were. Was she over-identified with black struggles and thus the natural progression was for her to become black? Was this an expedience that allowed a privileged white woman to ‘wear’ blackness so that she could procure those positions created for black leaders? Was this a noble act of martyrdom where she gave up on her white privileges to push the Black cause? Or was this a blatant display of racism and whitism at its best?
While the world speculated and debated Dolezal’s eccentric physical transformation and as the story behind her choice to become black unravelled in the media, it soon became clear that it is perhaps never possible to simply appropriate a raced identity that is rooted in a history that is not your personal embodied experience.
Dolezal, in the end, was unable to pull off an authentic framework or premise for being black. Instead she wove a complex web of essentialist whitist fantasies about growing up black and partly indigenous. Her narrative brimmed with imagery of tepees, bows and arrows, Africa, abusive parents, and lots of black siblings who were punished by a cruel white stepfather with a ‘baboon whip’ in varying levels of brutality according to their hue. The darker your skin the more cruel the punishment.
The narrative Dolezal put together was just too top heavy with over strenuous stereotypes – and like Dr Seus’s Cat is the Hat, she was balancing precariously on a ball of artifice, juggling a multitude of half truths mixed with blatant lies. In the end she was trying to balance a sculptural bricolage of borrowed facts and falsities whilst fast-talking her way out of this disingenuous maze she had built around herself. Such a deceptive artefact was always in danger of crashing down around her ears.
According to reports her adoptive brother Ezra said that in the week following her outing she told so many different versions of the same lie that for him it was not a matter of identity but more a matter of integrity.
Dr Lynn Gehl, an indigenous activist, educator and blogger who is descended from the Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe people in Canada, wrote in an article on her blog site Black Face Blogging; “When I think about Rachel Dolezal … I have come to know that when someone claims to be Black or Indigenous when they are not, they need to be informed that because their parents, and their ancestors, and they have not lived, and as such embodied the intergenerational knowledge of being Black or Indigenous, they are not Black or Indigenous.”
In this framework it is ontologically impossible for a white person to even begin to be black because they simply do not have the imprints of individual or collective black experience in their consciousness or their sub consciousness. Any white person, who carries within them the deep cellular memory of white collective and individual experience, is going to trip herself up. Dolezal’s black identity could be nothing more than a hollow persona and even if she did fool some – others had already begun to identify her actions as confusing and dangerous to the black cause. The ‘aha’ moment happened when she was outed as white.
In the end no matter how much a white person experiences empathy with black struggles or wants to become Black, or resonates culturally with blackness – we cannot simply become something other than what we are. Firstly our culturally specific childhood indoctrination has a way of filtering through to our unconscious and becomes part of our automatic response to Blackness – along with our inherited universally specific racist archetypes (over 500 years of racist memory). This concoction of acquired and inherent conditioning holds individual and collective whiteness in its inevitable grip and even if one goes through a process of deconstructing and unlearning the precepts about race, this conscious and unconscious racism cannot simply be unlearned through a quick fix process or by wearing black.
What Rachel Dolzal did instead of owning her whiteness and working from the point of deconstructing the limitations this forces onto one’s humanity and the humanity of all people, was to try and obliterate her by now ‘inconvenient’ whiteness by wearing a black mask – a process that created cognitive dissonance for many in a world in which it is more often Black people becoming white to survive in a world that privileges whiteness.
Some came out in her favour, translating her position as an act of kindness and casting her in the whitist trope of the ‘noble white woman turned noble savage.’ But many more were furious at her appropriation of an identity that was not hers to take.
What Dolezal attempted to do was an impossible feat to begin with and Dolezal lacked the required psychological maturity to recognise her performance of Blackness as a lie.
Her case got me thinking about my own space as a white race justice activist who writes publically about issues of whiteness, racism and social justice – a concoction that incenses conservative and liberal whites alike. The issue of appropriating Black struggles is always in question when writing about whiteness because by so doing you cannot avoid writing about Blackness too. The two race categories are indivisible. They are almost pathologically rooted in each other in a constructed dance of history, power and disempowerment. This is premised on the historical construct of whiteness created by our white forefathers who sought to oppress indigenous people in colonies to turn them into large and free reserves of slavery with which to build the white empires.
This supremacist and profit driven necessity to define white as the godly race put on earth to laud it over people of colour has created the definition of all other races and so it follows that racism resides only on whiteness and it is whiteness that must be obliterated as the central monolithic signifier to this binary condition. Once this construct is gone humanity can redefine sameness and diversity on egalitarian terms.
But for all this history and race theory black and white people are able to meet and share beyond these boundaries – live together, make love, have babies and share struggles in solidarity on their own terms. What they are not able to do is assume each other’s historical experience.
I carry the embodiment of my European history in my cellular DNA – in my mitochondrial reminiscence. My deep genetic memories are not rooted in Black experience. When I slip into the deep subconscious which becomes experiential via streams of consciousness, dreams and imagery, I hook right back to pagan animism, to Celtic and Nordic roots, to my mitochondrial line – some of whom were burnt at the stake in the European misogynistic war against its own women. All of this is there in my cellular memory which stretches back to a Pre-Church, Pre-Capitalism era – to a time when we were all human and not raced by a profit driven system upheld by heteropatriarchy and monotheism.
This does not make me less able to be a race justice activist or race abolitionist as I seek to break down the false binaries that aim to de-humanise fellow humans, nor does it mean I cannot celebrate diversity. On the contrary, it allows me to appreciate my own indigenous knowledge and spirituality without having to vociferously appropriate this from people oppressed by white colonial history and perform another version of colonialism.
Rachel Dolezal was an activist. She did the work. But in the end then no matter how much she learned Blackness or fought for Black struggles her whiteliness showed in her willingness to appropriate an identity that was not hers to take.
Her performance has prompted many questions – which she seemingly, has no intention of answering.
Did she not trust that Black women were as capable of running the show as she was? Did she do this to circumvent the real difficulty of being a white race justice activist and labeled a race traitor – an uncomfortable position that often sees white society strip white folk of their ‘white privileges’ and results in ongoing death threats, and multiple abuses from both right wing and bourgeois liberals alike.
She only has to answer to the people whose identity she appropriated, and she has the task to dig her own way out of a pile of lies that just got too fandangled to sustain themselves. She has to live with the horrible thought that all her good work is most probably now discredited in many people’s minds and she will never hold that same respectable space again. She would have to be psychopathic to not be affected by that burden.
Sadly, if she had just remained white none of this would have occurred. She would have had to work in solidarity with Black struggles – not take them over. Perhaps this is what was more unbearable to her than living a lie.
White privilege is just not used to taking a back seat – ever.
Photo by: Robbin Atwell
By Gillian Schutte
Dear white people,
There is no kind way to put this so gird your loins and swallow hard.
All whites are racist.
Some may not practice racism and many may be anti-racist. Others may mistakenly believe that we live in a non-racist epoch. Some may be left wing and others may be moderate or right wing – but the bottom line is that to be white is to be racist.
Accepting this is the first step to recovery.
It is impossible to effectively take on, challenge and deconstruct white supremacy and racism if we do not comprehend and acknowledge that as white people we are automatically part of a global system that favors whiteness over all other ‘races’ and that we reap these benefits at the expense of other races — whether we are radical left wing anti-racists or right wing reactionaries.
We have to recognize that we are all, despite our ideologies, intrinsically bound up in the fabric of this global system of domination, which bestows privileges onto us by virtue of the color of our skin and thus we are never ‘not benefiting’ from our whiteness.
The greatest challenge to us as white people, and especially to those who believe that they have transcended racism, is admitting to our own racist indoctrination and the very real possibility that we carry and practice unconscious racism.
We must accept that as white people we are taught via language, family, psychological osmosis, history, society and global discourse that whites are superior to other races and are thus the default human race known to be intellectually, morally and economically superior to all.
This white supremacist system of power has been in place for around 600 years and we carry within our collective psyche 600 years of DNA memory of supremacy. It takes a lot of undoing to extricate our psyches from that.
Thus as whites we are inevitably racist even before we are born.
We are racist by virtue of being the descendants of settlers and colonizers and world conquerors.
We are racist because we are white.
It is about what we are born into.
We have no choice around our birth (as far as we know) but we do have a choice to learn from history and reject the roles we are endowed with by virtue of our color.
The real questions arise later on in our development.
- Are we comfortable with the status quo which privileges one race over others in all spheres of life?
- Are we willing to be an oppressor of fellow human beings?
- Can we do anything about it?
If we cannot live with the status quo the only choice we are left with is to become a race abolitionist.
There are no halfway measures in this equation.
For those who claim to be anti-racist or “non-racist” actions do speak louder than words.
We are either irrevocably race abolitionists or we are racist.
That is the hard cold truth.
If we are on the path of race abolition or anti-racism we must continue to recognize that this requires constant waking consciousness around our indoctrination.
To remain on a conscious path we need to always bear in mind that we are recovering racists.
We need to be cognizant of our indoctrination and recognize that learned racism is deeply embedded in our lived-experience and has a way of rearing its ugly head even when we are not aware of it.
We can never assume that we are not racist and that we ‘get’ black people’s stuff. That is impossible really because we will never walk the path of a black person.
Empathy and solidarity are entirely different to speaking on behalf of or the appropriation of the lived-experience of people oppressed by whiteness.
It is only by first recognizing and understanding our historical and personal embedded indoctrination that we can begin to diagnose and deconstruct the wider spectrum of ideological and systemic racism.
Until we do this work we cannot join black people and people of color in solidarity to end racism entirely.
Working to end racism means working towards the eradication of the global system that privileges whiteness.
It means putting this cause before our privileges and giving up those privileges for the greater good.
Transforming only ‘certain things’ and not everything is a fallacious and expedient approach to activism and helps maintain our advantaged comfort zone whilst paying lip service to anti-racism.
It is this halfway activism that perpetuates insidious and covert racism in the end and is as equally harmful as right wing racism.
Until a critical mass of white people are walking the path of race abolition and are calling out racism at every turn, we can never claim to be living in a post-racist society.
Thirty Four things we, as recovering racists, need to acknowledge:
- Though we are constantly being told by the dominant discourse that we don’t have racism in this country anymore, or that racism is a thing of the past – it is mostly white people saying this. Clearly these white people think that because it isn’t happening to them it does not exist.
- Many white people deny that they are racist yet continuing to discriminate against black people and people of color.
- Racist incidents are still prevalent in our society which proves that we are not beyond racism and nor do we live in a color-blind-non-racist-rainbow-nation society.
- There is always a deafening silence around these racist incidents from the larger white population, which either means that they do not care or they think they are not implicated in the incident.
- Whites are taught to not recognize systemic racism or their role in it.
- Systemic racism is manifest in the discourse of domination that upholds racist values which are disguised in nice liberal rainbow nation terms such as “reconciliation” and “social cohesion”.
- Without a doubt “rainbow reconciliation” is a false discourse peddled as an opiate for the masses and constructed to protect the well off and the elite.
- Rainbow nation discourse is based on depoliticized liberalism and expects black people to buy into forgiveness, transcend anger and hurt and push aside any revolutionary impulses.
- This is also a construct to make whites feel safe and comfortable and allows them to willfully ignore the fact that economic apartheid is still entrenched in our democracy. It also means white people do not have to feel bad or do any personal work around righting the wrongs of the past.
- This depoliticized liberal discourse is sure to call black folk the racists if they express any misgivings about lack of transformation or talk directly to ongoing systemic oppression of black people – whether institutional or economic.
- While depoliticized liberalism is not a raced phenomenon, as many black folk have bought into it too, economic disparities in this country remain raced.
- Whites are never on the receiving end of racism. Since the race construct is based on a system of power and since whiteness is the global occupying system of domination over discourse, public spaces, economies, media, sexuality and wars, white people are the only people who can be racist.
- There is an absence of interest in, or an inability to hear, what black people are saying or think about the perpetuation of racism and white privilege and these views are seldom heard on mainstream media.
- This renders these views invisible and the dominant white view is normalized and passed off as the only view that matters or makes sense.
- BEE, BBBEE and affirmative action cannot be called reverse discrimination or racism. How can it be reverse discrimination when for 350 years in South Africa the entire system has been skewed in favor of white people’s privilege and has systemically disadvantaged black people?
- White privilege is not a neutral phenomenon. It has been built on the brutal subjugation, dehumanization and the blood sweat and tears of black people.
- For this reason reverse discrimination does not exist and there is an urgent need for the entrenchment of programs to balance out the centuries of the systemic disadvantaging of black people.
- White people reveal their unconscious racism by what they choose to remain silent about.
- By remaining silent on issues of systemic racism you are participating in the perpetuation of racism.
- Systemic racism is witnessed in the fact that menial labor, joblessness and poverty are mostly black issues whilst the majority of whites continue to have access to decent jobs and do not live in poverty.
- Systemic racism is manifested in the fact that black folk are the ones brutalized by the state while white people are not shot for protesting against middle class issues.
- We are never likely to see 34 dead white male bodies displayed on TV news, shot dead by the state because they demanded a higher salary and better living conditions.
- Systemic racism is witnessed in the untenable living conditions that black people are expected to, and forced to, endure whilst white folk live in relative, and often, obscene wealth.
- The miniscule black elite and burgeoning black middle class may have economic wealth but they are still disparaged and despised by the white dominant discourse.
- The face of blackness has become the ONLY face of failure in South Africa while white business and their corrupt practices are well hidden behind the new elite.
- Both government and business are equally deserving of critique for the failures in this country but there is a white obsession with putting all failures down to black’ ineptness’ and totally overlooking white greed and mismanagement.
- Corporate accountability is virtually absent in white mainstream discourse and the business-owned mainstream media seldom focuses on the role that corporates play in the growing divide between the rich and the poor and the multiple layers of injustices that this sector wreak upon the poor.
- The poor and black carry the economic burden of this savage capitalism and are expected to happily accept hand outs and live in desperation whilst on the other hand restaurants and hotels are mostly overrun by whites who apparently have the disposable cash to spend on luxuries.
- Racism, depoliticized liberalism, economic apartheid and white dominant discourse all thwart any hope of transformation.
- One can even say that whiteness obstinately resists transformation and refuses to move beyond racism. Rather whiteness focuses only on the retention of white privilege.
- The hard cold truth of the matter is that until we have a majority of white people working towards genuinely dismantling white privilege and systemic racism we are all implicated in the perpetuation of racism.
- Holding onto your privileges and claiming to be a race abolitionist or an anti-racist activist is an oxymoron.
- It is for this reason that we need to ask if white people are making any real effort to fully dismantle racism or if indeed, the effort is spent on preserving white privilege instead?
- In a society where the rumblings of revolution are heard in the distance, white people need to let go of their arrogance or naivety and ask themselves whether a revolution is going to have any sympathy for the obdurate nature of whiteness and its refusal to genuinely become part of a just transformation that demands the equality of all its citizens.
May your 2015 be the year of deep reflection on what whiteness is and learning how to undo it.
Forward with radical social transformation, forward!