Continuing from the post on spatial power and whiteness

After noticing how race in many instances continue to mean that white people has the privilege (right) to move anywhere, while black people (and today I use black to refer to all people who are pushed out of the dominant normalized racial position) are in various ways bound to specific spaces, there is a second part which we have to notice:

Because white people in South Africa had the right to move into any space they wanted to, they decided to not move into every space, but limited themselves to white spaces. Because black people had no control over which spaces they moved into, they were forced to move into all spaces, those designated as black spaces, but also those designated as white spaces.

The apparent contradiction rests on the distribution of money and work. White people controlled (and in South Africa continue to control) the financial resources, which in many instances meant that they controlled the working environments. In it’s ultimate form it meant that they had the ability and privilege of appointing someone to work in their homes as cleaners. Black people thus had to learn the knowledge of moving into these designated white spaces in order to gain access to money and work.

This meant that black people gained knowledge of “both sides” of the Apartheid world because they didn’t have the privilege to control money and resources, while white people because of their privileged position, learned knowledge only of those spaces which they had control over. Black people had the ability to translate between these spaces, while white people did not.

Whether my assumptions about black people is correct I cannot say, but I see this with white people. There is this whole world which white people don’t know how to navigate. Think of the townships, the public transport system, and yes, today I guess the inner-cities as well. Most white people I know carry no natural knowledge which can help them navigate these spaces. But at the same time black people have been moving into and our of those designated white spaces (suburbs, malls, business) and they know the rules, both written and unwritten, by which these spaces are governed.

Thus, in spite of my argument that the decision to move into various spaces is already a reminder of the privileged position I am in, it is making exactly the decision which we have not been making thanks to the privileged position our racialisation has ensured white people. And with this, it is making the decision which causes the discomfort of not knowing: Not knowing the unwritten, and many times the written, rules of this space I am moving into. This does not take away the important critique that my move can also reinforce white privilege if it is used to “take back the city” – to broaden the “area of control of white people”, which it can become, even for those coming with good intentions (mission history should teach us at least this).

What it does help me with is understanding that experiences of discomfort because of my lack of knowledge is caused by my own privileged position and the ways in which it was unpacked and used in the past. The task is therefore not on black people to do things in such a way that I don’t experience any discomfort because of my lack of knowledge, but on myself to work through these moments in which I am confronted with the fact that my past has kept me in exclusively white spaces.

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.