I know, I know, you are feeling all tired and quite worn-out to will yourself to read another piece of writing meant to make you feel guilty for being who you are, for being white. I mean, you didn’t choose to be white, you were simply born that way, and worse still, born on this Southern tip of Africa, where you get reminded everyday that you are white and your ancestors messed up, pretty bad. Just bear with me though, my aim is not to put salt on your already festering wound of whiteness, it’s merely to relay a few sentiments that you might have missed in the recent shouting and screaming match that this country has just been through.
First things first, why write yet another piece when so much has been written on this subject of whiteness in recent weeks?(‘Whiteness’ is used here as reference to the system of white privilege as bestowed upon white people). Sorry to disappoint you, this was no ‘lightbulb’ moment on my part, it’s simply out of the pity that I felt for an ‘ordinary’ white South African who wrote:
“A question – with respect – Most white people are just living their lives, working and paying taxes, paying a home loan, and trying to live as law abiding citizens. Are they less deserving of their homes (land) simply because they are white? A friend works in a corporate company where blacks have to be paid more than whites for the same work. Surely in that company the “playing field” is more than level. I guess my real question is (because maybe I’m a little ignorant) What do black people want me to do? I cannot change the privilege I supposedly have. I am unemployed. My husband works, and we mind our own business. We don’t even vote (and have therefore been blamed for the ANC still being in power). And yet, we are part of the hated minority.”
German philosopher, Karl Jaspers put it aptly when he said “our greatest guilt is that we are alive” in reference to the general feeling of guilt that ordinary Germans felt in relation to the Holocaust. With millions of Jews having lost their lives, it only made sense that the German people take some responsibility for what Hitler had done. To paraphrase him in relation to the ‘ordinary’ South African white person, your biggest guilt “is that you were born white in South Africa”.
To attempt to escape your position within whiteness is to try and deny what has happened, to try and forget, and again, Karl Jaspers issued this warning:
“That which has happened is a warning. To forget it is guilt. It must be continually remembered. It was possible for this to happen, and it remains possible for it to happen again at any minute. Only in knowledge can it be prevented.”
Oh, I nearly forgot. Most white folks are “just busy minding their own business”. They’re not like Penny Sparrow or Steve, spewing racist bile on social media. They are just good white folk trying to get by. Well, I’ve got news for you. Penny Sparrow called black people monkeys not for the sake of it, but because she is assured of her place within whiteness. Steve knows that no matter how much hateful bile he spews “whiteness has got my back”.
The same whiteness that you were born into, the same whiteness that guaranteed that you have a “business to mind”, that whiteness, is what protects the bigots. When you seek to absolve yourself of the responsibility that goes with the privileges that it bestows upon you, you are no better than Penny Sparrow, you make light of the material conditions of the majority of your fellow countrymen whose dire living conditions are a result of a system that legalized white privilege.
Sure, some white people came out and condemned Penny Sparrow, and some declare their hate for the likes of Steve but the truth of the matter is the silent majority of “ordinary” white South Africans still regard Steve as a superstar, he remains a top-selling artist, if not the best in their circles. A huge number of Penny Sparrows sit comfortably in their jobs and come out to share their racist views within the safety net of whiteness, fully knowing, “my people” have my back. Guess what, “my people” are the ordinary white South Africans who allow these bigots to flourish. “My people” keep quiet and mind their own business when the bigots call their compatriots monkeys. Worse still, “my people” react angrily when their black compatriots react angrily and generalize that “all whites are racist”. That angry reaction is very telling if you ask me.
So many “ordinary” white South Africans push themselves to a point of “minding their own business” because look at what happened to Gareth Cliff for not minding his own business. This is exactly why yours is huge responsibility, to ditch the arrogance that whiteness has bestowed upon you and come to a realization that although the problem manifests itself in a million different ways, the primary problem eating away at our supposed social cohesion is nothing other than whiteness. Like an addict, an alcoholic, until the patrons of white privilege come to a moment of clarity, that moment when the addict admits to himself and the world that he has a problem, arrogance will continue to prevail and more “innocent, ordinary” white South Africans will fall by their own sword.
That arrogance manifests in whiteness wanting to retain its superiority complex which seeks to tell black people that “the playing field is level”, “more black people earn above what white people earn”, “there are unemployed white people”, “apartheid ended 22 years ago, get over it”. Listen, the reason some people claim to prefer the outspoken Penny Sparrows of this world is because there is nothing as condescending as whiteness that refuses to acknowledge its arrogance but rather stands on top of a hill and trumpets how ” I am unlike the others”, claiming that it is more enlightened. Yet it cannot believe that a black person can determine how whiteness affects him and how he will choose to react to it.
Steve Biko wrote on the role of ‘liberals’ more than 30 years ago. Not that as an “ordinary” white South African I would expect you to be familiar with the writings of Steve Biko, that would be asking too much of a person “minding their own business”. But since I’ve invited you to read this far let me paraphrase Biko for you: the “ordinary” white South African must fight for himself. He must realize that the bigotry of a Penny Sparrow and Steve oppresses him too. (“The liberal must fight on his own and for himself too…Steve Biko in White Racism and Black Consciousness”)
The question that seems to be a burning one for many “ordinary” white South Africans is “What do black people want me to do?” , because when I open my mouth I’m wrong and when I keep quiet I’m accused of complicity in racism. Biko gave you the answer years ago, “fight for yourself, fight for your own freedom”. Renounce your whiteness. Your white privilege. Truly doing this will mean you will not give the bigots the space to flourish in your midst. You will be the first to scream when a Sparrow or a Steve spew their racist bile at that Sunday lunch where you are all on your own.
When you are truly free, you will not have to be scared that your drunken Facebook post or Tweet could make you trend on the social networks. That man, Karl Jaspers says: “…to forget is guilt”. When you are truly free my dear compatriot, my dear ‘ordinary’ white South African, you will not want us to forget the past in a hurry nor will you feel guilty about it, you will be driven to truly work towards a society in which past injustices are corrected. When you are truly free, you will realize, on your own, that you do not “supposedly have a privilege”. You will simply own up to that privilege. You realize that there is nothing such as an ‘ordinary’ white South African. ‘Ordinary’ carries no privilege