Samantha Vice’s paper on what it means to be white in South Africa has sent the South African Twitter buzzing. She sums up why this is pretty well herself:
If we are a problem, we should perhaps concentrate on recovering and rehabilitating our selves. I shall suggest that because of peculiarities of the South African situation, this personal, inward-directed project should be cultivated with humility and in (a certain kind of) silence.
I can hear Thabo Mbeki shouting “Halleluja sister!”.
Over the next couple of weeks I hope to return to this piece, to try and make sense of it, to critique it. It is rather dense and I simply don’t have the time and the capability to do it quickly.
But I would like to make a few initial observations. Vice acknowledges and I completely agree that this is a piece of philosophy within the western tradition. Firstly, that is because she is not so much concerned with what whites do, but rather how they be:
For despite our context, no life and no self is only political; no one can think of herself as only a citizen or as only and essentially constituted by factors external to her. The concern with the quality of the self that is so central in the origins of the western philosophical tradition seems even more important in a land that has denied the privacy and nonpolitical reality of individual lives.
The author does not seem to think it is ironic that she uses western philosophical positions considering the subject matter. Whether other cultures in similar positions, like the Malaysians vis-a-vis the Malaysian Indian population, the Chinese vis-a-vis the Tibetans, or even the Kikuyu in Kenya versus other Kenyan ethic groups would see themselves in their position of dominance in a similar fashion is unlikely. This is a western pre-occupation. She further ties her position on whiteness to the well know rhetoric of western white dominance. Whites are special, because they are so dominant they don’t even realise how dominant they are. She calls this whitleyness.
One of the key ways of theorizing whiteness is as a global norm that is invisible, working in the background as a standard, not of one particular way of being in the world, but as normalcy, as universalizibility, of just being “the way things are.”
Before I get to the nub of the matter I’d like to touch on something Vice just mentions in passing, which I think illuminates her whole piece a great deal. She says:
I talk from a personal, but what I hope is still a fairly representative position. While I am not an Afrikaner and so have escaped the taint that identity brings with it, I am a white South African, undeniably a product of the Apartheid system and undeniably still beneﬁting from it.
It suggests the author has a simplistic understanding of South Africa’s history. It also rather ironically suggests she suffers from a version of whitelyness, which I will suggest is common under English speaking white South Africans. It is the topic of a blog post in itself but suffice to say that Anglo white South Africa, is the only group of South Africans that don’t have a name. They are not English South Africans, in the sense that you can be an Zulu, or Afrikaner South African. Their identity has always been strongly tied to the western Anglo community but recently not expressly so. They are so universal that they are only South Africans. This seems to be Vice’s point of reference.
This is important because I don’t think Afrikaners experience whiteness in the way she describes. Does Vice know that there was a time in South Africa’s history that Afrikaans speaking whites were expected to doth their hats when English speaking whites went by? A time when English newspapers in the Cape compared the ‘Dutch’ to slaves? A time barely 100 years ago when respected British writers compared Afrikaners to black South Africans in reference to their lack of civility? That a third of them lived below the poverty line in the 1930′s. And that the destitution and fear of gelyksteling – equalizing with blacks – were one of the main concerns of the Afrikaner Nationalists?
She may or may not, but Afrikaners had and many still have a deep sense of inferiority vis-a-vis English speaking South Africans. Being an Afrikaner is not the standard or the way things are. It is an identity based partly on deep insecurity. It is not a normal way of getting around the world. The impact of this is still around today. Just one recent example. Keo is the website of South African Rugby – traditionally the Afrikaner (and Coloured) male’s religion. While you might see many comments on blog posts written in Afrikaans, not a single one of Keo’s staff writers are Afrikaners or Coloured. This is seen as quite normal. In fact Keo feels quite free to write on his blog like this:
Vodacom, as the primary sponsor of rugby in South Africa, is celebrating the year of the fan. His name is Jan, he is player 23 in the team and he is a clone of the 1970s white Springbok rugby supporter – a walking caricature of what has always repulsed. Only they’ve given Jan a personality of being a jovial and hugely popular bloke, but perception is stronger than fact and the physical appearance of Jan and what he represents in the stands adds to the perception that rugby in South Africa is still a game supported only by grossly overweight brandy and coke potbellied types.
My argument is this. There is not one white experience in South Africa, and much of the white experience that is often maligned or tainted is not the white experience the author claims to be universal.
My last comment today will focus on the problem. We are the problem Vice says with reference to Alcoff:
“What is it to acknowledge one’s whiteness? Is it to acknowledge that one is inherently tied to structures of domination and oppression, that one is irrevocably on the wrong side?” I think the answer to Alcoff’s question in South Africa is fairly obviously “yes.” Whites in South Africa ought to see themselves as a problem.
She continues that there are habits of white privilege -
Because of the brute facts of birth, few white people, however well-meaning and morally conscientious, will escape the habits of white privilege; their characters and modes of interaction with the world just will be constituted in ways that are morally damaging…
…in South Africa, the working and effects of privilege are starkly apparent; one cannot in good faith pretend they do not exist.
This I would argue is the nub of the matter. It is unquestionably true that the effects of white privilege are visible. It might be unevenly spread, but it is there. Whether whites are only a problem, whether they are still oppressing, and who should be held responsible for this if this oppressive situation does not get rectified is another matter altogether.
When I read pieces like Vice’s I yearn for a philosophical look at the colonial / apartheid crime. It is of course a mammoth task. But we need to know what is the nature and extent of the colonial and apartheid crime. The TRC failed spectacularly in this task. But it is perhaps naive to have expected them to be able to do so. It was too soon.
Now however years have passed . We must ask ourselves how can one have this discussion without a proper look a the root cause? We need to know who did what when and why. Only then can we start to know how to be, or not.
For another, and better argued take on Vice’s paper, go here.