back when I was whiter than white and becoming white again

June 7, 2010

One of the narratives that Steyn identifies in Whiteness Just Isn’t What It Used To Be she called A Whiter Shade of White. This group of whites in the post-Apartheid 90’s denies the influence of their own whiteness, or of race in general, on themselves and other. In my reading of her work I had the idea of this being a typical liberal type of line. Definitely opposed to racist talk. Actually, so opposed to racist talk, that all talk about race is rejected, even considered racist. Some of the quotes by white respondents from Steyn includes:

Whiteness had no part in my identity or culture (p107)

I am who I am; I just happen to be white (p109)

In Whiteness: An Introduction. Steve Garner makes a similar note about certain approaches found with whites, where

seeing ‘race’ at all is often imagined as being racist by itself

Steyn critiques this approach saying:

The “black” world is not taken seriously; certainly not on its own terms. Ironically, (in this case) color blindness also diminishes the bitter history of black struggle (p106)

and later:

a desire to close the discussion on the past is one strand within a general pattern of denial. The appeal to let sleeping dogs lie hides the crucial issue of which dogs are still holding onto the bones. It is an evasion of the extent to which the past permeates the present, of how the legacy of social injustice continues into the future. (p112-113)

In a very practical way, I experienced myself participating in this approach at a stage of my life, I think it must have been late highschool and/or early university years. This was characterized by almost an inability to use the terms “white” or “black”, by an emotional reaction when doing this, and an inability to express myself concerning racial issues. Furthermore, I denied my own racism by being aware of the more blatant and vocal racism that I’d see in the people around me.

I think it is a danger for those who are typically “good people”, who identify themselves as “not racist”. It’s important in my own thinking, because many “church people”, who like to be “good people” and “not racist” can easily fall into this approach. And while I think the attempt at non-racialism to be found within this group can be appreciated, the problem is the dishonesty about their own racialism, and those of others.

If Steyn is correct, then the sad part of this approach is that it

may find at some stage that far from being ahead of the pact, it hasn’t kept up with the Africanization going on in other white identities (p157)

In moving past this approach, I had to force myself to start using the words “white” and “black” again. Further along the line, I had to learn about other races existing as well, and start naming them. I’m still in process of learning this. After that I had to be honest about my emotions and perceptions concerning race. What do I really feel and think concerning black and colored people? What about Asian and Arab peoples? What irritated me? I needed to put these into words, and still need to put this into words, to that my emotions and perceptions can be challenged. More importantly, and much more difficult, I had to start calling myself white. I am a white person (although with some Malayan blood a number of generation back). This is more important, because I have to recognize that I am not the norm, and have been racialised in a specific way within this multi-racial world. In understanding this, and putting this into words, I hope I can start growing into a deeper understanding and appreciation of different races around me, and again even more importantly, see the blind spots in my own race, and be open to change by learning from other racess.

This is the difficult journey that I’m trying to be on. But it’s really a difficult journey.

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3 Responses to “back when I was whiter than white and becoming white again”

  1. Trevor Davies Says:

    Thanks Kobus, I believe what you have described is exactly the journey we need to go on as whites. I have run into many progressive whites who want to be “colour blind” and who don’t want to be referred to as white. This in the end can be very destructive and not allow us to develop a healthy white identity, facing the good and the bad.

  2. Tom Smith Says:

    This is a very important insight … one we have to remember and remind ourselves of. When we move past naming white and black we fall into a blindspot of our own racial identity … thanks for writing this up! cosmogroup.ning.com

  3. Faith Says:

    Hi Cobus. I am a South African student researching on issues of race and representation. I spend hours trawling through the internet faced with such perverse racism and sexism that I feel ill (especially how certain Afrikaners have aligned themselves with international facism and Nazism). I came across this site while researching Melissa Steyn and was very happy to read your insights. As an older woman of colour, it gives me much hope to see persons like yourself actively struggling with the kinds of identity constructions were we given and you using academic research to do so is even more heartening. I wish you all the very best wherever you are and hope that your struggle to self and collective definition will be fruitful. I know this post is over two years old, but it made my day!


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