Whiteness, whiteliness and White Studies
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.