Quote of the week

I would tentatively suggest that we are witnessing the first signs that the category of the transsexual might one day, as the ultimate act of emancipation, abolish itself. In ‘Women’s Time’ (1981), Julia Kristeva argued that feminists, and indeed the whole world, would enter a third stage in relation to sexual difference: after the demand for equal rights and then the celebration of femininity as other than the norm, a time will come when the distinction between woman and man will finally disappear, a metaphysical relic of a bygone age.

Jacqueline Rose
London Review of Books
27 June 2011

On being white and feeling ashamed

Should white people in South Africa feel ashamed about being white and about the fact that we benefited in the past because of our white skins and continue to benefit from our whiteness – even if we were born after the end of apartheid? Should white South Africans do more than acknowledge the wrongs of the past and its lingering effects and withdraw from public debate to signal our humility and shame?

In a provocative article published on Saturday in Die Burger Eusebius McKaiser, with reference to the academic work of philosopher Samantha Vice, engages with these complicated and challenging issues.

McKaiser argues – quite correctly, it seems to me – that the dominance of whiteness as an idea and as a social reality embodied with immense power (and the exploitation that is associated with this whiteness) is not something that we can claim to be past us. We are not colour blind in the new South Africa, nor can any of us be colour blind – even if we tried or even if we claimed never to see a person’s race. We still live our race and benefit from it – especially if we are white.  As McKaiser states:

One of Samantha [Vice’s] significant observations is that white South Africans have unknowingly become used to an uncritical way of living in their white skins; which means they cannot even acknowledge that being white is still equated with social capital. Just like a sexist black man or a homophobic white woman may never accept that they benefited from patriarchy or heteronormativity, few white people make the effort to acknowledge that certain benefits are still wrapped up in being white. Some would even have the audacity to claim that they are the victims, the new “blacks”, of South Africa.

They will argue that the system has changed because St John’s College in Houghton now has a black head boy, new BMW’s mostly belong to black professionals and these days some people are even the victims of anti-white racism. But when the cold hard facts around poverty, inequality and unemployment are looked at from the vantage point of race, this emphasises Samantha’s honest opinion: whiteness still represents unfair advantage in the post apartheid South Africa. Whiteness is still the social norm, is still in fashion.

For McKaiser and for Samantha Vice an appropriate way for white people to deal with this reality of past and ongoing white dominance and exploitation is to feel ashamed. However, McKaiser disagrees with Vice about her contention that white people should therefore withdraw from the public space. He contends that it is the responsibility of everyone to engage as equals in the public debate. Surely, he argues, black people do not need to be protected from the opinions of white people?

Personally, while I fully endorse the analysis by the two authors about the dominance of whiteness and the ongoing benefits and privileges bestowed on all of us who happen to be white because we are white, I find the language of “shame” highly problematic.

The term “shame” – like the term “guilt” – sounds rather biblical in nature. One feels guilty and ashamed if one has sinned in the eyes of God. One then asks for forgiveness and is forgiven by God but one avoids repeating the sin because one feels ashamed at what one has done. Shame turns us into passive bystanders in our own lives and to some extent, absolve us from broader responsibility for our actions and for who we are and how we have lived and continue to live in this world and in this country of ours. 

Shame does not allow us to take responsibility for our actions in a concrete manner and to take action to deal with the injustices we find all around us. Instead, shame paralyses us and delivers us into the hands of God or some such deity who might, in time, help us to carry our burden of shame just like Jesus supposedly carried our sins for us on the cross. 

The notion of shame, for me, also runs the risk of being seen as self-indulgent and narcissistic. Shame is about focusing on the self – not on the suffering of others or the injustices which created the shame in the first place. By advocating that white South Africans should all feel ashamed, the authors might be encouraging whites obsessively to focus on themselves and their personal feelings, which are then cast as being at the centre of their universe. This, ironically, is exactly what the authors identify as the problem with whiteness – this obsessive belief that one is the centre of the world and that how one feels and what one does is what is important in the world.

Rather, I would argue in favour of the language of responsibility and reparation. All of us who are privileged in our different ways (as whites, as heterosexuals, as men, as the wealthy) should acknowledge our – sometimes admittedly, relative – privilege and should reflect critically (and with a degree of humility that does not slide into blubbering obsequiousness) on who we are and how we can take responsibility for our actions in a more ethically relevant and practically meaningful manner. 

Far more than advocating that all white people should feel ashamed, I would advocate that those of us who are white South Africans should ask the following kinds of questions: How do we deal with our whiteness and the racism associated with it; our heterosexuality and the homophobia associated with it; our maleness and the sexism associated with it? Do we live meaningful lives in which we demonstrate – through words and deeds – that we are aware of our own privileged position and do we act in ways that can be seen to help to address the effects of past and ongoing injustice in which we might be directly or indirectly implicated?

If we managed to live the kind of lives mentioned in the previous paragraph (something that is admittedly almost impossible to do 24 hours a day), it will prevent us from turning into passive but narcissistic wallowers in guilt who, in order to feel virtuously ashamed, sit in our little corners, oblivious to the everyday needs of our fellow South Africans, whose lives we might have touched if only we had overcome our shame and guilt and actually did something.

Living such lives (or at least knowing that it would be good to try) would ensure that we actually live lives of dignity as promised by our Constitution. It might allow us to do something to make our world (however large or small we wish to define it) a better and more just place – something that shame and guilt can never do.

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