[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.
Earlier this week I took part in a workshop at Wits University where the timely and brave article of Samantha Vice on white shame and political humility was discussed. This is an edited version of my remarks at the workshop. Regular readers of this Blog might note that I have modified my views on Vice’s piece slightly.
The arguments put forward by Samantha Vice regarding the position of white people and whiteness in South Africa, reminds me of the intervention in 1997 of conceptual artist Kendel Geers at a right wing celebrations at Fort Klapperkop outside Pretoria.
Geers had declared the event an “art happening” but an angry spokesperson for the right wing organisations denied this, stating that their celebration was definitely not art. To which Geers responded: “They cannot un-art themselves.”
I am sure this was not the intention of Samantha Vice’s intervention, but I fear that her intervention might well be read as constituting an attempt to deal with the racial hierarchy in South Africa as yearning to “un-white” herself and others; in other words, to do the impossible, namely to live well in this strange place despite our whiteness, despite being the continued beneficiaries of privilege.
The problem seems to me that Samantha might have misdiagnosed or only partly correctly diagnosed the ethical dilemma that we have to live with, that we will continue to have to live with and that no work on the self will allow us to escape from confronting day after day, hour after hour.
As I see it, because Samantha focuses on the self, on a project of remaking oneself with an awareness of the structural privilege one embodies because of one’s race and an awareness of the habits of white privilege that ineluctably forms part of who one is, because she asks how we — as white South Africans – can live (and perhaps can even dare to hope to live well) in what she calls this strange place, given the structural privilege that we enjoy, that we live every minute of every day because we are white, she misses or ignores the broader context in which each of us live here in South Africa. This South Africa, I contend, is a strange place but perhaps not only or exactly in the way envisaged by Samantha.
If we want to engage with the question of how we can live in this strange place, I contend, we need to look at South Africa not only and exclusively as a place haunted by racism, racial discrimination and by the (admittedly pervasive) problem of whiteness. Yes our lives and our selves are haunted by race — how can it not be, given our history — but it is also haunted by many other ethical concerns. These concerns may be affected by race but not exclusively so.
We live in a country where some people live and others die because some (because of their wealth) have access to the best medical care and others (because they are poor and rely on the erratic public health system) do not. We live in a world in which some children have access to the best schooling which provide them with the life chances and opportunities denied others whose schooling is dismal. We live in a world in which some gay men and lesbians live in fear of humiliation and are raped and killed because of their sexual orientation. We live in a world where some of us has never gone hungry while others often do not know where their next meal might come from and how they might feed their children.
In the light of these injustices — yes, all haunted by the ghosts of our racialised past but not exclusively and uniquely following the logic of race — one must ask whether this project of working on the self — of, in essence trying to work on oneself to become a better person, a person that feels appropriate shame for being white and being part of a system that has benefited one and continues to benefit one materially and also in non-material ways by bestowing on one a certain social status and power because of the colour of one’s skin — is not essentially (despite Samantha’s pointed protestations) an essentially narcissistic and slightly self-indulgent one?
Shame, guilt and agent regret seem like a rather hopelessly inadequate responses to the very real and serious larger ethical challenges faced by any middle class person in South Africa – even when the ethical call is more acutely and insistently addressed to white South Africans? Surely this project of turning inward and of working on the self is ethically deeply problematic? Our habits of white privilege, the social capital we embody because of our white skins, and the consequences this has for our fellow South Africans is just part of the larger picture. A more nuanced understanding of the problem of trying to live an ethical life in this strange place is required.
I worry that this turning inward, this essentially self-centred project will focus too much on the self, on the WHITE self, rather than focusing on the system that produced whiteness and the racial hierarchy that is continually being perpetuated by all of us. Can one really, by turning inward, escape from the very system that produces the racial hierarchy and can one really escape from being complicit in it’s perpetuation? By turning inwards and by focusing so obsessively on ones shame and ones whiteness, is one not affirming the racial hierarchy and the very structures that produce white privilege which one needs to undermine and subvert in order to begin to address the structures that produce “whiteness” and “blackness” and continues to do so in a hierarchical manner? This is not only a personal problem but also a structural problem. How does one address whiteness without perpetuating the racial hierarchy?
Can one even begin to escape one’s whiteness? Gesturing at Geers, I would contend that one cannot “un-white” oneself.
Samantha Vice also advocates for white people at least a partial silence and a political humility which would prevent white people from engaging in the politics of the day. White people have power. When they speak, they speak with the authority and arrogance that inevitably flows from their whiteness. Hence, says Vice, it is morally risky to speak publicly in our society if one is a white person. I have three responses to that:
First, do we not have the duty to take this risk? Is it not a bit precious — showing perhaps inadvertently too much concern for ones own ethical purity and ones status as a not so bad person — by not wanting to take risks and not wanting to make mistakes? Is this not a move to avoid exposing oneself to ridicule, hatred, criticism, accusations of racism and arrogance, of sexism and homophobia, which might well be levelled against some of us by others who, surely, we must be careful not wish to construct as utterly powerless victims of whiteness and of what white people do and say?
Surely, despite the structural inequalities and the effects of past and ongoing racism and racial discrimination in our country, it would be highly problematic to hold that white people should be silent because this will be somehow respectful of black people and the powerlessness they experience in the face of white privilege? I do not experience black South Africans as powerless or being in need of my silence and I worry that believing that would be fundamentally patronising and disempowering towards black South Africans.
If I make a mistake, if I talk and my words are seeped in whiteness or the arrogance that is associated with white structural privilege, I know that I will be told so in no uncertain terms by others — and rightly so. And is this not a better way to work on the self? By engaging with the world, with fellow South Africans, by doing so in a manner that is fully aware of ones privilege, by taking the risks, by getting it wrong and reflecting on why one got it wrong and trying again and by demonstrating in word and deed that one is not the font of all wisdom? Is this not how we even begin to embark on a journey of becoming full and equal citizens in this country? Will the silence, then, not be a whitely silence? Silence can appear like a cop out, like and avoidance of the burden of having to take decisions and taking risks, and for taking responsibility for one’s whiteness and for inevitably getting it wrong and taking responsibility for the effects of structural privilege and for doing something about it?
Second, is silence not — whether one intends it to be seen in that way or not — already an attempt at achieving a kind of inappropriate moral purity, a moral purity that a white person cannot achieve but that our whiteness and the ideology of whiteness has ingrained in us as being our due, as the natural state of being a white person? By being silent, does one nor rather narcissistically hold oneself up as, once again, better. As someone who deserves special consideration because of this noble attempt at goodness?
Third, this silence says Vice should go hand in hand with private acts of justice. But injustice is not only or even primarily about personal relationships and the injustices that result from our inability to interact with others in a responsible and ethically appropriate way. It is about structural problems, about the way in which our capitalist, radicalised, world and our society is organised and the failure of all of us — including our politicians — to take the steps that would begin to dismantle these structures that produce and perpetuate inequality, poverty, marginalization and oppression.
In conclusion, I wonder if this project does not assume or take for granted the impossibility of being anything else but the sum total of ones racial identity? Does it not reinforce the logic of the apartheid constructed racial hierarchy, assuming that one is only and always exclusively white or black and that this is the sum total of our world and it’s ethical and other problems? But I am also a neighbour called on to show hospitality to my neighbour — even when that neighbour is a foreigner and it is impossible to show real hospitality — a lover, a teacher, an HIV positive middle class man, an Afrikaner who opposes Afriforum, a gay man who might well develop a crush on Julius Malema (if only he lost a few kilograms).
If we ask how we can live in this strange place, then each of us must remember that we — like everybody else in our society — is more than just representatives of our race. We cannot escape the ethical consequences of living in a deeply racist and unjust society and we must take responsibility for this and live with this. A personal project that turns inwards cannot and will not change this.
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