Penny, Adam, and white spaces

August 29, 2018

We need to talk about whiteness and space.

We need to talk about Penny Sparrow and Adam Katzavelos. But the South African Human Rights Commission can probably do most of the talking on what to do with their individual acts. But both those incidents that went viral happened within the context of a particular racial and racist imagination of space which does not require an overly racist rant to become manifest, and in fact seldom manifest itself in an overtly racist rant while determining almost every hour of our lives. Condemning the rant is easy. Transforming the space that gave rise to the rant is the work that concerns us all.

Let’s start with the basics. Apartheid was many things.

Yes, it was a form of settler colonialism – meaning that those who colonised this space connected our identity more to this space than to Europe – one reason why the call to “go back” sounds to strange to many white South Africans, and also why waves of racially motivated white immigration was not to Europe (some kind of “original homeland”) but to whichever white space will allow a continuation of existence in white space.

Yes, it was a form of racial capitalism, politically and racially structuring society so that those who are white will form the elite within a capitalist economy, and occupy the vast majority of professional positions within that economy, while being able to rely on dirt-cheap black labour.

But apartheid was also an imagination of separation fundamentally restructuring South African space according to race. We know this. You can take all the laws away, but we intimately know exactly where the line between “white” and “black”, “black” and “Indian”, is found in every little town. Even if the lines change, we know where the new lines are informally being drawn. Every square meter of South Africa was formally or informally marked as “black” of “white”. Most of it still is.

And let’s be very clear about this: we did not change things that much in the last 24 years. Not only does the same racial patterning persist in the same places, but we’ve reconstructed vast sections of urban space into gated community or RDP development in ways which quite simply perpetuate the very same racial imagination of space.

I’m not going to argue that disrupting this spatial imagination will in itself undo the myriad of legacies of apartheid, colonialism and white racism. It won’t. I’m not going to argue that white people are the only ones today maintaining this spatial organization. We’re not, but we do play a very particular role in doing that work, and need to take very particular individual and corporate responsibility for undoing it. I’m not going to say that it will resolve economic inequality, and particularly the racial nature of this, overnight. It won’t, but it is actually key to disrupting this. Oh, and no, this cannot be reduced to questions of land ownership, but it is probably impossible to change this in any meaningful way without changing patterns of land ownership.

Also, I’m not going to be blind to the risks of attempts at resolving the racial patterning of space in South Africa. White people have historically related to the spaced we occupy within this racialized world in two ways: either imagining space as exclusively (or at least clearly predominantly) white, or as spaces which we can control regardless of the demographics. Most white South Africans of the latter half of the 20th century was part of the former, but the exceptions usually of the latter – think of missionaries who did indeed learn to live in places which is not exclusively or predominantly white, but only on condition that they controlled those spaces. Undoing this spatial imagination will require (at least) undoing both these things: the actual demographic of white spaces, and the implicit or explicit control of all space. White people moving into black neighbourhoods in attempts to save (in whichever way) these neighbourhoods will most probably perpetuate, not disrupt, this imagination.

The point is really quite simple: the question being put to white South Africa through numerous things bubbling onto the surface is (at least in part) this: are we willing to live within this country as humans with other humans. Are we willing to live as white people in space without the ongoing process of remaking and retaining spaces as exclusively or predominantly white, or as spaces clearly controlled by white people? Or perhaps more importantly: are we willing to commit to the active work of disrupting this spatial imagination, of undoing the racial and racist organizing of space in South Africa, and to live with humans as humans.

Obviously this is a question about national policy. It involved questions around urban planning and rural planning. It involved questions of land reform. It will impact on and will be impacted upon by policies on education and economic empowerment. And let’s be clear, the way in which attempts at introducing policies which will change this spatial reality has been repeatedly blocked is something that require some scrutiny. But it is also quite specifically personal and individual. It involves the millions of choices made on where to live and where to send my kids to school. Where to live and where to send me kids to school. No, that’s not a typing error or accidental repetition. We need to say to that repeatedly, because these two choices will have a profound impact on whether our children will be able to live comfortably and without tension in the country of their birth, or whether they will also feel the need to lock themselves up in ever-shrinking white enclaves, gated communities, or Perth. Will we raise another generation of white kids who remain convinced that the level of melanin or lack thereof in bodies on beaches determine their own presence on that beach, and their own experience of that beach?

Yes, I know you get afraid, sometimes terrified, when the number of black people in a particular area exceeds a certain percentage, or simply when you find yourself in a space which in your own imagination is marked as “black”. If not afraid, then deeply uncomfortable. I’m not denying what we white people often feel. I am saying that there is a particular history behind these feelings, that we risk reproducing these experiences if we continue to invest huge amounts of energy and money in retaining certain spaces as white (whether in number of bodies or in the bodies that control), and that these experience is not in any way inevitable, but can and does change if we commit to and learn how to live in local spaces which reflect the demographics of this country.

And yes, I know that you can choose not to do this. I suspect that you will continue to be able to make that choice for many years to come. I am saying that raising voices about racist rants or attacks in Spur restaurants which draw from a particular spatial imagination cannot happen without the deeply personal commitments to change that imagination and the very concrete and material organizing of space that allows this to be perpetuated. I’m saying that we need to do the active work of resisting the ongoing formation of white enclaves of whatever kind.

Let me be quite clear on this however: we are not hero’s or a radical if we commit to moving our white bodies in a different space, or moving your bodies through space in a different way. As a friend one day uttered in ultimate wisdom: “you do not get points for living with people!” You do not get points if your community, the school you or your children attend (and its teachers), the church you are part of, the holiday resort you relax at or the shopping centre you buy food at reflect the demographics of the country. Don’t post a photo on Instagram. It’s called being human. Being human with other humans. But given the amount of energy and resources that has gone into teaching us how to destroy our own humanity and the humanity of others, being human actually takes some work and commitment.

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