The idea that the “right thing to do” is to refuse to indicate race on a census form isn’t new, and it isn’t exclusive to white people either. But in the preamble to the 2011 census it was discussed anew by some, so it deserves some reflection upon. More particularly, I want to respond to a recent article by Brent Meersman in which he argued for defining himself as “other” in the census. A kind of disclaimer need to be made first however. I agree with most of the individual arguments Brent made. I don’t consider his stance to be in some sense inherently problematic, although I do think using apartheid style categories has a use in South Africa which need to be recognized. To some extent I want to share Samantha Vice’s stance that I’m writing for those whites who see there own selves as problematic, because we recognize our own habits, thought patterns and relations to be constituted by the socialized location of whiteness which we find ourselves in. I do not think that it is impossible to break with my own whiteness, and indeed I believe that South African society provide important opportunities for doing exactly this, however I don’t think a easy refusal to admit my own embeddedness within a process of white racialisation will bring about breaking with these habits.

I think Brent’s introduction is important. Indeed we have in South Africa came to the conviction that racism is wrong. Well at least, white South Africans as a group has come to the conviction that racism is wrong, I doubt whether there is a long history of a black consensus that racism is morally defensible. But still, this “we”, white South Africans, who actually came to this conviction along with the rest of our country it important. Secondly, it remain important to remind ourselves that the whole enterprise of scientific racism, the attempt to defend a racist casting of the world on scientific grounds, has failed completely.

It’s however somewhat more complex to apply these two convictions to an actual public debate in South Africa. First of, we don’t agree on what exactly the racism is that we all agree on that it is wrong. Even if we take an Oxford definition (which is not a bad definition, but being a dictionary, can’t be expected to completely agree with the various sociological definitions of the word ‘racism’), we will differ on when exactly examples fit the definition. To provide a practical example: I don’t think Tim du Plessis consider his recent column to be racist, but read that in a diverse group, and see the difference of opinion on the question. Secondly, although we have a scientific consensus on the non-existence of race, public opinion is not formed by scientific consensus, and it is debatable how many of the ideas from a previous white scientific consensus still hold in the minds of people. Furthermore, to draw these two together, we don’t really agree on when our attitudes actually reflect a continuation of scientific racism rather than breaking with it. For example, if someone make the comment that black people don’t own businesses because of a particular “communal culture”, is that racism or not? It seems to rejects the biological foundation, yet it might very well again assume an essentialised identity which can easily be identified by a visible marker.

Brent is furthermore correct that there exist many instances where the census question is degrading, and where is simply doesn’t work. This is to be assumed, since the categories created by the apartheid system (and similar systems all over the world) cannot be connected to any essential marker and in spite of a whole generations of academics (well, actually a few generations) attempting to find a final solution on exactly how the various races supposedly fit together, nothing was produced. You cannot easily divide the South African society into 4 meaningful groups by using some kind of biological marker. On the other hand, if you want to divide South Africa into groups according to biological markers, you’ll end up with an endless list of divisions, all equally valid. On the other hand, we are stuck with the problem that the fourfold division of apartheid works.

And this is where I want to argue why I said “white” on that census form.

I am aware that many doesn’t fit into the fourfold division of apartheid. For example, a kid born in 1996 from a mother who was called White during apartheid and a father that was called Black has nothing to do with the particular communities which arose in the areas designated for those Coloured. This person’s identity would most probably not be formed by grandparents and parents that shared a social location formed by a particular relation to those who were White and in power, her/his opportunities are not determined by the historic developments and infrastructure in the areas where Coloured people were supposed to live. So it become very difficult to make any kind of argument that it would be helpful for a census to count one more person as Coloured. On the other hand, this young person, even when born in 1996, would be confronted with internalized ideas about those born out of sexual relations which involve persons from different racial groups (yes, these non-existing contructs which is the leftover from a dominant time and which we can’t find consensus on whether the category should still be used). This child will enter a school sometime, and people will treat this person while drawing on deeply held believes. Sometimes they will break with what has been carried over from their parents and the communities in which they grew up (and indeed, I do believe that every new group of grade 1 kids in South Africa provide more examples of children breaking the patterns handed over to them), but the fact that there is a norm for how relations form and examples of those breaking with them reminds that we have a way to go.

But I was born from parents both from communities that were White. Although I can trace my ancestry to an Malayan slave from the 1700’s, this had little effect on the process of social formation happened. Even though our neighbours on all sides were black when I was a kid, I still grew up within a community which treated me as white, and day after day entrenched the identities which grew out of the European engagement with the world and decades of development of false ideas about race. Both white Afrikaner people and black Swazi’s reaffirmed these notions day after day. Yes, attempts were made to provide an alternative. My parents were very particular in emphasizing to us that all people are equal and created by God. We had black people eating lunch with us as if they were family. My father cried when a black friend died. These events was important. They are still important. They break the patterns. But they way in which I was treated, the teachers that taught me, the family that I spent holidays with (all of them with tertiary qualifications), the contacts I built up through friendships, these continue to show the patterns set out by a long history of racialisation of society (of which apartheid was a very particular extreme example).

I think Brent is correct that we won’t change a society by merely transforming statistics on how the elite classes of society look. Indeed, such a process of transformation can indeed become a “perverse legitimization of neoliberalism”, an insight which we need in our public debate in South Africa. On the other hand, we might find that challenging the same neoliberalism (without going into the debate on exactly what this neoliberalism is or whether this is indeed the system followed in South Africa today), or maybe more particularly the inequalities in society, without looking at issues of race. To point out that the growth in inequality among black South Africans was primarily responsible for the growth in our gini-coefficient is not sufficient reason to ignore the continued spread of capital. In other words, it is true that we have an emerging black economic elite which are gathering wealth in ways which is in no way morally defensible (yes, this do open up a new can of worms for another day, but that is indeed what I believe), but that does not take away that access to capital continue to be largely determined by race: if you were born white in 1994 you still have a much larger change to join that elite, be it the 1% of Occupy Wall Street or the 15% which get access to a tertiary institution.

That is why I said “white”. I don’t think South Africa can be fully understood by looking at race, but neither can it be folly understood by ignoring race. And I want to know how things have changed in the past 18 years, and how they continue to change in the coming 50. I want to know whether Black kids are getting the same opportunities as white kids (not whether a few elites are getting the, but whether the average kid is), but I also want to know whether all kids, regardless of what the apartheid system and Western racial thought wanted to classify them as, have better opportunities than they had 30 years ago. I want to know whether traditionally Black and Coloured areas continue to be excessively plagued by violent crime. I know my knowledge open the possibility that it will be misused the entrench old stereotypes that “black kids are lazy and therefore cannot go to university” or that “Coloured men don’t want to live and therefore kill each other”. This need to be fought as well. But since I’m firmly convinced that scientific racism got it wrong, I cannot connect “black” and “lazy” (since that would imply that this biological marker is somehow connected to a particular character).

If I notice that these Apartheid categories still “work”, if they still provide a pattern for who goes to university, who get’s jobs, who get access to money, who are treated how at airports and by the police, I have a responsibility to ask how this pattern is connected to our history. The history before, during and after apartheid. The relations might be complex, or very obvious, but they set the agenda for those who believe that the inequalities lessened. This will not give all the answer, it will not illuminate every fault line in society, but it will help us to tract our development along fixing one of them.

Therefore, I said “white”, because I want every government member, every activist and every researcher, to know that what the situation is that one person who was born out of a community which treated according the the rules and laws and cultural norms set for those who are “white” find himself in.


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?

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.

A few months ago I was involved with a project installing solar panels in a squatter camp near our church. It involved standing on ladders, hammering stuff to wooded squatter wall pillars, screwing in light-holders, and sometimes walking on roofs to fasten solar panels (squatter roofs are stronger than you might think, and it’s quite a few seeing a squatter camp from the rooftops). It also involved a lot of time spent with the people in the community, especially the two young guys we worked with in the installation process.

I’ve had a lot of discomfort with the project all along as well, which I’ll not dwell on in detail here, except for one aspect I’ve been reflecting on: On a typical day we would get to the settlement, get out our tools, and start at a point and work. In the houses, on the houses. We tried to be real civil, always asking permission, sometimes offering to come back later, trying to respect those whose property we were stepping onto, but we couldn’t rid ourselves of the reality that we kind of had this right to walk right past someones front door, right next to their houses, into their houses. Coming and going. Yes, they could tell us that we are not welcome, that we should go, but their is this kind of social consensus that we white people walking in-between the shacks has the right to do this.

But picture what happens when a black man walks down the road in the suburb. Picture what would happen if he decide to take a short-cut (corner) over someones lawn! Immediately the assumption would be that he is in the wrong, that this is not allowed! And ever though I was the guy coming in the stuff, I know that more than the stuff was at play when I was allowed free reign within the community. And I’m troubled by this reality.

As a white person I have the right to be skeptical of  a black person wandering around near my house.

However, as a white person I have the right to assume that wandering around in a poor black neighborhood is my right.

Shannon Sullivan helped me a lot, when she made the point that even white people who decide to move out of white neighborhoods because they want to fight their own racism, can very easily just be strengthening their privileged white self-understanding by this decision. The very fact that a white person can make the choice to live in a white suburban area, some of which has brilliant methods of keeping it rich and white, or make the choice to live in an inner-city environment, in a block of flats which is predominantly black people, or even in a squatter camp, is already an indebtedness to the privileged way in which the so-called “white race” has been constructed.

It’s a difficult journey then. Moving into a space, but also doing it and attempting to not come in as the white person who can determine how this space is ruled. More than that, allowing this space to make me uncomfortable, challenging my understanding of what the normalized space should look like. If I cannot open myself to the critique of  others, then maybe I’d better stay in my white suburb, rather than trying to extend my white space to again dominate those places where white people left so that others could now determine the rules.

It’s attempting to be changed by the space which I am not quite comfortable with, rather than coming in to change that space into something I am comfortable with.

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.

I’ve often heard people tell the stories of how their children have become “colour-blind”, meaning that they don’t see race, and thus they aren’t “racist”. It’s a hopeful statement, talking about a future that can be different. It’s also a confession of sorts, saying that our children are able to achieve what we (“we” being whichever generation is saying this) couldn’t. It also calls out for redemption. No matter our past, we were able to give birth to children that are no longer indebted to that past.

But the important question would be: is it true? Are we creating a generation of colour-blind children? Is it even possible to be colour-blind in 2010? Or is colour-blind a myth created by the white liberals, used to be politically correct? A trend towards ignoring race in a attempt at sidestepping forms of racism had been identified in white studies all over the world. Would this comment on our children be part of that?

Obviously there is something very problematic embedded within this statement, since stating it already recognize our own racial struggles, and the fact that we couldn’t or wouldn’t reconcile with people from other races. And it’s deeply problematic is a white person and a black person, both 50 years old, with 30 years ahead of them together in this country, leave reconciliation to a next generation.

What bothers me is the fact that I doubt whether the next generation will be “colour-blind”. Maybe in the white liberal sense of the word, meaning refuse to talk about issues of race (which creates huge problems when it comes to reconciliation), but I doubt whether “colour-blind” will be achieved in the next generation – “colour-blind” in the sense that they don’t think whites should in some why continue to have specific privileges, or in the way where the humanity of all people of all races are equally recognized, and thus the death of all people from all races equally mourned.

Maybe what bothers me most is the fact that I’m wondering whether the colour-blind children myth might not be an easy strategy to postpone the painful discussions and actions that is so long overdue. If we can convince everyone that our children will be colour-blind, then it does in a way excuse us from the difficult work of reconciliation necessary today. This idea can be an easy strategy to claim that reconciliation has been secured for the future of South Africa, and that we can take if of the agenda.

The reality is however that our children will inherit our ideas. They will imitate the reconciliation that we embody. They will carry over the racialization that we received. Except if we work to intentionally change this. If parents, schools, society, media, and other role-players work together to slowly but surely become a mirror and a model. A mirror for our children to find out how they’ve been racialized, and a model for what might become in the future.

The myth of the colour-blind children is a hopeful myth. But even with hard work it will take more than one generation. By simply retelling the myth, without every saying: we will be reconciled with our neighbour. Us. This generation. Me. Myself. I will reconcile with someone, build a friendship with someone that is a racial other, and model the reconciliation which I hope for my children, this myth might become just another one in the line of hopeful stories which let us down.

(colour-blind is a misleading idea at this stage, and not something I propose that we make our aim).