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Whiteness, whiteliness and White Studies

17 September 2011

Reading my blogging friend Cobus van Wyngaard’s Facebook page the other day he mentioned “whiteness” and “whiteness studies”.

Quick question for those familiar with racial theory and whiteness studies: a common argument in whiteness studies is that not everyone who are white has always been white. The most-common example would be how the Irish became white. Here is the question: have Afrikaners always been white? Was there a time or place when Afrikaners were not white, or not white enough?

I’m not qualified to answer his question, because that was the first time I had ever heard of “whiteness studies”, and I was quite surprised by my own reaction to the term. It made me want to puke.

But I can answer the question as someone unversed in “whiteness studies”. I can say no, Afrikaners have not always been white. They were not white when they were brown. And the leaders of the white Afrikaners made the brown Afrikaners go and live in their “own” Group Areas so that the children of the white Afrikaners wouldn’t be tempted to play with their brown cousins. And that was because the leaders of the white Afrikaners were obsessed with the idea of “whiteness”, and thought their “whiteness” made them better than everyone else. And that is why “whiteness” makes me want to puke. And I don’t think you need to be familiar with “racial theory” or “whiteness” studies to know that, just history.

Those things on Facebook are difficult to find again, especially when they are more than  a day or two old but Cobus has written something on the topic on his blog at How good white people keep white superiority in place | my contemplations:

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.

I’m not sure I have completely grasped what Cobus is saying there, but I think my reaction of wanting to puke is that, as Cobus puts it, “this seems to become a strategy of keeping white superiority in place”.

Somewhere else Cobus also mentioned a paper by Samantha Vice, on How do I live in this strange place (I hope the link works, because others have linked to it, and it keeps changing, and is quite hard to find). This is a long introspective piece on white guilt and white shame and at the end of it I wondered what on earth could be achieved by such self-absorption. Yes, I know, I started this article by wondering why the word “whiteness” makes me want to puke, and that’s pretty introspective right there. But Samantha Vice’s article made me long for a breath of fresh air, and I found it here: Daily Maverick :: How to live in this strange place? First, don’t run away

As much as we like to malign the escapism that sees certain suburbanites prefer not to live in this country, the likes of tripartite alliance parties do it too. What South Africa doesn’t need is for us to shy away from the difficulties by running or opting for “easy” solutions.

Go ahead, read the whole article. Breathe deeply.

So, having breathed deeply of the sound common sense of Sipho Hlongwane, let me plunge once again into the murky waters of introspection and responses to “whiteness”.

But first a brief excursion to something Cobus menioned in passing, Stuff white liberals say and do – Verashni Pillay – Mail & Guardian Online. That might be funny, but it also shows that “white liberal” has become a racist stereotype like “lazy kaffir” and “devious coolie”, and I’m not sure that racist stereotypes are all that funny in a society where too many people still take them seriously and believe them. The trouble is that many people accept the stereotypes as the reality. If you want to know what a real white liberal is like, as opposed to Pillay’s racist caricature, see here Biography of Peter Brown, South African liberal leader | Khanya.

So why do terms like “racial theory” and “whiteness studies” make me want to puke?

Once upon a time there was an organisation called the South African Institute for Race Relations (SAIRR). It was started by people who, if not liberal, did have some liberal tendencies. And the National Party government didn’t like some of their reports and the assumptions on which they were based, so they set up a rival body, the South African Bureau for Racial Affairs (SABRA), as a sort of think-tank to fine-tune racial theory.

And that is why terms like “racial theory” make me want to puke, because they remind me of Nazi race theories and SABRA and the theoretical underpinnings of the apartheid ideology.

I grew up in the time when the apartheid ideologists were entrenching themselves in power. Their aim was a totalitarian society in which thinking outside the apartheid box would become unthinkable. But there were still pockets of resistance, and so the ideological battle was still being waged. They tried to play with our minds. They tried to indoctrinate us in school, and in the universities, especially those they controlled.They did it in big ways and in little ways, in grand ways and petty ways.

And among those who resisted were liberals, white and black.

And they got hammered for it.

One could paraphrase what Pastor Martin Niemoller is reputed to have said of resistance to the Nazis:

First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a communist
Then they came for the ANC, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a member of the ANC
Then they came for the liberals, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a liberal
Then they came for the trade unions, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist
Then they came for the students, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a student.
And before they came for me PW Botha had a stroke and FW de Klerk let everyone out of jail and we could start talking about it.

So what did we set against “racial theory” and “whiteness”?

The idea of non-racial democracy, that’s what.

Here are two documents from the sixties that show it:

The first is from a political party, the second from the Christian Churches. But both were intended to exorcise the demon of racial theory from our minds and souls and society.

And what I find fascinating as I reread the Liberal Party manifesto after 50 years is that we have a constitution that is very close to the kind of thing the Liberal Party proposed back then. And that many, if not most of the policies of the Liberal Party back then are now policies of the ANC government. Isn’t that amazing? A liberal constitution and liberal policies, and all without a liberal in sight?

There is, of course, the small problem of implementation, but that is always the problem with practical politics. And the fact that the ANC, with its Thatcherist policies, is a little further to the right than the Liberal Party was back then.

And the Message to the People of South Africa denounced apartheid and its underpinning of theories of racial identity as worse than a heresy: it was a pseudogospel, seeking salvation by race rather than grace.

And that is why talk of “whiteness” and “racial theory” makes me want to puke.

It reminds me of demons that us old farts spent most of our lives trying to exorcise.

And using those names sounds to me like using Beelzebul to cast out Beelzebul.

And when I see terms like “racial theory” and “whiteness studies” my reaction is the same as that of German Jews when they see a swastika, and are told that it is an ancient Aryan symbol of peace and harmony.

Yeah, right.

See also What is African? Race and identity | Khanya

  1. 18 September 2011 6:00 pm

    I might start with thanking you for coming into the conversation, we surely need the critics. There is very good reasons not to use whiteness studies (some which you haven’t mentioned yet), and we need to be constantly reminded about them.
    Second, sorry for all the puking I’ve caused, I know that always leaves a bad taste, but I guess such is the process in which we’ve been forming each other.
    Third: The long facebook status update which you quoted in the beginning was visible to just a very small group of people, all of them academic theologians. Obviously you couldn’t have known that, so I’m comfortable with the fact that you quoted it (although linking to stuff we find on the internet is a good policy, and would have revealed this fact when those to whom the update wasn’t open tried to see it). However, my reason for quoting it was because some of the things that I was working on gave rise to the thought that what you were describing might be possible, but sadly no historian has ever explained it in the way you just did, so I didn’t have the facts. If you would have cared to contribute that constructive insight (about white and brown Afrikaners) it would have been appreciated. If you could direct me to someone who describe this history I’ll appreciate it, I’ve always respected you as a historian.
    Fourthly: When did the anti-racist quests end? In 1991? 1994? 1995 with the Rugby? I know that you have been active in fighting against racism for a large portion of your life. But I can’t believe that you actually believe that racism is no longer a problem (and if I read you correctly you admit that it is still something which should receive attention). Now although I’m sure that you have figured out how racism should end way back in the 70’s, some of us take a look at the world that was handed down to us, and we think that different approaches might be needed. ‘Whiteness studies’ has it’s problems, but you can find it all over contemporary anti-racist literature (or at least those that I’m aware of). Although your critique from the outside is welcomed, comparing it to Nazism is not at all fare, and I really expected something much more nuanced from you.
    Lastly: I’m sure the liberals were wonderful people at many points in history, and if you’ll take the trouble to read Pillay’s followup you’ll see that she think that is still the case (and so do I), however, you were the one who taught me many moons ago that we should remember that the word ‘liberal’ is used in a variety of ways. Maybe liberalism was the ultimate form of anti-racism at some point in time, but not everyone is convinced that this is still the case.

    • 18 September 2011 7:55 pm


      Thanks very much for responding. Ideally this kind of discussion should take place in a mailing list rather than on blogs or Facebook, which are too limited to allow real interaction. I chose to write about it in my blog because I was (like Samantha Vice) being introspective and personal in saying why I react the way I do to terms like “whiteness” and “racial theory”.

      I’ve kept a diary for most of my adult life, and I looked to see when I had used the word “whiteness”. I used it precisely once before 1994. That was in 1963 when I was a first-year student at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, and a group of us travelled in a bus to the Durban campus for the annual Academic Freedom Lecture. That event had been instituted in reaction against the passing, in 1959, of a law enforcing university apartheid.

      What I wrote in my diary was:

      “Archbishop Hurley addressed the meeting, and said that the government was not interested in freedom or humanity, but only in whiteness, a quality possessed by tick birds and white elephants as well. Jonty Driver, the Nusas president, spoke as well, and Thami Mlambiso, the president of the Natal University SRC.”

      At that time, those who were obsessed with whiteness had frightening power, and they used that power to reshape society. One defence mechanism against that overwhelming power was to make fun of it and mock it and laugh at it, as Archbishop Hurley did. But make no mistake about it, laughter and mockery was a coping mechanism. It did not diminish the power or the scariness of it, which we recalled in commemorating the death of Steve Biko last week.

      So anything that calls itself “whiteness studies” awakens those memories – memories that are of something intrinsically and utterly evil. Perhaps the people who engage in “whiteness studies” and “racial theory” do not intend to do this, but why then choose a name that inevitably awakens memories of an obsession with whiteness that was evil, and caused great evil? You yourself suggested that it might be a “strategy to keep white superiority in place”. You have had more contact with those people than I have, but I would hope that, rather being a deliberate strategy, it was more like the law of unintended consequences.

      Yes, racism is still a problem. Any Christian theologian will know that there is a difference between Law and Grace. Law can tell you what is wrong, but it cannot make you good. A constitution based on non-racial democracy can limit the damage done by racism by dethroning racism from the law-making mechanism. That is what justice does — it doesn’t make people good, but it limits the effects of their evil.

      But “whiteness studies” sounds to me too much like the alcoholic who thinks that the solution to his problem is another drink.

      • 19 September 2011 5:48 pm

        As always, I value your thoughts highly. However, I think I’m correct in reading these as coming from someone who I have reason to take as an authority in the fight against racism, yet reflecting not on whiteness studies, but on the problematic nature of a “name” that was given to a certain part of the contemporary academic study of racism. However, this obviously doesn’t engage the content, and as such it places some serious limitations onto the conversation.
        More important would be the question on whether Shannon Sullivan (on whom Samantha Vice draw for her argument) was busy with racism or anti-racism when she engaged in a study of habits and how habits entrench the idea that white people should have a privileged position in society even when while the individuals involved are vocally opposed to white supremacy. Was this an act of racism or anti-racism? Does the fact that she identified her work as being part of a broader field titled “whiteness studies” make any difference whatsoever as to whether we should consider her contribution to be racist or not? These questions might give cause to engage on the topic more, but I’m not sure if a long debate about a name, divorced from a discussion on the content and method, is going to be helpful at all.

    • 19 September 2011 8:13 am

      Interesting… ‘those to whom the update wasn’t open tried to see it’. This is exactly the issue I was saying about the new walled communities we are creating. The Facebook walls that create our communities may not be bricks and mortar, but they can be equally or even more difficult to penetrate.

  2. 18 September 2011 6:03 pm

    Oh, and let me add: ‘you’ suggested a non-racial democracy as alternative to racial theory and whiteness, ‘we’ suggested that the unexamined norm of whiteness need to be studies to reveal it continued influence from an invisible position, because ‘we’ couldn’t see ourselves getting into this non-racial democracy without that. Engage the assumption, critique it, but obviously remember that the criticism from the outside has it’s limits.

    • 18 September 2011 7:59 pm

      I did ask you who the “we” was. and I’m still not sure. Everyone has unexamined norms that sometimes need to be examined, and some of those norms can be revealed by the way we use the word “we”. See here: How racist are you? | Khanya.

      • 19 September 2011 5:43 pm

        “we” would be anyone who think that the set of approaches labeled “whiteness studies” is helpful in an anti-racist endeavor.

        • 19 September 2011 8:40 pm

          Ok, but you did say in your blog post that you saw that there might be a danger that it would keep white superiority in place.

          • 20 September 2011 5:47 pm

            I did, and I stated that it was a reminder to myself. I acknowledge that possibility. But many has pointed out that the non-racial approach are guilty of the same things, although much are to be learnt from this approach as well.

  3. 19 September 2011 8:08 am

    The term ‘whiteness’ is a totally new one to me too… makes me want to puke too! However, reading through the attached articles one concept leaps out that isn’t being addressed and I’m not sure if it’s relevant or not: That of ‘our’ country or ‘their’ country… in other words the concept of patriotism.

    Not only am I not patriotic, but I don’t like patriotism in others and feel that it is not something God desires.

    I don’t think I am alone, but for very different reasons. Hmmm… so what I see is two things: An extraverted and introverted reduction in patriotism. By that I mean that some people, like me, are rejecting patriotism in all forms (extraverted) and others whilst claiming patriotism are actually more interested in self that serving country (introverted).

    This overlaps with the concept of community, which I affirm. Facebook is a move towards community on the Internet. It changes things. No longer am I interested in getting to know others, but the Facebook model helps me to elevate existing relationships building a strong walled community of those who are my ‘friends’ and those who are not. This could be those who are ‘white’ and those who are not.

    So when evaluating ‘whiteness’ and all the rubbish that goes along with it, I am tempted to feel that it is a symptom rather than a disease. Like running a temperature when having flu. Trying to reduce the temperature doesn’t treat the disease. ‘Whiteness’ is only an expression of isolationism within community structures, of which there are many.

    ‘Whiteness’ is an expression of Balkanisation at work. It is the mirror to Globalisation, in part caused by Globalisation. As we see the world in increasingly large structures, there is a cry in our heart to belong. As we look around we see structures that help us feel part of some community, be it in Facebook or in some sub-culture the values of which we feel we can affirm.

    • 19 September 2011 8:34 am

      So would you define your community, your “we”, as “me and my Facebook friends”?

      I see my Facebook “friends” as composed of many different communities, some of which overlap only in me, and most of them extending well beyond Facebook. some of them are family relations, by blood or marriage, some are old friends I have lost contact with (apart from Facebook), some are current friends, acquaintances, fellow church members, academic colleagues (some of whom I have never met) and so on.

      None of these communities is defined or circumscribed by “whiteness”, yet that was the essence of “whiteness”. It defined, bounded and circumscribed those you were to regard as your “own” people. People who were not white could never be a “we” to those the government defined as “white”, only a “they”; their “own affairs” could never overlap with “our” “own affairs”, and anyone who was perverse and wicked and foolish enough to think that they could was a deviant who was guilty of “improper interference”.

      And “whiteness studies” looks suspiciously like an attempt to drag us back into “own affairs”.

      • 4 October 2011 9:07 am

        Facebook friends fall into various ‘we’ groups. I forget the terminology used in Facebook for the different sub-groups for managing these groups, but posts go to these separate groups and allow you to manage them as walled communities. Each group tends to be an island. The islands interconnect through me. Google plus call these circles.

        I totally agree with your final statement: ‘And “whiteness studies” looks suspiciously like an attempt to drag us back into “own affairs”.’

  4. 19 September 2011 8:31 am

    Hello, Steve. Thank you for leaving a link at Clarissa’s blog. This is an excellent post, and I particularly feel your frustration and anxiety because I live in a deeply diverse country myself. In fact, I’ve just started a series of posts that deal with entrenched divisiveness between different ethnic groups that lead to small local frictions, as well as violent secesionist movements. I’d love to hear your opinions on them, as they’re published:

  5. 19 September 2011 9:46 pm


    Cobus, I’m responding to your comment, but in a more general way, so this doesn’t end up a narrow ribbon of text down the right side of the screen.

    Yes, my objection is mainly to the name, since I didn’t even know there was such a thing as “whiteness studies” until you mentioned it a couple of days ago. I did read Samantha Vice’s article, but I don’t know whether that forms part of “whiteness studies” or not.

    But the name does put me off wanting to know more about it. And that, I freely acknowledge, is based on pure prejudice, because the name has certain unpleasant associations for me.

    But let me add a few things that might have contributed to my prejudices.

    Between 1969 and 1972 I and a group of friends published a small Christian magazine called Ikon. It ceased publication in 1972 because all the editors were banned, and were therefore prohibited from publishing anything, communicating with each other, and since we were restricted to different places we couldn’t even meet clandestinely.

    A well-meaning Methodist minister wrote to us offering to take over the magazine, and to continue publishing it as an instrument of “white consciousness”. We politely declined his offer because we thought he didn’t “get it.”

    At the SAMS Congress in January 1999 there was a kind of anti-racism seminar led by Ilona Clemens and Martin Rutkies. They presented some good material, and I think it was generally a useful exercise, but I had some niggling doubts. One was that there was more than a whiff of “teacher teell” about it, and I got the impression that they thought they knew all about racism, and that they were going to sell this idea to us.

    And then two years later there was an online discussion. I quote from my diary for 6-Jan-2001 (and this was the second mention of “whiteness” in my diary, the first since 1963)

    “There’s been a discussion in the soc.culture.south-africa newsgroup on Bryan Rostron’s article “The heart of whiteness” in the Mail & Guardian of 22 December 2000 – the last issue of the last century.

    According to Rostron, “Many white South Africans are now reverting to type: our historic pigmentocracy — after a brief period of modest silence — is simply lapsing back into old attitudes.”

    One Afrikaner objected to Rostron’s point that “clinging to whiteness is not a long term option”: “I cannot help the fact that I am white, and neither do I feel that I should be ashamed of my god-given skin colour or my European heritage or the standards of living to which I aspire. The implication here seems to be that white South Africans are required to reject their own skin colour and culture. How does this work?”

    To which my response was:

    During the Nat period, inculcating the need to “cling to whiteness” was the core of the education system for whites. One education text book of the period said that the greatest possible injustice a child could suffer was to have a teacher of a different cultural group.

    Just think about it — “the greatest possible” – you could beat the child every day with a sjambok, you could press burning cigarettes into it, you could break its bones and bash its teeth out, sell it into prostitution, but none of these would be as great an injustice as giving it a teacher of a different cultural group.

    This system of justice was reserved mainly for Afrikaans-speaking children, however. Even among whites, it didn’t matter if this great injustice was done to Portuguese, Greek or even English-speaking children.

    But South Africa is now supposed to be a free and democratic country, with a liberal constitution. It shouldn’t matter what cultural group you belong to or what cultural group your teacher belongs to. To be white or black or anything in between should not matter. The problem is not whiteness, but “clinging” to whiteness. This tendency to “cling” is a hangover from the past, and we need to get beyond it. Freedom of association and freedom of movement means we can now cross colour and cultural boundaries without the neighbours calling the police or being arrested for not having the correct pass or permit or some other official document.

    Perhaps we are a little like rats, conditioned to be afraid of freedom. We like to run along the walls, and are afraid of the wide open spaces. Rats may have other reasons for that – raptors tend to spot them and eat them more easily when the are out in the open. But we behave as if the barriers are there even when they have been lifted. We can be afraid of freedom and cling to whiteness or blackness or whatever – and in this, in some ways, there is little to distinguish the HNP and Azapo — though most Azapo supporters I know are actually personally less paranoid than the HNP supporters I’ve met.

    So, if you’re white, don’t be so uptight about it. That whiteness is just there, and part of you. You don’t have to either abandon it or cling to it. Same with blackness or any other colour. You can enjoy your own colour and culture and those of others and be laid back about it. There is no longer any law that says you can’t.”

    No response so far, but I think Rostron has hit the nail on the head. There are many whites who think like that and talk like that at neighbourhood braais and other occasions when only whites are present. And I, like Rostron, resent their assumption that I share their racist views.

    Yet there is another side: there is a new freedom of public association. White people, even working-class boertjies, walking and talking with blacks on the street.”

    So yes, racism is there, and it persists, and in some places it may even be having a revival. And yes, I think we need to talk about it. But I remain suspicious of talking about it within the framework of a discipline that calls itself “whiteness studies”, because to me that implies that it is fixated on race and that all the discussion has to take place within the framework of some “racial theory” that I know nothing about but that some people somewhere out there who think that they *know* are planning to impose on me.

    And then, back in the 1960s, an English friend, wife of an Anglican priest, who lived in South Africa for 12 years, said “When South Africa solves the problem of the blacks and the whites, then for the first time they will be faced with the real problem — the haves and the have nots.”

    Racism may be a problem, but it is not the *only* problem and I don’t think it can be treated in isolation. I think we need to look at it holistically, and not to simplistically see it purely as a matter of racism. Class also enters into it, and many other things as well.

  6. 21 September 2011 11:15 am

    Steve, sorry, I only noticed the general response now.
    I hear what you are saying, although as before, I’m not sure how far a conversation concerning a name will take us. I have one question though: Are you somehow writing the above to me? After all the years that we have been reading each others writings, meeting at various occasions, do I strike you as the kind of person who are afraid of freedom, clinging to whiteness, or claiming to be some final authority on racism? Because if I don’t then this is an awful lot that you are drawing from a mere word I used, and if I do… well, if I do then I guess I might want to consider that you have a point.
    One last time: maybe the name is unfortunate (but maybe it is the exact name we need right now), maybe connections could be made (but then again, the same happens with various other things), but the amount of things that you seem to assume from a name is really pushing things, and creating the feeling that somehow you have some insider knowledge on the perfect approach to end racism that many others who I have experiences as people really committed to ending racism doesn’t have.
    If it weren’t for the fact that I really respect your experience and knowledge on this topic, I don’t even know why I would have continues engaging on this somewhat senseless discussion on the a name completely disconnected from the content of which it speaks.

  7. 22 September 2011 5:32 am


    Are you somehow writing the above to me? After all the years that we have been reading each others writings, meeting at various occasions, do I strike you as the kind of person who are afraid of freedom, clinging to whiteness, or claiming to be some final authority on racism?

    No, of course not! I wrote that ten years ago, before I’d even met you.

    But if I’m not writing it to you, to some extent I am writing it for you, in the sense that it was something you wrote that got me thinking about it, and got me reading Samantha Vice’s article. And basically I’m doing what Samantha Vice did and seemed to be suggesting — being introspective and examining my own life and experience to see why I react to the idea of “whiteness” the way I do.

    But though I don’t think you are clinging to the idea of whiteness in the way I described, I’m sure you’ve encountered people who do and that that is in part what has prompted you to write about it, and though we may approach it from different backgrounds and viewpoints and experiences, that is what makes it an interesting “conversation”.

    And if two people approach it from different directions, then three or four or five or twenty people will reveal even more differences, and so we learn something from the conversation.

  8. 23 September 2011 12:19 pm

    Hi Steve

    You’ve kind of missed it. “Whiteness Studies” is not the study how to use privilege to stay on top – “a strategy of keeping white superiority in place.” It’s about how to recognise and expose those strategies. It’s not about how to re-create Whiteness, but about how to dismantle it, in all its forms – which, if were to think of it as ideology, then that dismantling is a profoundly Biblical responsibility (see “How (not) to speak of God”).

    When I initially found out about Whiteness Studies, I had a similar reaction to yours. Until I understood what it’s about. And then I started thinking of it in relation to theology…and finally, Apartheid is making more sense, as well as post-Apartheid South Africa – and especially Church.

    This isn’t just about racism (although that’s at the core); it’s also about privilege, and who gets to privilege what. It’s about the idea that white people are inherently privileged, no matter what we do.

    In your other blog post, you said that the Apartheid government came down hard on all liberals who resisted it – white and black. However, at the end of the day, the white liberal could head back home, to a house in a suburb that he was not forced out of against his will to live somewhere he didn’t want to. He didn’t have to carry a pass, and could get access to anything with a “Blankes Alleenlik” sign on it. As much as the white person would want to give up that privilege, it was (and is) so hard that it may as well be impossible. Biko’s writing on “The White Liberal” sufficiently captures this.

    However, there are things that we can do every day, that while not achieving the impossible, go some small way to us (whities) disavowing privilege.

    Some related articles that I have found useful to start uncovering my own invisible privilege based on race (which is even more true in South Africa than almost everywhere else):


    Lastly, have you been following the New Frank Talk series? His article on Xenophobia was brilliant, because it points out that the xenophobic violence in 2008 was not xenophobic. If it was, white people would have been targeted too – but they weren’t. The violence was “negro-phobic” – a consequence of the internalised inferiority that Apartheid legislated. Even now, I agree with Mandela’s closing statement in his autobiography: that we are not free, but we have the freedom to be free.

    The journey of the oppressed is towards liberation; the journey of the oppressor is to become fully human. History puts white people firmly into one of these categories, and it’s not the “oppressed” category (in spite of what Steve Hofmeyr might claim).

    Be well, and good luck with your research 🙂 If you want to get some decent academic writing, read anything by bell hooks. I’ve found Zeus Leonardo’s “Race, Whiteness, and Education” to be sheer brilliance – and will serve as an excellent introduction to all this stuff. I’m waiting for someone to integrate this stuff with theology in the South African landscape.

    • 27 September 2011 10:58 am


      Let’s start with the first of the web pages you cited: BBC News – Is it wrong to note 100m winners are always black?.

      I thjink that that one is what would be called in courtroom dramas a “hostile witness” — it supports my argument — that racial stereotypes are a bad idea — and demolishes yours. It supports the idea of non-racialism, that we should not judge people according to skin colour.

      The second, I am a racist : Good Math, Bad Math is peripherally relevant. I think most of us are racist to some extent but we are often chauvinist in other ways to a greater extend, and obsession with race can blind us to those other ways, And if we find ourselved covered in shit, a better solution is to wash it off rather than go looking for more shit to wallow in.

      More later…

      • 27 September 2011 11:41 am

        re: the BBC article – Steve, you’ve completely missed what I’m saying. My argument is not that it’s a good idea that (a non-racial) society should start thinking again in terms of race. My argument is that society ALREADY thinks in terms of race, and this thinking is invisible to whites because we pretend it doesn’t exist. I linked to the article in the hope that it was a good example of this unconscious filtering by race.

        I agree that we need to transcend stereotypes, as the article says. And to do so means to interrogate those stereotypes, especially the ones based on race, in order to get beyond race (if, indeed, this utopia is even possible – which I hope it is).

        Let me make the same point in a different way. Cape Town was recently voted the “least unequal city” in South Africa, and occasionally I hear my white friends talk about how integrated Cape Town in. Then I speak to non-white people and ask them about their experience of Cape Town: they say it’s one of the most segregated cities in South Africa, full of “white spaces” where they feel uncomfortable visiting.

        Another way of saying the same thing: a white friend of mine recently spent a day with a black friend, doing stuff around Cape Town, and visiting some of these white spaces. The white person was taken aback with how much the two of them were stared at; she’d never had that experience before. The black friend affirmed that this was normal for her.

        Non-whites can see and experience racial segregation and discrimination every day. Whites think that this is a thing of the past. Whiteness Studies puts its finger on this disconnect.

        Moving on to the second article, I’m surprised at your either/or approach here. I’m advocating both/and. Racism is an example of power + prejudice that works out on racial lines. Chauvism is another example of that. And there are others. It’s not that we should pick one example of prejudice and ignore the rest; it’s that we become more aware, we become more aware in *all* areas. I find this to be a difficult and profound challenge.

        • 27 September 2011 12:36 pm


          I largely agree with your description of the situation, though I disagree with your conclusions. I recently visited Cape Town (though not for long) and it definitely has white spaces, Perhaps more even than Pretoria. It probably has black and coloured spaces as well. Pretoria does have white spaces, especially along Zambezi Drive in the north. But if you go to the shopping malls in the east, they are not white spaces, but they are definitely middle-class spaces. Both black and white people feel more comfortable there because they are among their own middle-class kind.

  9. 24 September 2011 6:04 am


    See my other post, which deals with some of the points you raise. As far as a “strategy for keeping white superiority in place” is concerned, I think “strategy” is the wrong word. I think it is more likely to be the law of unintended consequences.

    As for xenophobia being “negrophobia”, I think that is horribly simplistic.

    Yes, there is an element of that — particularly on the part of police and immigration officials targeting those with darker skins as more likely to be foreigners, but that is only part of it, and not the larger part. And as for saying that if it were really xenophobia, they would be attacking white people – that is simply twisting the meaning of words, and it is based on racist assumptions, and it is itself part of the racist mindset that apartheid tried to inculcate.

  10. 24 September 2011 10:51 am

    I’ll read your other blog post, Steve.

    As much as I’d like to believe that whiteness is kind of an accident, that it’s an unintended consequence that it somehow keeps white people on top and enslaves everyone else, this is actually the core of whiteness – and very deliberately so. See my link above which shows that companies hire people who have “white-sounding names” more often than people who have “black-sounding names.” This isn’t merely an unintended consequence of whiteness – it’s the very stuff that keeps whiteness going.

    The xenophobic attacks targeted foreigners. Foreigners from Africa – not from anywhere else in the world. While there are plenty of white people from Africa who are in South Africa, none of them were targeted or had any reason to fear for their safety. The violence was directed towards Black foreigners – and only black foreigners. Isn’t it then self-evident that the xenophobic violence was race-based? And if it was race-based, only towards black foreigners, then doesn’t “negro-phobia” make more sense?

    Yes, it’s simplistic, and is only a part of what was going on: add in anger towards service delivery, and expressing that anger by striking out against the nearest “other”.

    • 24 September 2011 11:52 am


      Thanks for commenting twice in two days, and making an interesting discussion! I’m afraid blog comments are not the ideal venues for such discussions, but it is important that they take place. You gave a lot of interesting links, and I haven’t finished reading them, but you didn’t give one to “New Frank Talk” which you mentio0ned. Perhaps I should Google for it, but then I wouldn’t be sure if it was the piece you had in mind.

      In this post, and the one following, I haven’t really been blogging about xenophobia, but rather about the phenomenon of white people studying whiteness. I agree with much of what you say, but I still think that that particular phenomenon is based on racist assumptions and will end up promoting racism.

      As far as xenophobia is concerned, I’ve blogged about it here Christians and the immigration issue | Khanya and here No bread, no matches, no candles — thanks to xenophobia | Khanya and here The Samaritan Woman – a lekwerekwere | Khanya.

  11. 25 September 2011 1:32 pm

    Hi Steve

    Ja, blog comments are not the best place for getting into deep discussions – but it’s all we have now that I’m in Cape Town! Also, I’m not an expert on whiteness – I’ve only become familiar with it fairly recently, and what I’ve heard so far I really like. Unfortunately, I haven’t found much quality stuff written online about it, and what is written is often inaccurate (like the Washington Post article on your other post, which doesn’t mention that whiteness studies was originally initiated by black scholars).

    As for the New Frank Talk articles – the author is Andile Mngxitama – you can find summaries here, but you’ll have to buy them:

    I don’t really mean to go down the xenophobia road; I was just trying to make the point that race is very much alive and well, and has real consequences. I made a very summarized argument of the New Frank Talk article on Xenophobia – for the full, well-thought out argument, read that article. (Unfortunately, I don’t see it listed at the above link, so I’m not sure where you can find it).

    The other links I gave were a small smattering of things that have been top-of-mind for me recently. While interesting, they don’t serve as an introduction to whiteness studies. For that, I recommend the Zeus Leonardo book. If, after reading that, you dismiss the field as irrelevant – let’s chat!

    My take on “white people studying whiteness” is that it’s a potentially transformative path – possibly even a spiritual path, because – if done properly – it exposes our true condition and position in the world, as members of a demographic that continually wants to own/possess/colonize the other. If this transformative path is followed, it gives white people the hope of becoming fully human, and participating in the human race as fellow members – aware of our own tendency to be superior – and constantly working against that. The metaphors that come up during this path are those of conversion, of having the scales drop from ones eyes, of becoming aware of one’s own sinful condition, of starting to live in a transformed way, of fighting against injustice both large and small, and yes, even of salvation – every day.

    What I’ve found interesting is now that I’ve become more sensitized to my own positionality as an English-speaking white South African Christian, I’ve been more able to see how my demographic has used Christianity as the means of both oppressing others AND of feeling better about our own lack of commitment to true social justice.

    I’m seeing this schizophrenia more and more – for instance, there was an article this week in the Times – – that briefly summarized the Steve Biko Memorial lecture that Alan Boesak (whom I don’t like) delivered. He made this schizophrenia point brilliantly:

    “He said it was interesting to note that whites loved Archbishop Desmond Tutu when he talked about forgiveness, but when he mentioned correcting social injustice of the past by introducing a white tax, he was no longer liked.” <- We whites like it when those our demographic has oppressed want to forgive us, but when they say, "Let's DO something to balance the past oppression," we say NO! Doubly interesting is how the newspapers reported Tutu's speech: "Tutu proposed a white tax," as if Tutu was saying that the tax was something that the government should legislate. Actually, what Tutu said is that he wishes more white South Africans would voluntarily CHOOSE a "tax" – as a way of giving back in concrete, measurable ways. The papers deliberately missed that nuance, so that in their sensationalist reporting there wasn't a serious, thoughtful challenge to the minority who has been enriched at the expense of the majority.

    "whites were creating a false sense of victimhood when social injustice was mentioned." <- I'm seeing more and more victimhood by whites, as if the world is against them, particularly when it comes to affirmative action. I shake my head in amazement. Why not learn from the recent recession and from the changing world of work that no job is stable and secure? Why not become an entrepreneur, and learn the skills that will take you into the 21st century as an innovative person? Why stay committed to an old model of work that we know is outmoded – to get a job and work at that same job at the same company for 40 years and then retire? Why is your worldview so conversative and closed to possibility?! I shake my head. You poor, oppressed white people!

    "What we say to white people is you have to leave your false innocence behind." <- I'm 32 years old. I grew up during Apartheid, but didn't directly benefit. I mean, aside from not having to be forced from the place I lived. Aside from being able to be educated in my home language. Aside from being able to go to the university of my choice and have my parents pay for my tuition. Aside from having every opportunity I had that wasn't denied me based on the colour of my skin.

    So yes, I benefitted from Apartheid. I am not innocent. I don't have to have the memory of the government arriving at my parent's house and physically handing over money for me to have come to this conclusion. It's some systemic thinking, mixed in with sociology and history. And whiteness studies.

    OK, that was longer than I meant to write. Hope this helps 🙂


  12. 27 September 2011 5:36 pm

    Eep! Replying to comments on this blog is like the opposite of dieting: the more I reply, the thinner my replies get! So this reply is to a higher comment thread…but fatter. If you know what I mean.

    We’re all against “explicit” racism – where blacks are obviously discriminated against, or called racist names. This is racism 1.0

    However, becoming a “white liberal” so at to transcend racism 1.0 puts us at risk of perpetuating racism, not explicitly, but implicitly. This is racism 2.0

    See this article:

    I know it’s long – longer than 140 characters – but a good read. Particularly the paragraph starting “Beyond Individual Bias: How Liberals and the Left Practice Racism”. He talks about 4 ways that liberals perpetuate racism. The first two are: a well-intended but destructive form of colorblindness; an equally destructive colormuteness.

    “These mean, quite literally, a tendency among many on the white liberal-left to neither see nor give voice to race and racism as central issues in our communities and the institutions where we operate, or their connection to and interrelationship with other issues. Both liberal/left colorblindness and colormuteness perpetuate the marginalization of people of color and their concerns, in the larger society and within progressive formations for social change.”

    Quoting liberally (haha):

    “By “liberal colorblindness” I am referring to a belief that although racial disparities are certainly real and troubling — and although they are indeed the result of discrimination and unequal opportunity — paying less attention to color or race is a progressive and open-minded way to combat those disparities.”

    “But in fact, colorblindness is exactly the opposite of what is needed to ensure justice and equity for persons of color. To be blind to color, as Julian Bond has noted, is to be blind to the consequences of color, “and especially the consequences of being the wrong color…”

    The problem with the concept of a “non-racial society” is that even though it’s a wonderful idea, it runs the (ironic) risk of perpetuating racism by pretending that we’re already “there” – in our non-racial utopia – and that race isn’t an overriding influence on society and injustice. Thus, white liberals need to do the hard work of examining ourselves, not so much for racism 1.0 but for racism 2.0. And if we’re honest, we discover that we’re too much a part of the systems that 2.0 propogates itself within to completely disconnect (i.e. it’s an unjust reversal of “ubuntu”: I’m privileged because others are not). Only now are we at a useful starting point to begin working with others on these issues.

    • 27 September 2011 6:39 pm


      We’re not already there, and I’ve never thought we were. But the solution propounded by the advocates of “Whiteness studies” sounds to me too much like “hair of the dog that bit you”. And I’m not sure that people like Joe Slovo or Jeremy Cronin are as racist as you claim — they being the first prominent people of the “white left” who come to mind.

      To avoid the limitations of blog commenting software, I suggest that we take the discussion here.

  13. 28 September 2011 10:14 am

    Ok, I might take you up on the chris_soc group…however, limited though blog comments are, they are public – so I might just hang around here for now 🙂

    I wasn’t equating “white liberals” with “racism 2.0” – I was just pointing out the risks. Becoming a white liberal is not the same thing as not being racist. I would’ve expected you to see that nuance 😉

    If we’re not “there”, how does ignoring issues of race by pretending they don’t exist and by not naming them, help us move closer to a solution? Not naming race doesn’t help us.

    Download this pdf written by a local scholar, Zimitri Erasmus, who has also written an (unpublished, unfortunately) paper called “Not naming race”. It’s a long paper, but start at page 22, at the section titled, “Forget about race.” It starts,

    “Race is used as a defence to protect privilege by those who regard mere recog- nition of it as an act of racism. This approach is generally referred to as colour-blindness. Goldberg (2004) helps one conceptualise colour-blind ways of working with race and their political implications. … In the process the political challenge to end racism and race thinking is reduced to being against every use of the concept of race, thus emptying this challenge of its substantive anti-racist political content. This, he argues, leaves residues of race thinking and racist order unaddressed.”

    I think the paragraph at the end of page 23 will be of interest to you.

    Then skip ahead to page 28: “Towards a different understanding of racism(s)”.

    “There is a more constructive way of working with race. It is premised on the acknowledgement that racialised scripts of reality and for behaviour are norms in our society rather than odd exceptions. Maré (2001) shows that such scripts underlie legal and bureaucratic attempts to achieve equity in South Africa. Davis (2003) shows that they underlie ways in which political parties mobilise citizens. The literature on xenophobia in South Africa highlights that such scripts permeate the social fabric. Bezuidenhout (2003) points out that the continued presence of race as a factor shaping disadvantage in South African everyday life is a reminder that the apartheid state and its politicians were not solely responsible for maintaining exclusionary practices based on race. Instead, ordinary South Africans reproduce these practices through simple everyday ways in which we work with our racialised identities and with race. So, although one cannot afford to be complicit, if not with overt racism but with race thinking, by virtue of one’s history as a member of this society one is likely to find oneself complicit with racism and/or race thinking.”

    “The time has come for citizens to ask themselves: What do I do to make a difference to the way in which race works in this country? And more importantly, what do I do to keep race working in more or less the same way as it always has?”

    • 29 September 2011 8:05 am


      I wasn’t equating “white liberals” with “racism 2.0″ – I was just pointing out the risks. Becoming a white liberal is not the same thing as not being racist. I would’ve expected you to see that nuance

      I’m afraid you’ve lost me there — I’m not sure what nuance you thought I didn’t see.

      You referred to an article by Tim Wise, and implied that it was relevant to South Africa, and I didn’t think it was. Wise dropped a lot of names and was weriting about someone like Glenn Beck and his relation to the left or something. It seemed pretty wildly at variance with the only thing I know about Glenn Beck, and that is that he apparently attacked Dorothy Day, who I suppose one could describe as “white” and “left”. and possibly, if you insist, as Tim Wise probably does, “white left”. See this: Notes from underground: Who is Glenn Beck?.

      I really don’t see much difference between Tim Wise’s Racism 1.0 and Racism 2.0.

      But there is Non-racialism 1.0 and Non-racialism 2.0.

      Non-racialism 1.0 was the dismantling of the structure of apartheid legislation and the establishment of a non-racial democratic constitution. That took place during the 1990s, and one could say that Non-racialism 1.0 is about 95% complete.

      Non-racialism 2.0 has barely begun.

      You sometimes hear white people complaining about people blaming things on apartheid, and saying apartheid ended 15 years ago so it’s no longer an excuse.

      And that is a bit like seeing a crippled guy slowly limping down the street and saying “Can’t you hurry up?” And he might say “I was knocked down by a car and my leg was broken.”

      And the first one replies, “Yes but that was 15 years ago, and the driver of the car who knocked you down was jailed for reckless driving, so don’t use that as an excuse.”

      The fact is that apartheid changed the face of the country, and destroyed a lot of things. Non-racialism 1.0 could stop the mechanism of destruction and dismantle it, but that did not undo the destruction that had already been done. It could not squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube. You can break a lot of things in 10 minutes, but mending them takes a lot longer. And that is Non-racialism 2.0.

      But there are also nuances there.

  14. 28 September 2011 11:44 pm

    In case you’d like a more formal definition of “whiteness studies” here are some paragraphs from chapter 6, “The ontology of whiteness” from Zeus Leonardo’s excellent “Race, whiteness and education.”

    “With whiteness studies, whiteness and white people come to the center in an unprecedented and unforeseen way. This is different from the centering that whiteness is usually afforded in Eurocentric cirricula and writing. Indeed it would be problematic to recenter whiteness as a point of reference for civilization, progress, and rationality in order to relegate people of color to the margins, once again. In whiteness studies, whiteness becomes the center of critique and transformation. …

    Whiteness studies is both a conceptual engagement and a racial strategy. Conceptually, it poses critical questions about the history, meaning, and ontological status of whiteness. For example, it contains an apparatus for the precise rendering of whiteness’ origin as a social category. In other words, whiteness is not coterminous with the notion that some people have lighter skin tones than others; rather whiteness, along with race, is the structural valuation of skin color, which invests it with meaning regarding the overall organization of society. In this sense, whiteness conceptually had to be invented and then reorganized in particular historical conditions as part of its upkeep.”

    Quoting Apple (1998):

    “[W]e must be on our guard to ensure that a focus on whiteness doesn’t become one more excuse to recenter dominant voices and to ignore the voices and testimony of those groups of people whose dreams, hopes, lives, and very bodies are shattered by current relations of exploitation and domination (p. xi).”

    “As a privileged marker, whiteness assumed that the lives of people of color depended on white progress and enlightenment, whereas a heliocentric critical theory puts whiteness in its rightful place in racial cosmology, as largely dependent and parasitic on the labor and identity of people of color. By recentering whiteness here, we counteract what may be dubbed the superstitious beliefs in the rightness of whiteness and institute a more scientific explanation of how the social universe actually functions. In other words, if critical studies of race recenter whiteness, it does not do so in order to valorize or pedestalize it. Quite the opposite. A critical study of whiteness puts the social heavens back in order.

    The rearticulation of whiteness is part of an overall emancipatory project that implicates a host of institutions from economic to educational. Discursive interventions in education to transform whiteness attempt to explain the whiteness of pedagogy as they encourage a pedagogy of whiteness. That is, shifting the white racial project from one of dominance to one of justice requires a pedagogical process of unlearning the codes of what it currently means to be white and rescuing its redeeming aspects. … In the dialectics of whiteness, whites search for positive articulations in history as well as facing up to the contradictions of what it means to be anti-racist in a racist society. Seen this way, the current formulations of whiteness are racist, but whiteness itself is not inherently racist. Being white is not the problem; being a white racist is.

    Dislodged from the hopelessness and helplessness of having to consider oneself as simply privileged (therefore racist), white students’ humanity is affirmed as the ability to choose justice over domination. Here, [race] abolitionists may agree that whiteness is a choice, at least with respect to the kind of white person one chooses to uphold.”

  15. 29 September 2011 9:17 am

    Steve, I’m not sure if this discussion is going anywhere, and I’m not sure whether this comment can help the conversation, but let me try.
    Melissa Steyn’s Whiteness Just Isn’t What It Used To Be, a 2001 book, based on her Doctoral research from the late 1990’s would probably be a very good place to start the discussion.
    First: she is South African, so we can leave all this “it’s not relevant because it’s American” business out of the conversation.
    Second: Her research was on identifying white narratives in a post-Apartheid South Africa (the narratives which white people use to make sense of living in a post-Apartheid South Africa). She attempted to identify what in which white people seek to keep their privileged position in place, partly through the way in which we speak about ourselves. She also pointed to ways in which white people are going beyond and finding new identities which does not assume a privileged position.
    Her approach would be a classic example of “whiteness studies” (more than Samantha Vice for example, who, if I remember correctly, actually stated explicitly that she doesn’t think an approach such as whiteness studies is appropriate, although she drew heavily on sources which would have differed from her on that point, Steyn being among them).
    Now the question is: Is an approach such as that of Steyn legitimate? Forget the name. Should we study the unique ways that white people seek to keep their privileged position in place or not? There is problems to this, as I admitted in the stuff which you used to try and portray whiteness studies as illegitimate, and always this should remain part of a broader approach to anti-racism (Steve Garner argues quite convincingly for this in his Whiteness: An Introduction).
    What I hear from you, and correct me if I’m wrong, is that approaches which continue to use modern racial constructs to identify groups of people are inherently wrong, maybe even racist. This would make an approach such as that of Steyn deeply problematic. DO I understand you correctly? If I do, I differ from you, but at least then we know where to begin making sense of the debate.

    • 30 September 2011 6:01 am


      I find it difficult to put my finger on exactly what i find “wrong” with it. I am unfamiliar with Steyn’s work, so I’m not in a position to evaluate it. I don’t see anything wrong with studying white people’s narratives about living in a post-apartheid South Africa. White racism is clearly a continuing problem. Yesterday we went for a ride on the Gautrain and before that I looked at some of the web pages relating to it, and a lot of the comments were racist ones from white people. I’ve been following Usenet newsgroups for 20 years, and in all that time most of the articles about South Africa or by South Africans have been from racist whites, many of whom would deny that they are racist. So I think such a phenomenon deserves to be studied. Such people are a very vocal minority, but why are they so vocal and why are the majority so silent? It could be useful to know.

      What I find “wrong” with such research is not that it is done, but the implication that those who do such studies believe that in doing them they can discover, or have discovered some kind of mythical essence that they call “whiteness”, or, even worse, that they start with an a priori theory of “whiteness” and then skew their research in such a way as to support it.

      I’ll go back to my narratives. When I was a student at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg one of my fellow students was an Indian. He had to get special permission from the Minister to study at a “white” university, because there was no other university where he could study theology. He later became an Anglican priest. Another (white) friend and I had lunch with him one Sunday and spent the afternoon with him, and were walking to the evening service at church, and passed a drunk white tramp sleeping on a park bench. And as we passed him our Indian friend said, “There’s a voter.”

      At the time I thought it was a pretty good comment on a society obsessed with the notion of a mystical and mythical essence of “whiteness”, and I still do.

  16. 30 September 2011 11:33 am

    Steve, any good introduction on whiteness studies will from the outset reject any approach claiming some kind of essentialist racial categories, or a kind of “mystical and mythical essence of whiteness”. It does however argue that the racial constructs handed over from the colonial era, and especially the enlightenment and beyond, continue to plague us today, and that white people were racialized in certain ways which need to be uncovered and understood. It also argues that these racial categories has created certain privileges, and suspects (with good evidence according to me) that they continue to create privileges today. If you find those who are obsessed with some kind of essential whiteness, point these instances out, because that would be greatly problematic to the entire approach.

    • 3 October 2011 3:29 am


      I think we’re now going round in circles, and have got back where we started. To me the very word “whiteness” (as applied to “race”, rather than, say, detergent ads) is an essentialist racial category. If they reject that approach, why do they use the word?

      I’ve tried to think about and articulate why it doesn’t make much sense to me, but your situation is different and the people you come into contact with are different from the people I come into contact with, so if it floats your boat, that’s fine. But I don’t think i want to spend any more time on it.

  17. 3 October 2011 3:21 pm

    Ok, I’m going to start wrapping up my contributions here.

    Steve, I’m glad you’ve looked into whiteness. I think your “broken leg” metaphor and “toothpaste” metaphor are brilliant – I’m going to borrow them, if you don’t mind 🙂

    If you can’t tell the difference between Wise’s racism 1.0 and racism 2.0, then I suggest you re-read his article, as the distinction is imperative to having a quality race discussion, and not just staying at the (rather shallow) level of overt racism. I sent you that article not because of any impact Glen Back is having on South African life, but because it’s a good example of how white liberalism can be still be racist in its desire to pursue social justice. That risk is very worrying, and I wish more liberals were aware of it. THAT risk is very relevant to South Africa, regardless of what you think of the applicability of the rest of the article.

    The nuance I expected you to see what this: “Becoming a white liberal is not the same thing as not being racist.” I gave a generalization; you said my generalization didn’t hold because of a few individuals that come to mind (Jeremy Cronin, etc). Well, that just guarantees we’re going to miss each other for the rest of the conversation, because you responded at a different level. Either most white liberals are like Cronin, or Cronin is the exception that proves the rule. Giving Cronin as a counter-example doesn’t push the argument either way; it just show that Cronin, perhaps, gets it right.

    The DA is a good example of liberalism, in that it wants to stop talking about race at every level. This is a perfect example of liberal colourblindness, when in their desire to overcome race, they pretend that it doesn’t exist and doesn’t have real consequences. This is why liberalism can be unjust, ironically at the very point when it’s claiming to fight for social justice.

    The other end of the scale is some elements within the ANC, who blame everything on race (and aren’t interested in taking responsibility). I’m interested in the creative middle ground between the two.

    Your “non-racialism 1.0” and “non-racialism 2.0” is a nice way of making distinctions; the former being the abolishment of Apartheid and the latter being “ok, what now?” What worries me is that you seem to be equating the dismantling of Apartheid to the end of racial injustice; that the playing fields are now equal, and the previously disadvantaged now have all the opportunity in the world. Your emphasis in 2.0 is restitution, as if oppression has ended, and now all we have to do is to find a way of sharing wealth equitably.

    See the article I quoted above: “…racialised scripts of reality and for behaviour are norms in our society rather than odd exceptions.” So, given that these racialized scripts are still the norm, I’d much rather have the emphasis of “non-racialism 2.0” on examining the structural ways that racism still persists, every day.

    I’m disappointed that you think that whiteness studies will only bear any fruit when looking at obviously racist individuals, like the ones you mention in online forums. Relegating racism to such individuals absolves the rest of society from having to do any race work, because we can point at the obvious few and say, “Those people over there are racist; how terrible,” and then think that we have already arrived, and that we have no work to do. Especially those of us who are white and privileged, and especially those of us who are concerned about social justice and have black friends (giving a hat tip here to Wise’s section on white liberals having black friends – relevant, again, to South Africa).

    I liked your story of the Indian friend who studied in Maritzburg. I haven’t a clue what the moral of that story is, probably because I don’t understand the background to “There’s a voter.” Sorry!

    You didn’t respond to any of the more formal definitions of whiteness which I reproduced here. For you, any study of whiteness is problematic because it either has an a priori bias, or it’s going to essentialize some mythical quality. And so you fall into the trap of liberal colourblindness, choosing to not name race rather than grappling with the complexity, which you’re quite right about, btw. The story doesn’t end there, however.

    Many others share similar sentiments to you (like the DA). In closing, here’s a story from the Erasmus article, page 23:

    “Members of the general public often express similar sentiments. For example, in response to Michelle Booth’s attempt to problematise whiteness in her recent photographic exhibition entitled ‘Seeing White’, one observer’s comment sums up 20 per cent of responses to the Cape Town leg of the exhibition. She identifies herself as white. In the visitors’ book at the exhibition she writes to the artist:

    ‘I fear you have fallen into a trap of racism yourself. Why demerit a group of people based on their skin colour? Surely this is not moving forward (which we are supposedly all working so hard to achieve) but returning to past discriminations and the society we have tried to abolish? … You appear to want to lay guilt on every white S[outh] African without realising this means regression and not progress. And here I was thinking the new SA stood for equality.’

    For this observer, naming the importance of race (in this case whiteness) is in itself an act of racism. Race is reduced to skin colour with little awareness of the hierarchies of power and privilege within structures of racial meaning. Furthermore, for her, naming race marks a return to a past that should be abol- ished in favour of equality. For her, moving forward means forgetting about race and apartheid while remembering race and the real effects of apartheid amounts to regression.

    One of the limits of this way of working with race is that it leaves racialised inequalities untouched. Furthermore, it suggests a complete rupture with the past and fails to deal with racial divisions, antagonisms and exclusions shaped by this past. While colour-blindness loudly resists every use of the concept, it silently reserves the right to continue using race as a defence to protect privilege.”

    • 4 October 2011 5:44 am


      As I’ve said before, blog comments are a rather limited means of conducting a conversation, and the points you raise need to be dealt with seriatim, which blog commenting software is not designed to do.

      But I will try to deal with some of the points.

      You have accused me of missing nuances, but I think you have missed a whole bunch of them too.

      Jeremy Cronin is hardly an example of a “white liberal”. The Wise article spoke of the “white left”, and Cronin is an example of that. You speak of one example not affecting the generalization, but unless you can bring up concrete examples of the “white left” in South Africa to whom Wise’s generalisations apply, then I think you have failed to show how his American generalisations apply to South Africa.

      I do not regard the DA as liberal. In the 1999 election the DP made a shameless appeal to the white right, with its “fight back” campaign (fight back against what? the only obvious thing they were fighting back against was non-racial democracy) and shortly thereafter it amalgamated with the NNP to form the DA, which represented the very white right that the DP had appealed to in its campaign, and was the fruit of its campaign. It was anything but “colourblind”. And in order to do so it introduced the highly illiberal practice of floor crossing. It may have changed some of its rhetoric since Tony Leon ceased to be the leader, but while its support base remains the same, I won’t regard it as liberal.

      You speak of “becoming a white liberal”, and “white liberalism”, and to me those are quite nonsensical phrases. Peter Brown was a white liberal, in that he was a liberal who happened to be white. But he was an exponent of liberalism, not “white liberalism” (whatever that may be). You can become a liberal if you decide that liberalism is a better political ideal than, say, fascism. But how do you become white if you are something other than white?

  18. 3 October 2011 11:31 pm

    I think we’re going around in circles, so let me also wrap things up. There is obviously an easy way to find an answer to the question on why the word “whiteness” is used when any notion of “essential whiteness” is constantly explicitly rejected… but OK, we’ve been down this road, and you’re not going to start reading books on whiteness, so that’s just fine.

    Maybe I come into contact with different people, and obviously I approach questions of racism coming from a different time, so maybe it should be assumed that we will connect with different ideas, I mean, exactly because we don’t work with essential whiteness of blackness, anti-racism isn’t going to take on one constant form.

    • 5 October 2011 12:58 pm


      I’ve found one of the books you’ve referred to, and perhaps I’ll write a review when I’ve finished it. I do think we should continue to talk about these things, but I don’t think that “whiteness studies” is the only, or the best framework for doing so. Perhaps reading the book will help to clarify my thoughts on that, perhaps not.

      • 5 October 2011 4:08 pm

        I think that “whiteness studies” (or, “Critical Race Theory”) is one useful framework, to be used alongside other frameworks. I find the Integral Model very useful, as a way of putting it all together, as well as Systemic Thinking and post-colonial studies. I use N.T. Wright’s 5th Act Hermeneutic as my guiding theological lens, Richard Rohr’s 2 halves of life for, wisdom, I guess? Deconstruction is helpful, as is Derrida’s “religion without religion” and the thinking on a faith “beyond belief”. Experientially, Pete Rollin’s “incarnational a/theism” comes closest to my experience of God.

        And there are more! But this is a good start 🙂

        • 5 October 2011 11:19 pm

          For instance, we could use many frameworks to evaluate this short complaint:

          We can use Systemic Thinking to understand what systems both customer and cashier live within. We can use Perceptual Positions (a model from NLP which gives a specific method to “walking a mile in another’s shoes) to take on the positions of both people.

          We can use gender and generational theory to understand more of what’s going on here. And we’d better use race too, because “Sue Richardson” is almost certainly a particular colour, and the cashier is almost certainly a different colour and culture. One of them is privileged; one of them got up at 5am to travel 2 hours from an informal settlement to work a 12 hour shift with hardly much of a break, serving people all day who have more money than her.

          Who has the power in this transaction? Who has the agency to greet the other, especially when one of them is wearing a name badge? Who stands there and expects her items to be packed by another person for her? Why does the privileged person expect the other to do all the hard work? Why not take the initiative, and chat a bit? I’ll often smile and ask, “How are you?” and ask when their shift ends, and what time they started work. This has started to open my eyes to an entire world, because in the world of privilege I live in, similarly privileged people don’t consider a career as a cashier, and hence have no idea what it involves.

          And yet here’s a white lady who’s miffed because she’s not made to feel special for paying for her groceries, while she’s standing there waiting for someone else to pack her bags. She doesn’t greet first, or even second, doesn’t put herself in the other’s shoes, doesn’t make polite small talk, doesn’t enter the other’s world, doesn’t even try to conceptualize what that world might be like. She’s the one in the position of privilege and power, yet she’s complaining like she’s some poor powerless, discriminated-against woman who has it really tough.

          And this isn’t the isolated experience of one individual, either: cashiers (and petrol attendants) in SA are not white, and have many experiences every day with white people such as Mz Richardson (take a look at the impatient way white people wait in line and expect to be attended to, compared to non-white people). Add those experiences up, and it becomes a pattern, a systemic symptom of…what, exactly?

          One word: whiteness.

  19. 6 October 2011 6:10 am


    And you can evaluate this with one word: whiteness?

  20. 12 October 2011 11:16 am

    There is always the possibility that no matter how advanced we think we are, we’re wrapped up in larger systems of oppression that are invisible to us at the time. Only later generations are able to look back and wonder – with amazement – just what was going on.

    For instance, Steve quoted Chesterton in a later post to this current one. I like Chesterton. He was also wrapped up in colonial thinking, and called South Africa “disgusting”. Imagine that! In his introduction to “Orthodoxy” he writes:

    “What could be better than to have all the fun of discovering South Africa without the disgusting necessity of landing there?”

    Um…”discovering” South Africa? “Disgusting”? What is so obvious to us now wasn’t to him, even if he was writing tongue-in-cheek.


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