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Whiteness Studies, Black Consciousness and non-racialism

23 September 2011

I only learnt about “Whiteness Studies” a few days ago. Having overcome, to some extent, my initial revulsion towards the name, I thought I’d try to find out a bit more about it. So I used Web search engines to see what I could find.
And the first thing I find is Washington Post Article on Whiteness Class/Whiteness Studies:

Advocates of whiteness studies — most of whom are white liberals who hope to dismantle notions of race — believe that white Americans are so accustomed to being part of a privileged majority they do not see themselves as part of a race.

“Historically, it has been common to see whites as a people who don’t have a race, to see racial identity as something others have,” said Howard Winant, a white professor of sociology at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a strong proponent of whiteness studies. “It’s a great advance to start looking at whiteness as a group.”

There are several things to quibble about right there.

In my previous post I tried to understand why I reacted so negatively to the name of the thing.

But reading that makes me react negatively towards the thing itself.

For one thing, it seems that it has been concocted by “white liberals”, and, in South Africa, at least “white liberal” is well on its way to being the ultimate insult, and the ultimate negative stereotype. See here, and here, and here.

But by far the bigger problem is that this idea was concocted by Americans.

“Historically, it has been common to see whites as a people who don’t have a race, to see racial identity as something others have,” said Howard Winant.

That may be true in America, but, historically, it is not true in South Africa. The very foundation of the apartheid ideology was that white people should cling to whiteness and see it as the most important thing about them. The education system was geared to inculcating race consciousness. The whole ordering of society was predicated on that, and it was difficult to get away from it. Actually, I am not even sure if it was true in America, though my perceptions of American society in this respect has been shaped by films like To kill a mocking bird and In the heat of the night. But there do seem to have been some parts of America where it was not true, historically. But the significant point here is not whether it is true or not, but that the proponents of “whiteness studies” think that it is true.

And then the American understanding of “white liberals” probably differs from the South African one, and even the South African caricatures are different.

Steve Biko’s critique of the role of white liberals and non-racialism in South Africa is somewhat different too — see White Skins, Black Souls? – Highly recommended critique of white liberals – Steve Biko | Straight Talk:

The role of the white liberal in the black man’s history in South Africa is a curious one. Very few black organisations were not under white direction. True to their image, the white liberals always knew what was good for the blacks and told them so. The wonder of it all is that the black people have believed in them for so long. It was only at the end of the 50s that the blacks started demanding to be their own guardians.

Nowhere is the arrogance of the liberal ideology demonstrated so well as in their insistence that the problems of the country can only be solved by a bilateral approach involving both black and white. This has, by and large, come to be taken in all seriousness as the modus operandi in South Africa by all those who claim they would like a change in the status quo. Hence the multiracial political organisations and parties and the “nonracial” student organisations, all of which insist on integration not only as an end goal but also as a means.

The integration they talk about is first of all artificial in that it is a response to conscious manoeuvre rather than to the dictates of the inner soul. In other words the people forming the integrated complex have been extracted from various segregated societies with their in-built complexes of superiority and inferiority and these continue to manifest themselves even in the “nonracial” set-up of the integrated complex. As a result the integration so achieved is a one-way course, with the whites doing all the talking and the blacks the listening. Let me hasten to say that I am not claiming that segregation is necessarily the natural order; however, given the facts of the situation where a group experiences privilege at the expense of others, then it becomes obvious that a hastily arranged integration cannot be the solution to the problem.

I think there was a lot of truth in what Biko said there, but it was also a partial truth. I believe that Biko was speaking in the context of student politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And that was complex, and had reached a unique stage. The Extension of University Education Act had been passed in 1959, which removed most of the black students from the previously “open” universities (which hadn’t been all that open anyway). The National Union of South African Students (Nusas) aimed to represent all students in South African universities, but the Afrikanerstudentebond (ASB) dominated the Afrikaans-speaking campuses, on which Nusas had only a tiny membership, if it was not prohibited altogether. During the 1960s the number of students at the segregated tribal colleges grew enormously, which meant that Nusas flourished only on the increasingly-white English-speaking campuses, like Wits, Cape Town, Rhodes and Natal, and most of its leaders were entirely out of touch with the situation on the black campuses, where most of the staff had been formed in the more authoritarian culture of the Afrikaans universities, and so staff and students were increasingly polarised into opposing camps. Where students from the different campuses came together, as at Nusas congresses and conferences, the white students spoke with the freedom of speech they were accustomed to on their campuses, and most of what they said was entirely irrelevant to the conditions experienced by black students on their campuses. And the result was as Biko described.

But before knocking liberalism too much, consider this.

The white English-speaking campuses were not exactly hotbeds of liberalism. True liberals were a small, if sometimes vocal minority. But the universities did have something of a liberal tradition, and were less authoritarian than the Afrikaans-speaking campuses. Students did have more say. On one occasion the SRC of Pottchefstroom University visited Natal University in Pietermaritzburg, and were amazed to discover that the SRC actually controlled the Student Union building where they were meeting, with its cafeteria, hall, meeting rooms and and offices. Student organisations that wanted to hold meetings in the Union approached the SRC to book a venue. In Potchefstroom such a thing was unthinkable in the 1960s (it may be different now). Anyone who wanted to hold a meeting on campus had to have permission from the Rector’s office, and the people in the Rector’s office would want to be sure that the meetings would be politically and ideologically correct (eg no criticism of apartheid, in education or enywhere else).

Most of the black universities, the “tribal colleges”, as they were called, were authoritarian from the start, and so the students who went to them knew nothing else. They did not have Vice-Chancellors, they had Rectors, whose job, as the name implies, was to rule the students and punish the unruly. And in most, instead of treating the students like young adults, the Rector behaved more like the headmaster of an infant school.

The exception to this was Fort Hare, which had originally been a satellite campus of Rhodes University in Grahamstown, segregatecd, but with something of a more liberal tradition. After the university apartheid act, it too switched to the authoritarian model, and also switched to being a tribal college for Xhosa-speaking students. But though the senior staff changed from the liberal to the authoritarian model, the students did not, and generations of students at Fort Hare maintained the liberal tradition, and there were always more student protests there than at other black universities. At least, so Fort Hare students told me in the 1960s. It wasn’t white liberals, but black liberals who passed on the liberal tradition.

From about 1970 to 1990 the Black Consciousness ideology propounded by Steve Biko dominated black student discourse. And then came the unbanning of the ANC, and the ANC-backed non-racial ideology came to the fore again. Some people look back rather nostalgically to those days, for example Writing Africa – Tinyiko Sam Maluleke’s Blog: Of Liberation and Destructive Ideologies of Struggle Heroism:

One of the greatest liberation heritages of our country, for example, is the Black Consciousness (BC) philosophy. In a context where our grid of criteria for contribution to liberation is the political party and the famous prison-decorated-individual-cum-military-commander, we may miss just how phenomenal Black Consciousness has been for this country. In a context where we are looking for blood-soaked mass events of the “skop-skiet-en-donder” type, as the only milestones in the road to liberation, the more enduring intellectual, psychological and political role of BC can be missed. We all know that the man deserves more recognition than has been given since the advent of democracy, but by BC I mean more than Steve Biko. Nor am I speaking of Azapo or the Black Consciousness Movement — mere political parties which tried to capture (that horrible word again!) the spirit of Black Consciousness.

And some would like Black Consciousness to return: Daily Maverick :: Bring back black consciousness, killed by ‘non-racialism’:

The fact is the reasons for founding a black consciousness movement have not gone away. Political freedom has been achieved, but Steve Biko spoke of a need, essentially, for black people to define for themselves how the struggle was to be fought. He recognised that the struggle could not be spearheaded by white people, no matter how well-intentioned, simply because they didn’t really know what being disenfranchised meant (for a fuller discussion on the roots of Black Consciousness, refer to an earlier column of mine: Black Man, You Are Still Very Alone).

The habit of well-meaning, but ultimately harmful liberals to try to direct the struggle for black people has survived today in the form of efforts to move past race, as if apartheid and all its effects were wiped out in 1994.

“Black consciousness” is still necessary. Black people still need to shape a post-apartheid identity, away from the attentions of those who would seek to capture such discussions for their own ends.

I have a few quibbles with that too. While he doesn’t actually use the term “white liberals”, there is a kind of assumption that “liberals” are one thing, and “black people” another. For me that has echoes of the the Broederbond’s definition of an Afrikaner as someone who was (1) white and Afrikaans speaking, (2) a supporter of the National Party and (3) a member of one of the three Dutch Reformed Churches.

He also sets “Black Consciousness” and “non-racialism” in opposition to each other. Now from reading his other writings, I don’t think he is a racist, but I still think he is comparing two fundamentally different things. Non-racialism is not really an ideology.

To understand this, perhaps one needs to go back to the 1950s, when white people generally had a monopoly of political power in Southern Africa. Some white people thought this must change, but gradually. White people who had political power would give a little bit of power to black people, and then a little bit more after a generation or two. Eventually, after maybe a thousand years or so, black people and white people might have equal power in society. That was multiracialism. It was exemplified by the Central African Federation, led by Roy Welenski of the then Northern Rhodesia. He spoke of a racial partnership between black and white, which he likened to the partnership between a horse and rider. So there would be a multiracial parliament, with black members elected by black voters, and white members elected by wehite voters, but even though it could be seen that in the distant future equality might be reached, with equal numbers of black and white MPs, the thought that it could go beyond equality, to “black majority rule” was quite unacceptable to multiracialists.

Non-racialism was the idea of equal representation not of racial groups voting separately, but that everyone should be free to vote for anyone, regardless of race, and that race should not count for anything in political representation or political or civil rights. Non-racialism is not really an ideology, or a philosophy, or a psychological outlook. You could think of yourself as white or black or something else, and it could be of great or little or no importance to you, just as long as you didn’t think it gave you more political rights than someone of a different race.

Under the previous regime I was classified as “white” (but I never asked to be — they told me to be). I was also a card-carrying member of the Liberal Party. That made me a “white liberal”, or a “White Liberal” if you prefer. But in the term “white liberal” the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and while I acknowledge the separate parts, I don’t accept the whole.

The Liberal Party policy was non-racial democracy, and you can read about it here. And you can note that it also made provision for what is now called “affirmative action”. But it was a political policy for the ordering of society, and not an ideology, worldview or religion. The Liberal Party had members of many different religions and ethnic backgrounds. They were black, white, coloured, Indian. They were Christian, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, atheists, agnostics and lots of other things besides. Each had their own religious or irreligious or humanist or ideological reasons for belonging and supporting the policy.

In my case, my reasons for supporting the Liberal Party and its policies were primarily theological.

I believed in “one man one vote” because I believed that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and therefore nobody was better equipped to rule than anyone else.

I believe that God loves all men (male and female, for those who want to pick that particular nit) and that he has no favourites based on race, language, colour or culture. I believe that racism is worse than a heresy and is a false gospel, so that if I detect any traces of it in myself, I must by all means seek to get rid of it. The reasons for this are well expressed by A Message to the people of South Africa, which says, among other things:

Many of our people believe that their primary loyalty must be to their group or tradition or political doctrine, and that this is how their faithfulness will be judged. But this is not how God judges us. Indeed, this kind of belief is a direct threat to the true salvation of many people, for it comes as an attractive substitute for the claims of Jesus. It encourages a loyalty expressed in self-assertion: it offers a way of salvation with no cross. But God judges us, not by our faithfulness to a sectional group but by our willingness to be made new in the community of Christ. We believe that we are under an obligation to state that our country and Church are under God’s judgement, and that Christ is inevitably a threat to much that is called ‘the South African way of life’. We must ask ourselves what features of our social order will have to pass away if the lordship of Christ is to be fully acknowledged and if the peace of God is to be revealed as the destroyer of our fear.

I believed that when it was first published back in 1968, which was why, though I could understand the reasons for the development of Black Consciousness, I could never regard it as a permanent thing or an ultimate good. And I regard “whiteness studies” as not even of temporary use. We really shouldn’t be looking for or clinging to a racial or ethnic identity. The problem in America might be people thinking that they don’t have a racial identity when they do. In South Africa I think the problem is that many people have an exaggerated sense racial identity which needs to be pruned.

I believe that the Message to the People of South Africa, or rather the theological thought behind it, is just as important today, when many of my fellow Christians still “believe that their primary loyalty must be to their group or tradition or political doctrine, and that this is how their faithfulness will be judged”, only now the group is more likely to be Greeks or Serbs or Russians or Romanians or Bulgarians, though recent outbursts of xenophobia shows that it still applies in other senses as well. But I can walk into a church in my own country, in South Africa, and many people will still regard me as a xenos.

The Message to the People of South Africa is not an old-fashioned historical document. It applies just as much today.

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