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.

OK, if you have followed my tweets the past few weeks you’ll know I’m reading Jonathan Jansen. A lot can be said, but his book is brilliant in my opinion. This story was one that really caught my attention. I just quote, make of it what you want.

Knowledge in the Blood. Page 138-139:

Just before I stood down as dean and resigned from UP in 2007, I held my final lunch with the ten designated first-year students. For the first time, those organizing the logistics for the dean’s lunch made a mistake; instead of sending five white and five black students, ten black students showed up. Initially I was disappointed, for the purpose of these events was to encourage integration by modeling these ideals early on through the planned lunches. But having ten black students was an unforseen blessing, for these bright and articulate young people said things they would probably not have volunteered if white students had been in the room.

After formalities were over, I opened the discussion as usual with the question about how they were experiencing the education campus of the university and what we could do as the leadership of the Faculty of Education to strengthen the quality of those experiences as undergraduate students. Immediately to my left sat a strikingly beautiful young woman, her hair in braids. She spoke clearly.

You know professor, we really enjoy being here, and we must thank you for everything you and your staff have done for us as first-year students. But you know, where we live in Res [residence], it’s so artificial; I would really like to date some of those white boys.

I nearly fell off my chair in shock. Date white boys? I was expecting the usual concerns about enough parking spaces for students, the unlit areas of campus needed lights, limited access to the Internet, the restricted library hours, the odd lecturer who is unfriendly, and other familiar student complaints. But dating white boys was completely unexpected. I was still stuttering, and unsure what to say, when a handsome young man to my right, brightly bald, chirped in: “Prof, I agree with Thandi, I would really like to date some of the white girls on campus.”

This was too much for my black consciousness state-of-mind, and I remember saying to myself: “Damn, the goal of the national democratic revolution was not the date white folk!” But I dared not utter this sentiment. As an experienced teacher stumped for a response, I again played for time. “Well,” I said to the now eagerly awaiting audience of ten young black students, “tell me more.”

As the students spoke during that lunch time, I cringed at the clear but gentle criticism coming from my black students. As university leaders, we had created the architecture for change and integration on the education campus, they said, but in reality the black and white students continued to live separate lives. What was natural among college students, the act of dating, took on severe and rigid racialized forms. When dancing was organized between two or more koshuise, it was white students going with white students, and by language. The students, though physically together in the formal arrangements, lived light years apart. If there was one act of social interaction that was never discussed, but in which the lines were firmly drawn, it was on this matter of dating.

It took me some time during this extended period of listening, on my part, to realize that this criticism had little to do with dating per se and everything to do with the artificiality of social relations between black and white students. What would come completely naturally to young people, the act of dating, was the one firm line that nobody would cross on this race-divided campus. Nowhere was this racial distancing between girls and boys more acute than at the former Afrikaans universities.

… No knowledge has been more forcefully transmitted from parents to children before and after Apartheid than the knowledge of racial and ethnic purity that must be maintained at all costs. Something about race and sex drives white South Africans into a state of madness.