The status quo will remain as long as the ‘whiteness’ continues to blot the politcal landscape in South Africa, writes Gillian Schutte.
Johannesburg - A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article in which I stated that all whites are racist, which drew the ire of many white liberals who consider themselves to be anti-racist or even non-racist.
Many cited examples of a diverse social circle, adopted black children and having black lovers or spouses as proof of their non-racist practice.
But in my framework none of these personal examples matter while we, as whites, willingly belong to and benefit from a global occupying system that privileges whiteness at the expense of other races.
I argue that unless we actively resist this system and make bold steps to deconstruct it, and until we begin to work in solidarity with people who are classified by this system as “not white” who are fighting for a world order that is equal, inclusive and diverse, then we have to concede we are willing participants in actual racist practice.
My challenge to whiteness is that unless we have a critical mass of white people (as opposed to a small percentage) looking to abolish this false race construct, we are all complicit in upholding this systemic racism and no amount of anti-racist rhetoric is going to change a thing.
It is up to us to work harder from the inside of this construct to mobilise a critical mass of people classified as white to drop their indoctrinated attachment to the whiteness construct and join the movement for a new egalitarian world order.
It is much easier for liberal white people to disengage from their racist practice and place the blame for racism at the feet of the extreme right – as if they alone created it and are the only suppliers of racist practice. It is also easier for the mainstream race discourse to highlight individual acts of racism, as if this is all that racism is.
But this is a fallacy because to be white means that the system we are born into is itself racist. It is one that not only benefits us, but also dominates certain spaces globally – in discourse, economics as well as cultural norms and values. We are groomed to participate in this system while actively taught to not recognise the untenable burden our privilege places on those this system considers not white.
We cannot place the blame for this structural racism only at the feet of individuals who practise overt racism.
They are doing what the hegemonic nature of whiteness has taught them to do, and though their racist practice is more obvious and violent this is no more harmful to radical transformation than activism that fails to make the link between white privilege and every social ill that it purports to fight.
In fact, this type of activism translates into smiling-faced racist practice passing itself off as the real thing and obfuscating issues, thereby often creating stumbling blocks to radical change.
Unless we recognise the blame for racism has to be placed at the very base of the whiteness construct and work from there to dismantle this institutional and structural racism, we will never extricate ourselves from racist practice.
In order to extricate ourselves from racist practice we have to work to create a mass movement of white people who are willing to denounce whiteness and the race construct and become race abolitionists.
To be clear, race abolition is not about declaring war on white people or individuals, but about organising to push back a capitalist neoliberal system that has unfairly benefited white people to the detriment of other races.
In South Africa, neoliberal capitalism has given rise to a small group of black people who form part of the elitist club and behave as managers of white privilege and are thus impotent in transforming a system in which they willingly participate.
To admit to being willing participants in a racist construct is not an easy thing for white people to get our heads around – so indoctrinated are we to remain impervious to the direct link between our privilege and the historical devastation of whole nations of people, or the impoverished state of 43 percent of our population, or crime statistics, starvation and even environmental destruction.
We are taught to blame this all on perceived integral qualities of being not white – such as laziness, lack of morals and drive or inherently violent natures; a narrative that helps whites extricate themselves from any accountability in social ills brought about by dire inequalities between race groups.
This labelling is a form of lateral violence and allows the white population to take no responsibility for the social fallout of disadvantaged communities and the direct link to white privilege.
In this way most whites will feel entitlement to their advantaged world and devoid of any connection to the 350-year history that brutally stripped black South Africans of their land, family infrastructure, way of life and economic autonomy.
In a racism debate hosted by Power FM’s Iman Rappetti last week, two youth leaders from AfriForum stood up and said they do not see why they should apologise for something they did not participate in because they were born after apartheid and were not responsible for history.
Though they were not bad people and believed wholeheartedly in their own non-racism, they failed completely to recognise they were born into the privilege that this very history bestowed onto them because they were white.
They did not understand that this is unmerited privilege because it is based only on their “race” and that a black youth from the townships or informal areas with as much potential as them has still to work that much harder while navigating hardships such as lack of access to decent education, food security, sanitation and electricity – privileges denied to the marginalised majority black population.
They failed to understand that even if wealthy or middle class, a young black people would be up against institutional racism that dates back to apartheid days.
They did not understand that the struggle for black equality continues today in a neoliberal dispensation that continues to privilege whites over blacks.
They speak earnestly about not being racist because they also “help poor black people with litigation around forced removals” and other examples of their goodness, but they fail to make the link between the issue of homelessness and land deprivation and their personal link to historical privilege to own land and have access to decent housing and services.
This paternal attitude to blackness is to be expected from traditionally conservative sectors of our white society. It is harder still for a good liberal white, who has been mixing in diverse circles for years to suddenly realise they are racist, despite having good relations with many black people.
In the end we have to concede there is not one white person born in South Africa who can claim not to have enjoyed the benefits of apartheid and who continues to derive benefits in the enduring legacy of white privilege at the expense of other race groups – and this includes the whites who are now destitute. Organisations such as AfriForum hold up this small percentage of poor whites as proof that whites are not all privileged and wealthy and are also victim of “reverse racism”.
The difference is this small margin of destitute white people were never subjected to a historical race discourse that denigrated them with racial epithets and pushed them to the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, procured their land, destroyed their agricultural infrastructure to make way for cheap labour and systematically deprived them of all the structural benefits bestowed upon the whites.
I believe poverty is not acceptable whatever the race – we just need to separate this from the racism issue and understand it through another framework.
For now I want to reiterate that while I contend all whites are racist this does not mean that I am saying that all whites hate blacks or are violent and unpleasant towards black people.
There are varying ways of being white and relating to other races and of course throughout history there has always been a number of white people who have been black-positive and even had to suffer being labelled race traitors.
But we cannot let a dominant meaningless and pacifying non-racist discourse dupe us into believing we are anywhere near to a non-racist world when it is clear the majority of black people remain the most disadvantaged in South Africa and even globally.
We cannot buy into a global liberal unifying discourse that continues to insist we are all treated equally when we continue to witness an unprecedented amount of cop killings of young black men in the US and South Africa as well as racist incidents and inequities raging on the social landscape.
We need to develop anti-racism activism into something far more radical and transformative because, in the end, there is absolutely nothing redeemable about a structure that systematically and ruthlessly disadvantages people who are not included in it.
* Schutte is a founding member of Media for Justice, a social justice and media activist as well as a documentary film-maker.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media