I’ve been meaning to write this post for a white now, but never gotten around to it (and since in a hurry at the moment, I’ll probably not do the topic justice at the moment, but what the hell), but since Verashni Pillay wrote a few very good comments about white liberals (white liberals should really watch out, since they are the topic of discussion in many books on racism, yes research into racism usually find the AWB a bit boring and obvious, but those who have never thought of themselves as racist is so very interesting to research), I’ll just latch onto what she has written.

I’ll skip the obvious examples such as “white people believing that race is no longer an issue”, since others have done this before, but I want to add a few things. I’ll also talk about “good white people” rather than “white liberals”, since many of those who fit these examples have already worked through some of the critique presented.

White people will bring the best solutions for South Africa

Contrary to what the letter comment section of certain Afrikaans newspapers might suggest, many white people are quite positive about South Africa. They will work hard to make this country work, they will sacrifice a bit (maybe more than a bit, but at least a bit) to make this a good place for all to live, and they are not in the process of saying that the “poor whites are our problem, and the poor blacks are your problem”. Still, they continue to belief that white people have the best answers for this post-Apartheid South Africa. Maybe it’s a remnant of those who believed that the NP will win 1994 and will then fix the problems they have created.

Around the time of the local elections I was in a conversation with a number of good white people. They were not the white liberals that Verashni was speaking about (actually they were quite critical about these liberals), they were the kind of people who would fit the first part of the previous paragraph. And then one of them mentioned that since 1994 he has struggled with who to vote for, since he firmly believe that you don’t vote for the majority party, and you don’t vote for a white party (DA). So he has voted UDF at times, and a few others options at other times. There was a silence among this group of really good white people (the kind of white people that I firmly believe the country would be a better place if more people followed their examples).

White people are the best at fighting racism

This is probably one of my favorites. White people who acknowledge the continued problem of racism, yet when you listen to them for but a short while, you realise that the experts in anit-racism that they follow are all white. Racism is a bad thing, but those best at fighting it seem to be white people if you listen to some good whites (except for Mandela and Tutu obviously). Don’t get me wrong they (we? I think I’m often guilty of this one) will read and work with the complex aspects of racism such as institutional racism, we will move beyond a mere “racism is saying nasty things about black people”, yet, when you look deeply, it will be white voices pointing out how the anti-racist agenda look like.

White people study whiteness

Maybe I write this one as a reminder to myself. But as more and more white voices start grappling with the implication of whiteness, this seems to become a strategy of keeping white superiority in place. This is going beyond some of the points Verashni make (although not all), engaging the critique of self, being able to identify the privileges of being white. Yet, when we are challenged to start contributing towards rectifying past injustices, some kind of mumbling follow about how you cannot fight the system, and that it is bigger then one person, and finally that you already know all this, so someone else isn’t allowed to point it out to you. So again, you find youself in the place where the expert on whiteness is… white. Strange? Or a reminder that this is deeper than you might think.

So what to do?

A basic argument runs that white privilege is kept in place through intellectual and economic means. In short, the question of who is allowed to determine what is “good knowledge” and who has the money keeps certain racial privileges in place. I guess I’m just starting to get this feeling that the anti-racist agenda is not free from racism, and not in the typical sense others would say this (“talking about the problem of racism just keeps racism in place”), but rather that intellectual and economic means (who can pay for conferences, and who has access to editors, and finally for this post, who do we decide to read) continue to entrench a system of privilege and power based on race also within the debate on fighting racism. So for all the good whites out there, the challenge is not only continuing to work against all the complex variations of racism found today, but to let go of the right we gave ourselves to determine the agenda and rules of the conversation. IF we can’t do that, then we remain stuck in just another, more nuances and better hidden, system of white superiority.

OK, so challenge me, better the argument, cause it was written in a hurry. But I gotta go, enjoy the weekend.

Becoming African

January 13, 2011

I had a Hashtag search running in Tweetdeck last week on #African. At it’s height three tweets was generated a minute in the ongoing debate on whether white people can be called African, embedded within the question of what “African” mean, and who is allowed the label. It was started by Sentletse Diakanyo’s statement that “We are not all Africans, black people are!“. The critique against Diakanyo has been fierce, from all across the racial as well as intellectual spectrum in South Africa. The reaction that seems to be considered the most thoughtful is Khaya Dlanga’s “White people are African too!“, at least judging to the ReTweets and discussion in my small sphere of influencers, although, that might be because they are mostly (though not exclusively) white.

A response such as that by Marius Redelinghuys (I do hope I’m not publicly criticizing my wifes family now, although I don’t think he is) in “Africans are humans too” received little more than a yawn from my side. We’ve heard it before (and technically he is completely right): that “under the skin we are all the same” according the geneticists. But genetic arguments stating that we are all the same is just helpful in refuting genetic arguments which state that there is some fundamental difference between different races which give us the ability to rank different races into some kind of hierarchy. Thus, if Marius was responding to right-wing whites attempting to argue for the ultimate superiority of white people, it would have been an helpful argument, but in this case it was less so.

Now Jason van Niekerk’s response “The problems with defining #African” is worth a closer read. Hard words, but he unpacks the complexity of the question. “So where does this leave us? White South Africans can’t insist that they are automatically African, because that undermines the value of a hard-won identity. But when black South Africans deny the possibility of white Africans, they cut off the possibility of a non-racist post-apartheid identity that millions of white people want”. Although I really like Khaya Dlanga’s response, I guess mainly since he solves the problem by just calling me an African like I’d like to be, I have to agree that it’s not that easy.

My own approach would continue previous reflections on space and spaciality, this time using it to define whether we are African in the various spaces we inhabit.

The one problem with Dlanga’s argument is that we then need to start asking questions about African-Americans. Should they be rid of the name African? Continuing simply as Americans? Although this is a debate for my American friends, I’m quite uncomfortable when those of us born on the African continent deny this identity to those who were forcibly removed from this space. The other problem is obviously the fact that we deny those who came to this space to dominate it their colonial roots as well.

But isn’t Diakanyo ultimately doing the same? If only black people (and I guess then all black people) are African, isn’t black voices included which has long left the African space, hasn’t been formed by it any longer, and isn’t indebted to it any longer? My friend Frederick Marais once brilliantly told of a conversation he had with a third generation French speaking ex-slave in France, that hasn’t ever sat foot on the African continent, but denied him the right to call himself African, since he was white. And Frederick’s obvious question: who is more African?

However, the answer is not that obvious. And I guess the debate proof that this is indeed both an important, but also a complicated argument.

Of the arguments quoted above Van Niekerk was the only one who really took account of the social construction of race. So let my give the one-liner history lesson: Race is not fixed in your genetic makeup (thank you Marius, we have that), but was socially constructed through 5 centuries of colonialism. Following Garner and others I’ll say that it starts with the freeing of white slaves in the early colonial era, when suddenly white people had the right to freedom and black people were slaves (before you could be a slave regardless of colour, and a trader in the global economy regardless of colour). Van Niekerk then continues “many white South Africans want to claim an African identity not because they think they deserve it by default, but because they really do care about Africa and Africans”.

But of course, even this somewhat more difficult route to self-redemption is not that easy, since we remain caught within the cushion of white privilege (“like Visa, accepted everywhere” – I’m going to use that one again Jason) described by both Van Niekerk as well as Dlanga (in a later article).

And with this I’ve already touched upon three spaces which I inhabit.

Yes, I was born on the African continent. Like St. Paul, I could go even further in defending my identity. I was not only born here, I was brought up on the African continent. I owe my life to the African continent. I know no other home, and I’ve never been to any other place. But this is just one part of the story.

When we mention white privilege (and the Visa joke might be deeper than you think), then we need to talk about the economic world of which I am part. African economics is colonial and post-colonial economics. African economics is wholly colonized economics. It is the continent which was divided up among various western nations, which fed and became rich and fat by salvaging the African soil, while the people of Africa suffered. But the reality is that this is not the economic space I inhabit. In the economic world in which I move, the mark of the colonizers still rule. Apartheid South Africa was just another white nation, although situated on the Southern-tip of Africa, which colonized the people of the country, in spite of the fact that the government which ruled over them did not sit across the ocean. I owe my Visa, my income, my privilege to the colonizers, not the colonized. I have not struggled for economic freedom, rather, economic freedom was found through fighting, sometimes to death, with my ancestors. White privilege is much more than economic, but that is an important part.

And their is the space of history. And let my call this for the moment (although I do not deny the material reality of history) an intellectual space. In it’s most simple forms it came out in the history classes of our schools. The revolution they taught me about was the French Revolution, the American Revolution, not the African Revolutions. I knew more about that random day when the bunch of Americans through a ship full of tea into the sea to make the English a big cup for tea-time, than I did about Sharpeville. African history was shared only in so far as it could legitimate Apartheid (so we knew about the story of Dingaan murdering Piet Retief, and we knew what savages the tribes of Africa was before the white man came). My thought-space consisted of the story of white South Africans, North America and Europe. It was a version of history written by whites, legitimating white privilege. And as this continue the idea that I am called African remain suspicious.

Fact is that I had to agree with Diakanyo at many points (in spite of the obvious flaws which many pointed out). My biggest difference would obviously be with the idea that it is impossible for white people to be called African. The possibility exist (and, although it is an argument which I don’t feel intellectually fit to make, I believe even be called Black), and denying it throw us into an endless and hopeless future of eternal tension. However, whether this white persons can be called African is not so certain, and is something which white people should be slow to judge. At best, I can say that I am Becoming African.

Being born here was the first step in Becoming African. However, it is an intentional choice, with actions which require hard work, as I focus on recognizing the privilege of being white, and face the difficult questions of what it would mean for those privileged by centuries of colonialism and decades of Apartheid to become part of the economic history of Africa. To become part of the post-colonial reality outside of the bubble in which I live. I an Becoming African as I work intellectually to reinterpret my own history, and focus on history as total, through an African lens. When the events in Uganda, Nigeria and South Africa become that which form my thoughts, more than in which British politics form my thoughts. When the story of Zimbabwe become that of a whole nation under oppression, rather than of only farmers being removed from their farms.

It’s a long journey, Becoming African. Is this not our Long Walk to Freedom? Freedom from our identity as oppressors. I’ll insist that I’m on this journey, but I’ll be slow to state that I’ve completed the journey.

In Violence Zizek points to some questions which again got me thinking about the always persistent notions in Christianity that we have a task to convert the whole society to Christ, meaning that all should become part of the church. He writes:

What if such an exclusion of some form of otherness from the scope of our ethical concerns is consubstantial with the very founding gesture of ethical universality, so that the more universal our explicit ethics is, the more brutal the underlying exclusion is? What the Christian all-inclusive attitude (recall St. Paul’s famous “there are no men or women, no Jews and Greeks”) involves is a thorough exclusion of those who do not accept inclusion into the Christian community. In other “particularistic” religions, there is a place for others: they are tolerated, even if they are looked upon with condescension. The Christian motto ”All men are brothers,” however, also means that those who do not accept brotherhood are not men.

My reflection at this stage does not concern the questions whether this is a legitimate interpretation of Paul, but rather the quote serve to open up questions concerning evangelical universalism.

A distinctive marker of Christianity is the ways in which it created categories for interpreting the act of entering into the faith community which opened up this faith community to all, regardless of culture or background. Obviously Paul’s thoughts was important in this process. I usually describe this to my confirmation classes by saying that the crime that the followers of Jesus, those called Christians, committed against the Jews was to open up the Jewish faith to everyone – they made it too easy to become a Jew. Gone where the days of circumcision, which made it literally painful to become a member once you were an adult (and obviously opened up possibilities for woman to become part of the faith community).

Again similar categories were created within the protestant Reformation, sola gratia, sola fidei. But again the critique from Zizek is applicable, because if membership is sola gratia, but the sola fidei is still a prerequisite, it puts a question mark either on the choice of faith, or on the non-believer. Either you don’t have a choice, or else you’re choice against that which is assumed is open to everyone open possibilities for the most brutal forms of exclusion (and the history of the church is ample examples of this).

However, this is not the only interpretations possible. In an article titled How my mind has changed. Mission and the alternative community*, David Bosch describes his own project from the years 1972-1982 as

What I have attempted to do— not very successfully, I am afraid, judging by the reaction, particularly in the Afrikaans Reformed Churches! — was to build on and develop further the intrinsic similarities that I believe exist between Reformed and Anabaptist ecclesiologies.

He unpacks this by explaining that

The more identifiably separate and unique the church is as a community of believers (Anabaptism) the greater significance it has for the world (Calvinism).

Whether this is what Bosch intended or not, I’m not yet completely sure about, but on a very simplistic level this assumes that church and world can never become the same, that the church should always be but a part of a broader community, and not identifiable as the community**, always smaller than the community, smaller than the world. The experimental garden. The place where things are possible which would not be considered in the world.

How then is this significance for the world to manifest when this community is truly unique?

I suggest that we need a deeper exploration of the idea of public dialogue.

If our own place is understood as part of a broader dialogue, and our contribution to the world and transformation of the world (mission) is found in our uniqueness, it opens up possibilities that this world can contain a place for others. Exactly as a Christian, I can create an openness which recognize the voices of others within this public dialogue, contributing to the positive evolution of society. However, I do this only from a position of faith, of a firm conviction that also the way of the church, in its uniqueness, has significance for the world.

Maybe, in this post-secular world, this could even be done without condescension. Not only could we recognize that certain distinctly different worldviews are siblings of our own (be it the monotheistic faiths, or secularism), but the growing recognition of the important role which for example eastern religions need to play in our time (think of conversations on ecology) also open up the idea of a dialogue where the other need not be defeated, but where uniquely different views are needed in the ongoing dialogue concerning what Christians would call the kingdom of God (that which is the dream of how things could be in this world).

And the church then? Well, we would need to discover and live our distinctness as the community which over the past 2000 years reflected on the tradition which grew out of the life and words of Jesus. For the sake of society we need to contribute from our uniqueness as church.

* Bosch, D. J. 1982. “How my mind has changed: Mission and the alternative community”, in Journal of Theology for Southern Africa. 41 (December), pp. 6–10.

** My guess is that chapter 13 of Transforming Mission, and the 1993 chapter in The Good News of the Kingdom: MissionTheology in the Third Millennium titled God’s Reigh and the Rulers of this World both open up the possibility that different church traditions might be appropriate at different times and places. This might open up the possibility of interpreting Bosch in such a way that at times a complete identification between church and community is possible, but as a rule I believe you don’t find this idea in Bosch.

This intro might be tough for some parents to read. Especially if you’re the church-going type (of whom I am a part), who find joy in the fact that your university-aged-children attend the local student congregation faithfully.

I remember a specific church “outreach” tour back in my undergraduate years (actually, this story was true of more than one such event). After being fed-up with the fact that for days without end the one group with whom a friend of mine was spending time with seemed to be talking about sex non-stop, he attempted to rather hang out with some of the other groups of friends in the (quite large) group. He returner a day or two later with the conclusion that it wasn’t only his own group of (mostly theological students) friend that was talking about sex non-stop, it was all students.

I guess I was reminded about that time again last night when I spent an evening with a group of students. Slightly younger than most of my friends, slightly more religious, and slightly more conservative, I was struck by the fact that they couldn’t get out of conversations with some form of sexual undertone (or simply blatant sexual references). Probably weirdest would be that the whole conversation was dotted by someone (random participants, not just one sour grape) reminding the group that they are “going too far”, or that “this should stop”, after which this same person would continue with the conversation.

In a way I have a lot of sympathy with groups like these. This are a generation that was raised with some of the most hypocritical approaches to sex. They find themselves in some tensious space between Victorianism and Hollywood. Not on the way from the one to the other, but in both at the same time. Victorianism has been full of hypocrisy since its inception, with an outward pretence of puritan moralism often covering an underlying hedonism. But these groups of young people experienced being raised on Victorian ideas, where sex was never discussed or even mentioned (and even pronouncing the word is often difficult of near-impossible for some), but at the same time raised on Hollywood, where blatant and extremely visual references to sexuality was part of the upbringing of even the most religious among them.

Neither these strong influences on their developing sexuality provided a healthy approach to talking about those things sexual. Maybe that is why there search for balance include lots of laughter about sexual practices considered “dirty” by Victorian standards and jokes about the sexuality of others within their groups of friends.

Update: After reading the post Tiaan said that I can mention that he was the friend from paragraph 2.

In Steyn’s work, Whiteness Just Isn’t What It Used To Be, which I’ve been writing about in the previous two posts, all the narratives she identified accepts that Apartheid oppressed black people, and that what happened to black people under Apartheid was in some way wrong. Even the hardliner colonial approach (probably the most vocally and blatantly racist in her spread of white narratives) she describes as acknowledging this:

Whereas a nod is made to the deleterious effects of Apartheid on black South Africans (“they were definitely MORE affected”), the major effect of Apartheid was to provice nurturing ground for the innate spitefulness and vengeful nature of the “others” (p60)

However, as I’ve mentioned last week, I believe things have changed since Steyn did her research, and one of these is that I experience a growing group of people who seem to deny the atrocities of Apartheid, and a group that are describing the current government as much worse for black people than Apartheid. Maybe these can be called a hard and soft form of a similar trend, both denying that Apartheid was really as bad.

As time seem to pass, it would seem that white people, at least a certain group among them, seem to reconstruct their whiteness by making the current government and the international press the culprit in depicting the Afrikaners and Apartheid as much worse than they were, and furthermore by implying, or stating out front, that continued Apartheid would have been a much better deal for black people in South Africa.

Maybe this is a trend only among younger people who talks from total ignorance. But it would seem that a group that is even more hardline than what Steyn described seem to be growing parallel with the hybridization that is also becoming more and more common among white people. It’s worrying trend, and a reminder that simply letting time pass is not necessarily going to guarantee reconciliation.

The hope that a next generation would automatically become “color blind” is totally shattered when we find young people that become even more racist than their parents were, and also when we find people over time growing more and more blatantly racist, and appreciative of Apartheid, instead of slowly working through the evil, and bit by bit acknowledging it and actively deciding to move even further away from it.

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.

I finally finished Melissa Steyn’s Whiteness Just Isn’t What It Used To Be, one of the attempts to understand a changing white identity after 1994. It’s actually not a very difficult read, and I’d say an easy introduction to the discussion concerning race and postcolonial thought in South Africa. Her approach was to identify changing white narratives, ways in which whites are adapting their own self-understanding to cope in a changing South Africa. After a theoretical introduction, the largest part of the book is used to tell the stories of those who responded to her research, and share how they seem to understand themselves. She does this with the minimum academic terminology, and using catchphrases which are quite memorable. I found the five narratives quite useful to understand where I myself currently am, and how I’ve attempted to find ways of reconstructing my racial identity over time, and I believe her narratives will be useful in facilitating conversations with white South Africans concerning race.

However, my book has a number of notes which contain the number “2010” and a “?”, wondering how things has changed since Steyn did her research in the middle to late 90’s and 2010. If Whiteness in the 90’s wasn’t what it used to be under Apartheid, then I want to add that it isn’t what it used to be in the 90’s anymore either. Her subtitle, “White Identity in a Changing South Africa” still apply. White identity has changed as thousands of white South Africans left the country, and those of us who remained had to reconstruct our own self-understanding in relation to them, but also as more and more distinctly different from them, as we recognized that we didn’t leave because we didn’t want to, even when many around us did leave.

From our side, truly becoming “white Africans” as Steyn called it, has proved to take much longer than many has hoped for. As we grapple with our past, the trauma of thousands of young white soldiers never debriefed after a was of which the motivation turned out to be highly questionable at least has been surfacing. The reality of a younger generation that many hoped would grow up “color blind”, but who have inherited the racism of their fathers, who somehow grew up with a Knowledge in the Blood many hoped we were rid of, are reminding us that this issue is going to be much more complex than simply waking up and being part of a new South Africa.

But I’d say Steyn remain an important read for white South Africans today.