White South Africans don’t just have an unexamined sense of entitlement, but also an embedded sense of superiority, writes Eusebius McKaiser in IOL:
What, black people, do you want from whites? To leave the country, to be denied jobs or never be promoted again? Share or give up their assets?
It’s a serious and popular set of questions many white South Africans often raise, or ask themselves but might not raise openly. And so it’s actually worth engaging the issues.
There are several problems with this set of questions.
The very framing of these questions lets white South Africans off the moral hook too easily.
These questions place the burden for thinking about the place and role of white South Africans in post-apartheid South Africa on black South Africans.
That’s like asking victims of violence against women, “What do you want men to do differently?!”
That kind of question is music to the misogynist guy’s ears. He can go fishing, and respond to the feminist critique of gender injustices by demanding that they call him when they’ve figured out what the heck they want him “to do”.
Unless and until they send him a “concrete” list of demands, he can chill and go about his unthinking male ways as usual. After all, he’s not sure what women want from him!
This, of course, is rubbish. Dangerous rubbish. The first observation to be made is that the history of oppression is not only about the material consequences of oppression. Of course colonialism and apartheid resulted in black life being materially worse off than white life. That’s still the case.
It’s right in focusing questions on the material conditions which we want to change. In that sense, we cannot as a country avoid asking, indeed, what needs to be done, practically.
But oppression, and its ongoing legacy, has many more features which this lazy demand of “what must I do?!” hides.
Focus for a minute on the psychological and moral impact anti-black racism had on whites. You’d be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of white South Africans who think of themselves as being as capable of excellence, or less capable of excellence, than black South Africans. Most regard themselves as more capable of excelling at anything.
This is in part why so many white South Africans who don’t get their desired job are shocked when that happens (and we’re talking about a thin minority among whites compared to unemployment in the rest of the population). The shock doesn’t just reflect an unexamined sense of entitlement. It also reflects an embedded, internalised sense of superiority that gets shaken in the face of a black candidate succeeding where you didn’t.
At this point, confirmation bias sets in: I didn’t get the job because I’m white; he got the job only because of affirmative action; whites have it worse in the job market than blacks; young white graduates are treated badly in democratic South Africa; etc.
Isn’t it remarkable that these thoughts are expressed not only by a racist Afrikaans oke in khaki shorts on the outskirts of Ventersdorp, but also by self-identifying progressive English whites who often fancy themselves more morally conscious than the average Beeld reader?
There is sheer arrogance involved here on the part of the white South African who can’t make sense of his or her failure without sustaining a secret belief that they are intrinsically more capable than blacks. You can only lament and be shocked by fewer job offers or promotions in the job sector if you think you deserve these more than blacks.
Nothing innocent anchors such shock and disappointment. A sense of superiority, left over from apartheid, fuels this misplaced sense of being democracy’s victim. If you conceived of the possibility you might not be the best, other responses to failure beyond shock will open up. Apartheid’s beneficiaries aren’t yet in that head-space.
This shows the psychological and moral work whites still need to do. And that’s why soem questions are so irritating. They reduce the discussion of racism’s reach to a simple transactional conversation.
Giving me your house, as a white South African, doesn’t tell me anything about your psyche. It doesn’t tell me whether you understand that past discrimination, not genetic superiority or sheer effort, explains why you’re materially better off than me and my family.
This is why the project of undoing the legacy of apartheid must address all these lingering dark truths. This in turn requires white South Africans to do much more work, a lot of it not related to policy questions about redress.
You can’t restore moral parity between whites and blacks with a cheque handed over by each white person for the material benefit of blacks.
Similarly, gender discrimination in the corporate sector, for example, cannot be adequately eliminated and addressed if men only agreed to equal pay, or reserving job spots for women, etc. Those matter, for sure. I wouldn’t oppose these interventions.
But gender equality requires deeper work. Attitudes and behaviour that exemplify the false beliefs men hold about their intrinsic superiority over women need to be addressed and corrected. If you don’t, discrimination will simply pop up in new forms beyond questions of, say, wage equality or job reservation.
More importantly, approaching the quest for gender equality as a narrow, material project simply reveals an inadequate understanding of misogyny’s full character.
The project of addressing anti-black racism’s many manifestations is equally complex, and not neatly reducible to a transactional demand.
The final point to make is that racism is about the relationship between members of different groups, even if those groups are social and political constructions. This relational element should be obvious, yet we forget about it very often. It doesn’t just take two to tango; it takes two for racism to even be possible.
By asking blacks what they want from whites you focus on one party in that stinking relationship.
If the very core of racism is about a morally warped interaction between parties, then the project of undoing that harm must be relational too.
You can’t ask the bully to do no work, to go play outside and call him in after you’ve got an answer from the victim about what she wants from the bully. Then you’ve misdiagnosed the exact nature of the wrong you’re trying to correct.
Sure, the victim may unhelpfully play along and demand concrete things – like land – but then be clear about one certainty: this will at most give you an outcome that soothes the sense of injustice of victims.
You will have failed to deal with the full might of the evil that had been experienced, leaving both the victim and the bully deeply wounded still.
The victim will remain haunted by a sense of inferiority. The arrogant bully will remain, well, bullish.
So next time a white person asks “What do you want me to do?”, tell him or her they’re asking the wrong question. They should start with reflection on the psychological and moral stains on their whiteness.
PS: I deliberately don’t qualify “white” and “black” with words like “most” or “some” here. Why? Some truths are black and white. Such qualifications allow those with most work to do to pretend they are exceptional. Let’s stop the denial by recognising reality.
Exceptions don’t change ugly patterns. We have work to do, including progressive whites helping out those whites who are blinded by their whiteness.
Stop asking blacks what you should do. That’s objectionably lazy.