June 8, 2010
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)
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.
June 4, 2010
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.