Am I a racist?

May 24, 2012

The article started appearing on my timeline last night sometime. I use facebook’s subscription options generously, which helps me to see that which I actually want to see. This allow me to bypass most of the blatant racist rhetoric on news24 comment sections.

It’s an article which I usually would have skipped, were it not for the friends who shared it. I know these people. They are not the right-wing type. Many of them aren’t even the “good-ol’ middle-of-the-road, let’s love our neighbours and not get involved in all this political mumbo-jumbo Christian”-type. Many of them are active voices for the acceptance of Belhar. They are people for whom church unity is non-negotiable. They are the people whom I want to spend the future of this church with. So when they share an article titles “I am a racist”, particularly if 3, 4 or more of them start sharing the same article, I follow the link.

My father had a fascination with etymology. He has one of those “Etymological dictionaries” next to his computer, and like to check random words in it. My Greek lecturer told us etymology cannot really provide you with the meaning of words (if I remember that class correctly), since meaning is constructed by how words are used in the present, not by finding some pristine untainted past meaning. Nonetheless, sometimes etymology is interesting. And when someone claim that, mostly due to the actions of the ANC, “the word racist has lost it’s original meaning and now only get’s used to describe a white person doing something a black person doesn’t like”, one have to wonder about etymology and the meaning of words.

What exactly is this “original meaning”. Truth be told, few people walk around with etymological dictionaries wondering about the “original meaning”. And I doubt that the author is actually concerned about the fact that the word ‘recently’ started moving away from its Nazi roots, insisting that ‘racism’ should remain used only as it was originally intended: as a system of scientific thought which had the intent to proof that those of European descent were superior due to biologically reasons.

Truth is that, although this kind of scientific racism was active in South Africa, that was never the most dominant approach and sometimes actively rejected (read Samual Dubow’s brilliant analysis on this topic). Apartheid and Nazism might show certain similarities, but they were not the same.

But I don’t think that the “original meaning” the author refers to is apartheid either. Making racism and apartheid synonymous (something which is not uncommon in South Africa), imply that racism is a legalized system of classification and exclusionary laws privileging those who are categorized as “white”. Is that the problem, that we dare use “racism” in any way apart from such a definition?

Many who are comfortable with the author’s thoughts, will shout out against DJ’s and FHM models who dare call someone a “kaffir”. Although derogatory names is obviously not the same as a legalized system like apartheid, we easily recognize their use as “racism”.

Here is our problem, I think: Beverley Tatum tell the story of the response of a white teacher when she was asked how it would feel if someone called her a racist: “She said it would feel as though she had been punched in the stomach or called a “low-life scum.”” We have found a general consensus that racism is wrong. In particularly more liberal circles (and I think also most Church circles regardless of theological position), we have found a general consensus that racism is not only wrong, but that it is like calling someone a “low-life scum”. For those white people who actively oppose Nazism and apartheid, who like Obama and Mandela, who might even have had a black person sleep in their guest bedroom (or even been in the Black Sash and written the first article on the death of Steve Biko) to be called a racist is like being punched in the stomach. But we don’t know what the word mean.

The author doesn’t really define racism. Or does she? It seems like the author concern racism to be any kind of action which someone doesn’t like in which the one doing it clearly stated that aspects of these categories which we call race influence this action. So if a company states that they will hire a black person rather than a white person, because they want to get their BEE scorecard right (not a very good reason in my mind, I would prefer if people do stuff for ethical rather than legal reasons, but let’s leave that for today), then it is “racism”. When UCT set different standards for entry into courses depending on race, then that is racism (honestly, the comparison between the white student who had 8 distinctions and was refused and the black student who barely passed is getting a bit old, the UCT example is somewhat more realistic). I do believe the author would agree that if someone actively states that they refuse to hire black people that would also be racism.

But if me and my black boss, who frequently travel together, and have both read one or two books on racism in the past, point out patterns in how security personnel at airports treat us differently, can we call it racism? The personnel are mainly black, and most probably not aware that their is a pattern where he has to show proof of identification more often than I have to.

And if I continue to have a sense of fear when I get the impression that I’m trailed by a black person in Sunnyside, but I don’t even recognize when I’m trailed by a white person in Hatfield, is that racism?

And if I have different emotions when looking at photos of white squatters than I would have when looking at black squatters, is that racism?

And if I find myself listening more intently to the white speaker than the black speaker, somewhere deep inside myself assuming that the white person know what she/he is speaking about, assuming that they did their research with the required precision etc, is that racism?

And if police (also black policemen) just have a tendency to assume that black people was responsible for a crime, and therefore end up finding more of the black criminals because that is where they look, is that racism?

And when a global economic system and educational system is structured so that is “just happens” that white people tend to have more capital, more businesses, more degrees, is that racism?

One response in a context such as this is to refuse any talk about racism. To insist that any reference to race is not allowed. The article took a different route. Irritated with the difficulty of discussion this topic, the difficulty that we don’t understand what is meant by the term, and the perception that it has become a “political card”, or a vague reference used when no other critique can be brought into an argument, the author attempt to make it absurd by presenting certain situations which would then be “racist” under this absurd understanding. Perhaps its just another attempt at saying: “let’s stop all this talk about racism, it’s absurd” (although their is a message in the article that the biggest problem or racism today is reversed racism against white people, not an uncommon thread in white rhetoric).

Given the fact that their is no real biological grounds for grouping people into the races we do, and even less grounds for pointing out qualities which is inherently connected to these biological markers, some prefer to say that we should rather just stop any reference to race. It doesn’t help us to speak about race at all (says these voices that heard some vague Marxist critique on the topic somewhere).

I believe two things should guide us:

First, what we have as “races” today is something that was constructed historically over the long period of time. Its development is complex, and is intertwined with class, gender, culture, language and many other aspects. I am stuck with constantly being given an interpretation of what it would imply to be “white”. I find myself in a community which consist primarily of those who reinforce this same racialized ideas. To break with it is not impossible, but will take generations of hard work on various levels: on our minds, on our societal structures, on the language we use, on the images found in the media, on the habits deeply ingrained on an unconscious level.

Second, we will have to learn to use the word “racism” responsibly, and to define what we mean when we use it. I think it is am important word. It is a word which remind us of a history to which we never want to go back to. But it is a dangerous word. It is a word that can be misunderstood. And it is a word which the popular use of has lead to various reductions, various attempts at scapegoating while portraying others as innocent.

What is racism? Racism is that which cause me to see that which I identify as “white” as more important, more correct, more trustworthy or more moral, than that which I identify as “black”. Racism is that which cause those who are identified as “black” to suffer more through the structuring of society than those who are identified as “white”.

Am I a racist?

The image which help some of us, is to say that I am a racist like a recovering addict.

I am a recovering racist. I struggle with the ideas I have internalized. I struggle with turning a blind eye towards, justifying, or even supporting policies and systems which end up harming black people more than white people. I struggle with assuming that a white life is worth more than a black life. I struggle with sometimes revolting when I see black and white people in romantic relationships. And my struggle at times become most visible when I want to convince myself and the world that “I am not a racist”. I don’t have a problem.

So I am a racist. A recovering racist. It’s a painful process. And sometimes I need a support group where I can share my struggles, because without this, I find myself either denying that I’m struggling with this, or making jokes or absurd statements about this.

I didn’t follow the tweets and facebook discussions on the DA youth poster 3 weeks ago. Also decided to wait a while with responding, since the hype and emotions around it doesn’t necessarily create the ideal space for reflection. First: I don’t think they were necessarily wrong to create the poster. I don’t think there is anything wrong with what the poster is portraying either. On the contrary, I think the nerve that they touched with the poster need to be examined, and that we can learn a lot by slowly reflecting on our instinctive reactions to the poster. I do however think the poster is naive, and that if a romantic and/or sexual relation between a black man and a white woman is the symbol for the future that they are working for, then we need a new opposition party. So let me explain.

Some responses to the poster had so-called “moderate” voices fall back upon hard-core racist rhetoric. Comments such as “I am a DA supporter, but this is like cross-breeding a goat and a sheep” do reveal the depth of racist formation in South Africa. After a long history of attempting to convince the country that indeed that was some inherent difference associated with a few biological markers (primarily skin colour), it would be naive to think that 18 years of democracy would exorcise these ideas.

But responses on a “lighter” note is just as revealing. Decades after we have found consensus in academia that there is no such thing as “race”, that external biological markers are not revealing any internal qualities, we still find “caring” responses about the fact that the children from a mixed-race sexual relation would have no identity, or about the fact that cultures are incompatible. These attempts to justify our discomfort with an image need to be examined, its a deep reminder that we have a lot of baggage to work through.

However, what the poster are best at revealing remain hidden from public discourse. It is the instinctive feelings from those of us who have been trained on politically correct responses. I don’t use politically correct in the negative sense here! There is things that we know is acceptable (such as sexual relations between consenting adults regardless of the racial categories in which society place them), and therefore wouldn’t voice critique upon, yet continue to struggle with internally, on an emotional level. Deep within ourselves, hidden from the media, twitter or blogs, is the question whether we ourselves would be willing or able to disregard race when reflecting on our possible sexual relations, or those of our children.

I write the previous three paragraphs not as a kind of guilt trip about the deep racism which “others” still reveal, but rather as an attempt at an honest reflection from within the “own” position of white South Africans. To some extent our reactions to the poster does reveal the depth of what a racist past has done to us.

If we are to move beyond this poster, if we are to move towards the future which the DA imagine, then it might help to stop and reflect on where our instinctive responses come from. The relation between sex and race has been important throughout the development of racial notions during modernity. Studying this remain important if we are to de-racialize society, if we want to undo the effects of a system of white superiority. Within a system in which strict biological markers was associated with internal qualities, sexual relations across these racial boundaries create many questions on what the quality would be of the children born from these. The particular fear is that the “pure” white race, with its superior qualities would become extinct when mixed with “inferior blood”.

But more is at stake here. Black and white bodies is defined to some extent in relation to sexuality. The black male body being associated with a “sexual predator”, always seeking to prey on the white female body, to rape the white female. The black female body is defined as the tempter, responsible for tempting the white male body into unacceptable sexual relations. Furthermore, the black female body is constructed in the gaze of the white male as a sexual object, a body good for the gratification of white male sexual desires, as long as these remain out of sight, since the children born from these relations will be of  “lesser quality”. In contrast to the black female body, the white female body is supposed to be “pure” (reminding that race and gender cannot be separated). And the white male body? Well, since it is white males that construct identities under a racist patriarchal society, these bodies are possible considered the most perfect beings, in perfect balance. But the modern history of racism is scattered with the untold stories of white men raping black women, to some extent being the act against which many of the above notions is constructed.

I point this out as a reminder that indeed the DA is on to something when they imagine a future where the racialised nature of sexuality no longer determine the social networks of society. On a side note this short reflection should remind us that if they changed the poster around so that it was a black male and white female, they might have found themselves with even more fierce reactions, but let’s leave it at that.

However, I found the poster to be deeply dissatisfying. Not merely because it was provocative (sometimes public images need to provoke reaction to stimulate public reflection), but because I find it somewhat conservative… and yes, I did intend this last statement. Let me explain.

The poster seek to reveal the depths of our personal prejudices and fears concerning race, and imagine a future no longer determined by these. This is its strongest as well as weakest point, as one of my mentors sometimes said. While I tried to point out the strength of this image above, the limits need to be discussed as well.

Let’s put is this way: while more difficult to portray in a single image, an image imagining a future where schools reflect the reality of the country, and where we don’t look twice at this might have been more radical. A future where if I drove past any primary school, the playground would reflect kids exhibiting features which once was used as markers dividing people, and where these markers would no longer determine who is in this school. In short, an image imagining a future where basically every school would consist of a majority of black kids and a minority of white kids, merely because race no longer determine where kids go to school.

Or what about an image of a South Africa where the super-rich no longer dominate in extremely expensive residential areas which exclude the majority. What about an image which imagine a future where my level of education and my position at work no longer determine who my neighbour would be, a future where the vast inequalities no longer exist. While the relation sex and race is indeed very important, and has been an important contribution to maintaining the racist social structure of society, exclusionary economic practices has been as important, if not more. Merely accepting a future where we don’t look twice when a white man is in a sexual relationship with a black woman to some extent simply reinforce the existing status quo, a status quo where a small, generally economically secure, white minority mix freely with the emerging black middle class and elite while assuring that the privileged position of some (although the image of exactly who the “some” is might change) remain intact and the majority remain in dire circumstances (the majority in South Africa remaining, and possible remaining for the imaginable future, the Black African population).

While I welcome the challenge the DA Student Organization bring concerning the way in which sex and sexuality has been racialised, and indeed I hope that they would do more than a poster, and contribute to a healthy public debate on the actual complexities involved with their image, the poster still leave me wondering whether they are willing to voice the necessary critique against exclusionary economic practices, internationally, but with its counterpart in South Africa. Will the DASA be willing to imagine a future where we will not allow residential spaces which exclude the majority and which are ecologically unsustainable, schools which are only for the elites while many rural black schools provide horrible education, super-salaries for some while unemployment remain a primary challenge. All these questions has as much to do with race as sex has to do with race, but they force us beyond the questions of personal prejudice. While the sex questions might contribute to renewed challenging of structural racism in the long run (a different argument, but I do think that it is indeed the case), on its own it might just comfort us into believing that racism is merely about not being willing to date a black or white man.

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.

A few nights ago my wife had “the talk” with me. Now, I put this in parenthesis, since I assume that I’m not the only one who gets “the talk”, but since I’m new to the whole conversation on kids I might be wrong. It was the talk about our bad habits, and how we need to think about them, since we don’t want them to rub off onto our children. Well, I guess I already changes the meaning of “the talk” by using the plural “our” – yes, this was not the wife-nagging-the-husband kind of thing, but a truly heart to heart about our own lives.

She’s quite tactful, this wife of mine. She started out with the things she believe we will be quite able to transmit to our children (I will not list these, since I believe that every experienced parent will laugh at our naive idea that we might achieve some form of success at this thing called parenting). After the list of nice things, kind of stroking the ego of this future father, the hit me with the bomb: “I fear about the ideas concerning race our kid(s) might grow up with”…

Now, my more conservative friends following my thoughts over the past year or two might hope that my wife has finally made me see into my foolish ways of always talking about racism, and that becoming a father will now knock me to my senses, so that I will become a good liberal (yes, I do think conservatives sometimes want us to become liberals, if ever these definitions is still helpful), stop talking about this pestering problem, and quite down. But if this is what you hoped for, then I have sad news: it was exactly the opposite which she had in mind.

Now, we’ve put some thought into issues concerning race in the past. We “have black friends” (I have a coloured friend who always laughingly refer to the people who say that they aren’t racists since they have a black friend). We spent some time thinking through this intellectually. We’ve made some choices in our life to specifically change the spaces in which we live in order to embrace our position as a white minority in a place where we don’t hold power (knowing that we stand the chance of actually confirming the power we have as wealthy white people, since we are in a position to choose to change these things). Yet still she knew, and I knew she was right, 500 years of racialization is so deeply embedded within us, that raising kids not bound to this ideology is almost impossible.

Now, we both come from families whom have been considered “liberal” concerning issues of race at various times. We both are the second or third generation in our family attempting to work anti-racism. And although our parents might disagree with us on this point, we both believe that we’ve been able to build on what we found in our parents attempts at working for a post-racial South Africa, and that we have taken this quest to a deeper level. We both think (although this might just be the delusion of delayed adolescence striving to be rebellious) that we have sometimes frustrated our parents because we weren’t willing to settle for their attempts, but insisted on our own attempts.

So, we continued our conversation, emphasizing how important it will be that our children live in spaces where they know that not only white people, but also black people (when I refer to black I imply all those who was subjected being dehumanized in the way we constructed the ideas surrounding who was valued and important – thus everyone not finding themselves in the position of being white), are teachers. Not only white people, but also black people are managers, decision makers, and family friends. On an even more complex level is the question of whether we also want our children to live in a world where (should the social hierarchy of class continue) they know that not only black people, but also white people at times occupy the position of the worker (and then we still need to think how we want to help them to learn that the ideas concerning class need to be deconstructed). But when all was said and done we had to face one thing:

Our children will come to us one day asking how we could have taken part in the continued racism which we are trying to fight. And that is what we hope for. Maybe that is the best white parents can do. We won’t be raising colour-blind children, we should get rid of that myth. But hopefully we will raise colour-conscious children. This do not imply children hating their own skin, but children knowing the history of being white, in all it’s harsh realities. Remembering so that they can be a voice to say that this might never happen again. We hope that our children will be able to move even further along the road which we are traversing, coming back to their parents and calling us to take the next step towards a place which we cannot yet imagine. Or maybe they will just frustrate us, frustrate us because they won’t be willing to settle for the choices we have made. Might this not be part of what parenting is about in this racialized world?

Yesterday was the day of reconciliation, still celebrated as the day of the vow by some of my friends. I can thank my parents for never getting us into this whole day of the vow celebrations, although primary school made pretty sure that we were indoctrinated into the myths. And the Afrikaner community of which I am have been part all my life remain a constant reminder of these celebrations. The day of reconciliation, which replaced the day of the vow after apartheid, in many places continue to struggle to replace the day of the vow. And in a way it is understandable, since we have rich liturgies which we can draw upon to celebrate the day of the vow, but we struggle in creating liturgy for celebrating the day of reconciliation.

My celebration of the day of reconciliation came by accident really. We never got round to traveling on the Gautrain back when it was opened, and then one of our friends made the suggestion that we do the trip sometime during the week. That sometime ended up being 16 December. But, mainly due to previous experiences, we planned our trip a little different from how most others would have visited the Gautrain.

Yesterday morning started at Pretoria station. Metrorail. Third class. R7.25 from Pretoria to Isando. Apparently at some point the Metrorail and Gautrain will overlap at Roadsfield, so that you will be able to climb over from the one to the other, but not yet so. So we traveled the hour to Isando station. Walked back to Roadsfield, about an 8 minute walk I guess. And bought Gautrain cards. R10. Got on the train to Sandton. R21. Walked around Sandton city for a while and got some take aways. R40-R50. Back to Roadsfield, where we watched as the train from Isando was driving past us, and knew that a long wait was ahead. Walk to Isando. Sit around for a while, then decide to take a pilgrimage to OR Tambo. On foot. About a 25 minute walk when you don’t know the road. Get Americano Iced Coffee or something from Mugg & Bean. R25. Walk back to Isando. About a 15 minute walk when you know which road to take. Take a nap on the station. Take the train back together with many who had to work today, and for whom Pretoria station was not the last stop.

The reality of the unreconciled world was distinctly visible in this trip. One tweet from the group read “Experienced 2 very different worlds today. That of a 1st world South Africa. And that of a 3rd world South Africa. The difference is huge.” And it is true. Roadsfield station has not been opened yet for the Metrorail and Gautrain to be connected. There is something symbolic in this. These two worlds is not supposed to meet. Either you are on the Metrorail, or the Gautrain, but traveling both is strange. Traveling third class Metrorail in South Africa to visit Sandton City is unheard of.

But lets state is in all it’s harsh reality. On the Metrorail we were the only white people most of the time. We saw three other white people from a distance on Pretoria station for a moment. The rest of the train is black people from South Africa, and I guess from Southern Africa, with a few coloured people joining in. The Gautrain and Sandton City display the cosmopolitan ideal. People from all racial groups in South Africa, and of the world really. But let’s say this, with a continued disproportionate amount of white travelers and shoppers, and the same, although in the other direction, for black travelers and shoppers. The Gautrain is for those who can pay more than R1 per kilometer for public transport. OR Tambo is for those who can pay R80 for the last three kilometers of the Gautrain, or who has other means to get onto the airport. No one considered that those using the public transport of the populace might ever have the need to get onto the airport at a reasonable price.

I can go on and on, about the amount of security on the Gautrain vs the Metrorail. About the public facilities surrounding the Gautrain vs the Metrorail (let’s state it bluntly: public toilets which are regularly cleaned is a privilege for the rich, not a right for those human). But maybe I should end with the deadly honest recognition: the Gautrain gave the feel of being a tourist environment more than the means for daily travel which public transport is supposed to be. This is what people use to go shopping or to get of the airport. Yet, I didn’t feel like a tourist on the Gautrain. I blended in completely. The Metrorail on the other hand, never intended to be tourist transport, had me feeling like a tourist. Like the one not really knowing what’s going on. Always needing to ask where the next train is going to be. Always wondering whether I’m on the right place. When I traverse the unreconciled world, I am therefore constantly reminded that I am the one that need to be reconciled with those places where most people travel. I am the one removed from the world of daily life, into the world of cars, malls, or trains where everyone has a seat.

It’s been some months since last I participated in a synchroblog. But the topic was impossible to ignore! Marginalization remain one of the most important questions in our globalized, capitalist, McWorld. But I am not marginilized. I am white and male. Educated. I speak a language which in a country of 11 official languages receive a lot of special attention. I was part of the privilaged few who could have 12 years of school education and 6 years of university education while always having a teacher of lecturer in class that was able to speak my home language. I have internet access, in a country with quite a low internet penetration. I am Christian, in a country where in many ways on a popular level it is just assumed that everyone is Christian, at least when you are white and Afrikaans. Yes, I am from the South, and I live in South Africa, that does take me out of at certain dominant narratives, and I am 26, which in the world in which I work could be argued that to make me somewhat marginalized.

In many ways I am the example of normality.

But yet white people are only 11% of South Africa.

The world is majority female, the worlds labour force is majority female, and Africa specifically is being carried on the backs of the mothers and grandmothers.

This is a country of second languages. Where children are being taught in languages other then their home language.

Although I’m the example of normality, I’m not normal at all, if normal is defined as the place where “most people” are. But the normalized position it not selected democratically. The normalized position is the position never being questioned. We talk about “female perspectives” or “black perspectives”, but assume the “male perspective” or “white perspective” to be… well, normal. The perspective, all other being a deviation from this normalized position. And this is not limited to popular culture, as academics until recently also weren’t putting any emphasis on white people as a “race like any other“, assuming whiteness to be the position from which others is being studies, and interestingly, this report points out how the behavioral sciences continue to universalize Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic people (specifically young Americans at universities).

Concerning race, South African sociologist Melissa Steyn writes:

As the privileged group, whites have tended to take their identity as the standard bywhich everyone else is measured. This makes white identity invisible, “even to theextent that many whites do not consciously think about the profound effect being whitehas on their everyday lives”. In sum, because the racialness of their own lives is editedout, white people have been able to ignore the manner in which the notion of race has structured people’s life opportunities in society as a whole.

When seeing through the eyes of the marginalized, their might be something more important than recognizing the absolute horrors of life on the fringes of society, the suffering and oppression. If we are serious about racism, sexism, and all other phenomenons which create the marginalized in society (for economic reasons?), as systemic problems, and not simply the evil actions of individuals, then I would need to recognized my own non-normal normalized position. I would need to recognize my own indebtedness to this system of privilege. Yes, simply recognizing privilege is not solving the problem, but at least the privileged position of race (as Shannon Sullivan points out in Revealing Whiteness), and I believe the same can be said about other systems of privilege, has ways to keep itself in place, habits which manifest also among those who claim to be a voice in favour of the marginalized.

Our first task might then be to see ourselves through the eyes of the normalized. Recognizing our participation in different systems of privilege and power, so that we in turn can work for the transformation of systems which is continuing to create marginalized groups on so many different levels.

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this part of the monthly synchroblog i enjoy being a part of, bloggers writing on the same topic on the same day.  november’s is a topic near & dear to my heart, seeing through the eyes of the marginalized. i encourage you to check out some of the other writers who participated, the early link list is at the bottom of this post & i’ll add to it as new ones come in over the course of today.  if you’re a blogger & want to be part of future synchroblogs, you can join on facebook or go to our newsynchroblog site and subscribe.


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.