On the unbearable whiteness of being

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.

Related deployments:

  1. The unbearable whiteness of being

20 Responses

  1. beebop says:

    Kameraad, while I see your point about Afrikaners and English whites being different, I think you overestimate this difference, especially for people our age and younger. Educated white Afrikaners slot as comfortably into global white privilege as their English-speaking counterparts. Even though Afrikaners have a different history in SA than English whites I think we have to face the facts of our racist past in a very similar manner. Harping on our historic inferiority to the English too easily diverts from this endeavor.

  2. Kameraad Mhambi says:

    Beebop, besides me, who is ‘harping’ on about this?

    Vice argues that history matters, otherwise I presume wealthy black South Africans would be in very much the same moral conundrum, no?

    But you raise interesting points. Do the poor whites of Danville and Krugersdorp Wes escape this depressing moral legacy ? Or is Vice’s theory validation for the ever more popular disparaging remarks you here from white and black South Africans about poor whites? They have the power because they are white – but they are too useless to use it.


  3. Rustum says:

    I don’t know what exactly you mean by philosophical analysis, but:
    Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks;
    Theo Goldberg’s Racist Culture;
    Saul Dubow’s Illicit Union and Black Hamlet;
    JM Coetzee’s essay on Geoffrey Cronje (in Giving Offense) are good places to start.

  4. Rustum says:

    That should be Wulf’s Sachs’ Black Hamlet, ed. by Dubow et al.

  5. Kameraad Mhambi says:

    Thanks for the reading list Rustum. Frantz Fanon I know, but I am looking for a very particular analysis about South Africa.

    From what I gather from Saul Dubow’s books they are about the ideology that underpinned modern South African racism. It is not about its impact in real terms or a legal philosophical analysis of cause, effect and blame. A history of you like.

    Theo Goldberg’s Racist Culture strikes me as what I was looking for, although its written in the 50′s?

    At some point somebody must do an audit of the harm of colonialism/ apartheid at it happened in South Africa. Surely it’s not just a matter of counting the bodies as the TRC report mostly did?

  6. danielwaweru says:

    Hi Mhambi,

    Just to take quick issue with a couple of points. The first is this:
    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.

    I think there are pretty clear examples of precisely this sort of self-awareness among Gikuyu. Here‘s one example. In fact, I’d go further and suggest that this kind of group consciousness will be found wherever control of the state is contested between ethnic or racial groups, and where there’s a history of oppression by at least one side. That’s terribly vague as it stands, but this is only a blog comment after all :)

    It’s open to Vice to argue, btw, that the kind of self she identifies is not the central identifier of Whiteness; rather, it’s one characteristic identifier of it.

    The other thing is the formulation of the Alcoff question. I’m afraid I simply can’t see how anyone could accept it. It’s one thing to accept that to be White is to be tied to structures of oppression and injustice. But one shouldn’t accept the second half of the quote—the bit about being inherently on the wrong side—because it’s not true of anyone, and therefore not true of White folks. It seems to me that she doesn’t distinguish carefully enough between people who happen to be White, and the ideology of Whiteness, which she so ably explores. But peopel are not their ideology, and to argue that White people qua people are inherently tied to structures of injustice is a step for which I don’t see any seriosu warrant.

  7. Rustum says:

    The Theo Goldberg is either late 1990s or early 2000s. The Wulf Sachs is 1930s.

    I don’t know what you mean by harm and audit. Do you mean an actual material/economic audit? Otherwise, how do you audit harm. Or what do you mean by harm? There is a deep field of literature – history, politics, economics, fiction, poetry, theatre – that profiles all manner of harm, so when you ask for an audit of harm, for “We need to know who did what when and why”, I am puzzled.

    I think you should also read the Vice article from a less defensive point of view. No article is going to be able to give you the nuance and variances that you seem to be after, among other things.

    In general, my view is in any case that historical oppression in SA is based firstly on economic oppression and exploitation, for which race was a convenient and successful veil. So class divisions – what would be deemed normal or ‘natural’ in other places – are here further fractured by race, and then also all those separate identities fostered by colonial and apartheid ‘anthropology’, and religion, etc. To cover all this is in an article is a big ask, and would probably make the article far less readable.

  8. beebop says:

    re: harping. I just think that white South Africans as a whole and Afrikaners in particular, are much more comfortable playing the victim card — whether that be of crime, affirmative action, or earlier anglo discrimination — than of owning up to their racist legacy.

  9. TO Molefe says:

    So does there not being a singular “white experience” in South Africa render Vice’s argument invalid? I think this is worthy of a fuller disposition rather than challenging selected quotes. I look forward to your further thoughts on this.

  10. beebop says:

    I agree with Rustum that you are defensive about the Vice piece. Instead of debating whether poor whites in SA are privileged or whether Afrikaners are like English whites, how about just starting with yourself. Vice is speaking to people like you and me, who have clearly benefited. She is trying to make sense of this reality.

  11. Kameraad Mhambi says:

    @ TO – no it does not invalidate the argument, it was just one thing I wanted to point out. I agree with you that the article should perhaps be addressed as a whole, but I find it easier to do it bit by bit. It’s process. sorry to subject you to it!

    @Rustum you say:’There is a deep field of literature – history, politics, economics, fiction, poetry, theatre – that profiles all manner of harm, so when you ask for an audit of harm, for “We need to know who did what when and why”, I am puzzled.’

    I am aware a whole lot has been written in particular about various aspects post 48 apartheid. A lot of it is extremely detailed. But I have not read a comparative legal philosophical analysis based on historical events. Essentially a history book with philosophical exploration as to culpability. In law responsibility is a mixture of damage, causation, intention and culpability.

    Perhaps that is the Goldberg book.

    PS: I’m trained amongst other things as a lawyer and legal philosophy was one of my subjects.

    ‘my view is in any case that historical oppression in SA is based firstly on economic oppression and exploitation, for which race was a convenient and successful veil.”

    That is too a large extent my view – but does this article not contribute to the race veil?

    @ Rustum & @ Beebop – On being too defensive perhaps i am – and I will try and explain why I’m being defensive in a follow up.

    @Daniel – thanks for the vague comment. You say ‘It seems to me that she doesn’t distinguish carefully enough between people who happen to be White, and the ideology of Whiteness’ – but is that not her point, that you cant be white and not escape the ideology? Otherwise we agree on this.

  12. Helen says:

    Hey. Thanks for the link, and your thoughts. Latest news is that the Journal of the Philosophical Society of SA is devoting a special issue to responses to Vice’s article. I don’t think she’s right, for the reasons I give in my blog piece – but I am fascinated that she has struck such a chord among SA philosophers.

  13. Rustum says:

    “PS: I’m trained amongst other things as a lawyer and legal philosophy was one of my subjects.”

    OK, I see now where you’re coming from; which of course, from my view, doesn’t make your task easier. I.e. a legalistic approach is always going to run into all sorts of obstacles, primarily of its own disciplinary creation. [Some of my best friends are heavy legal eagles, ;-) ]

    I read the Goldberg book a long time ago, but yes, I think it may have some – note, some – of what you’re looking for, which I imagine is something leaning more to the legal of the legal-philosophical.

    I can also recommend Mark Sanders’ Ambiguities of Witnessing: Law and Literature in the Time of a Truth Commission (Stanford, 2007), but not for what you’re looking for; just as another wedge into it all.

  14. Rustum says:

    On defensiveness: Note that I said “from a less defensive point of view”, and not that “you are defensive”. I’m fingering a posture of READING and WRITING widespread (please don’t shoot me for this) in internet culture: a sardonic, cynical, world-wise position. I think that is one way in which the Vice article shouldn’t be read.

  15. Kameraad Mhambi says:

    Thanks Helen. I wonder if this Tweet does not explain partly why it has struck a chord? https://twitter.com/#!/UnathiKondile/status/79648531664744448

  16. beebop says:

    Suggesting that whites should live out their lives in silence and shame is sure to draw fire. It’s unfortunate because I think especially the concept of ‘whiteliness’ is important to explore.
    I wonder what Antjie Krog would make of this paper. I appreciate her approach in ‘There was this goat’ which she co-authored with Mpolweni and Ratele — It leaves at least some room to imagine that whites can do something to challenge their own ‘whiteliness’

  17. Kameraad Mhambi says:

    Beebop, may I recommend you read Rustum’s Waar die Kranse Antwoord gee:

  18. beebop says:

    Thanks Kameraad. I have actually read it — you suggested it before. Worth a reread perhaps.

  19. Unathi Kondile says:

    It must be noted that Vice’s paper is significant owing to her introspection that resonates with how black South Africans view whiteness. Note that I say whiteness and not whites. Furthermore, what Vice exhibits is something that is very rare amongst white South Africans – who’d rather we know they, as individuals, weren’t complicit. Yet, those who suffered under whiteness [regardless of which white] knew no distinction (they saw it as privileging whites & guess what? White South Africans are indeed privileged & more protective over this privilege). So how do white South Africans think this is read? What type of spectacle is it in their own eyes? What becomes of whiteness? considering it remains whiteness even after apartheid. How does it view itself, if at all?

    Whilst reading Vice’s paper I got the sense that she’d spent a great deal of time with black South Africans asking “What do I represent as a white person to you?” and “What can I do to change that?” yet it still sounded genuinely her perspective.

    That level of inner-perspective and admission is not something you can easily evoke out of one. It is honesty that cannot be accepted, because a) it can be deemed subjective or b) it means acknowledging wrongs that were not righted and being where you are via a wrong.

    Therefore I can understand why it is harder to digest for Vice’s fellow white South Africans, and actually easier to dismiss, mock & trivialise down to “she says let’s hang our heads in shame.” What Vice brings to the fore is whiteness as an event, not race. Therefore the subjects of that event, directly or indirectly, view it as the same event (from past) exacerbated by how it still remains ensconced in privilege [or perceived to be]. Therefore I ask: does conscience not bother white people to self-interrogate their comfort as a majority of whites who are still privileged on the backdrop of a majority of blacks that are still disadvantaged in South Africa. [Some will argue 'but blacks are in charge now!' That’s not the point]. Does it not bother whites that whiteness or the social order of the event of whiteness prevails? It’s goals remain in tact – privilege whites. Instead we now have a scenario where white South Africans cry “Move on!” whilst blacks South Africans cry “Wait, wait” – who exactly should be saying “let’s move on” in this context? To be able to introspect on that level, like Vice, is commendable, as opposed to the smug defensiveness that emanates from positions of privilege (bestowed by the event of whiteness).

  20. duncan lloyd says:

    I must thank Sam forher paper, and the discussion it has initiated. I agree with the author’s basic tenant that we, as white south Africans, need to own our past and this means accepting guilt and feeling shame for the shocking disparities that exist in our society today. However I would like to add an additional, slightly different, perspective. My main criticism is that it is untenable for us as human beings to live with a large boulder of guilt and shame , having to constantly, like Sisyphus, repeatedly push this boulder up the mountain. What I propose is that each individual must address to what extent they were responsible in maintaining the status quo under apartheid, and once having sincerely accepted their part in a morally bankrupt system, find a ways to absolution and thus be able to live in a higher state of grace within South Africa.
    To constantly carry a huge burden of guilt and shame can hamstring individuals who have, in a way repented, and want to redress the imbalances and inequalities of the past. What is required is to find a way past the shame, to accept forgiveness, and become whole enough again to contribute positively to our society. So let’s not blameSamantha Vice and Eusebius Mckaiser for bringing us a little closer to the truth, but use their ideas to catalyse a sensitive and constructive involvement in our
    divided society.