Carol Freeman
Carol Freeman

In defence of the ‘white liberal’

A recent column by the usually insightful and thought-provoking Verashni Pillay in the Mail & Guardian has caused something of an uproar. Her contention appears to be that white “liberals” (a term she uses to mean “people who don’t consider themselves racist”) are gross hypocrites who are merely in denial about their racism. According to her they have “no good black friends”, “never quite bring themselves to date an actual black woman” and “refer to any white person as a man, woman, girl, boy or child and everyone else by their race”. She also infers that they are self-centred, oblivious to their own privilege and annoying.

Let me begin by defining myself as a classic Liberal, as I am by no means left-leaning in my politics. Knowing the writer personally and respecting her as much as I do, I doubt that the article was meant to offend or be divisive but as it stands I am not certain what it was trying to achieve. I have to challenge the false dichotomy she creates grouping whites as either overt racists or liberals in denial of their race and therefore inadvertently racists. I enjoy satire as much as anyone but this does not seem to be the objective. Satire seeks to inform and educate, even going so far as to encourage self-examination and critique but one might be forgiven for thinking that all this article does is ridicule whites of a generation seeking to identify themselves by something other than the colour of their skin.

My expectation, as a daughter of the Rainbow Nation, was and still is to enjoy the many eclectic tastes, sounds and culture of our country; one of the great blessings of being South African. Wearing “Madiba-style shirts” (which I don’t) or “rocking out to Johnny Clegg” (which I do) is every South African’s freedom. Sampling the diversity of culture is not a denial of one’s own race but rather a celebration of a new identity, a celebration of what it means to be proudly South African.

My photo shelf is covered with pictures of people with many varying shades of skin tones, including some almost translucent Scots. Although not discernable from the photographs, they are also the faces of people who have different sexual persuasions, nationalities, religions even political philosophies. I have always believed that this shelf, and my lived experience, is increasingly typical of South Africans: genuine diversity. We must also include diversity of age, language, educational qualification, professional background, geography and — above all — opinion. Race is only one thread of the tapestry that informs an individual’s identity.

Verashni accuses white liberals of being so consumed by their perceived sense of otherness within their own race that they fail to appreciate that they enjoy any sort of position of privilege and power. I do not doubt for a minute that my upbringing was privileged but feeling guilty about being born “white” (and therefore advantaged) has always seemed to me as pointless as feeling guilty about some other lottery of genetics such as extreme beauty or intelligence. I feel no need to apologise for that privilege; instead I am grateful for the education and opportunities that will allow me to fight for a cause beyond myself. In the words of that great philosopher Spiderman’s Uncle Ben “with great power comes great responsibility”. I accept that responsibility not as a burden but as a challenge to be worthy of my good fortune. The value of any educated individual is quickly returned to society through their contribution to the economy in the private sector or as doctors and nurses, journalists and civil engineers, as scientists and entrepreneurs and, probably the most important, as teachers educating others, thereby passing on the opportunity.

The continued growth of the black bourgeoisie has meant that in numbers it now equals the white middle class. The education and opportunities afforded to the economically privileged means that we have far more in common with one another, regardless of race, culture or ethnicity, than the many South Africans with very limited access to such things.

One wonders if there is much point in levelling accusations (of naivety at best, and racism at worst), even if they are thinly veiled in humour, in order to avoid properly engaging in a serious discussion. I saw for myself the opportunities open to my “non-white” contemporaries at university through “previously disadvantaged only” scholarships and again, when starting out in the job market, through hiring practises that favoured those of a darker skin tone to myself. But being an adult means taking the rough with the smooth, knowing that we all have our cross to bear even when some may appear significantly heavier than others.

If we were to truthfully consider who is disadvantaged through nothing more than an accident of birth, there are a million children born into poverty every year in South Africa. Unless we stand united in our commitment to ensure consistent economic development and provide better healthcare and education for these children, all of us who had the privilege of choice will all be obliged to bear the guilt of their circumstances.

We need to keep our eyes on the ball if South Africa is to truly realise its potential. The “Alive with Possibility” adverts being shown all over the world ahead of the 2010 Soccer World Cup show our motherland as it could be: diverse, beautiful, welcoming. The South African experience shows that racial reconciliation 20 years after Mandela was released from jail is a reality and that we do indeed have a bright future. We still have major problems: crime, HIV/Aids, appalling levels of violence against women, rampant corruption and a president intent on personally populating the country, to name just a few, but these cannot be overcome by petty infighting among people who should be tackling more important issues.

So enough with these trivial, tabloid-style attempts to be controversial for the sake of it and let’s get back to focusing on the things that matter. South Africa deserves better from all us lucky enough to be called her children.


  • Reducing Zille-Mazibuko saga to race a dangerous game
  • The ANC is not a broad church but a narrow cult
  • An open letter to Verashni Pillay
  • The dilemma of race
    • Hugh Robinson

      To lady phillipa who is so politcally correct that she is ashamed to use her husband’s Surname.
      Why do you persist in writing absolute rubbish?
      Read these articles
      Failing that read

      Really woman get off your political high horse and feel the reality of solid ground.

    • MuAfrika

      ‘The continued growth of the black bourgeoisie has meant that in numbers it now equals the white middle class. The education and opportunities afforded to the economically privileged means that we have far more in common with one another, regardless of race, culture or ethnicity, than the many South Africans with very limited access to such things.’

      >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>SAY WHAT!

    • Po

      Argh man, just be. Just live and let live. Forget about the labels people feel the need to plaster to you and judge you by. Just be yourself. South Africans are the most label-obsessed people in the world. If you want to love Johnny Clegg and be a liberal then do it and be happy.

    • Philip Cole

      So let’s get this straight. Verashni writes a tongue-in-cheek column about ‘bling Indians’, her own race, in January. Everyone thinks that its funny and it gets 46 comments. Verashni writes another, similar style, tongue-in-cheek column about ‘liberal whites’ in February and everyone goes crazy and it gets 188 comments (and counting). And to top it off she gets this pointless lecture on how to behave from Carol, which in itself has got another 50 comments (and counting).

      It seems to me that there are alot of white people out there who are too into themselves!

    • walter

      “…our country will never be prosperous or free until all our people live in brotherhood, enjoying equal rights and opportunities…”

      This entire debate, this article, Pillay’s article and most of the comments reveal just how far we have to go to achieve that ideal.

      I need to say that I am totally unapologetic for whom I am, which is a combination of my genetics, my drives and passions, background, education, the people I interact with and the stuff I read etc.

      My friends are my friends because they are my friends, I feel no need to fill any racial quota or to date someone to prove my “liberalism” I date people who make my pulse race.

      Race based social engineering has dominated our country for decades, and no less now. One day we will count the massive cost of intelligent and deserving children denied bursaries, or sportsmen denied opportunities, or employees denied opportunity, or business hamstrung, or anti-competitive behaviour based on race.

      We will never be prosperous or free until we are able to ridicule the pathetic racist mutterings of people like Pillay.

      Its time to get over this and realise that we are part of the world and focus on making this a prosperous nation.

    • John Kalala

      A white liberal of 40 years ago had so much more to lose – including their friends, jobs and, sometimes, their freedom. This is not the case today.
      If you really want to consider yourself a white liberal then, apart from upping your sense of humour level, I ask you to consider these criteria: Did you watch most of the TRC broadcasts?
      Have you taken your children, friends etc to the Apartheid Museum, Constitutional Court, Robben Island? Are you active in politics?

    • Belle

      @ John Kalala

      – have no TV, but read many of the TRC transcripts online, including the interviews with Winnie Mandela and Paul Verryn.

      – have escorted visitors to the Apartheid Museum, Constitutional court and Sun City jail 7 times to date.

      – Several failed attempts to visit Robben Island due to cancellation/lack of ferry transport.

    • Rory Short

      @Walter I agree with you 100%. The development of this country and its peoples have been hobbled for centuries by applying racial categorisations in inappropriate ways, i.e. racism. It is high time that we SAns considered each of our fellows as the unique individuals that they are and thus endeavoured to treat them not according to some racial categorisation but according to their individual needs and capabilities.

    • Zi Karon

      Belle…unsound, rather grade one type reasoning on your part…what did your privileged white education teach you… when comparing groups with disproportionte numbers…use percentages…how does the black middle class and white middle-class compare to their respective control groups (i.e total black and total non-black population in SA…)??? SA’s black middle-class is 15% while SAwhite’s middle-class are 75%….How did this happen if we accept and should we subcribe to the idea that the goodness of the universe or some god endowed each precious life with equal potential…

    • Dave Harris

      @Hugh Robinson
      Rather than engaging in personal attacks, as a bikini salesman, you surely realize how flimsy (pun intended) this argument sounds – suggesting some kind of parity between middle class blacks and whites.

      The previously advantaged used white supremacy, the legal system and an iron fist to accumulate wealth for generations. They now want to justify cling to that wealth and privilege by denialism. This sudden onset of amnesia that has spread so rapidly among SA’s previously advantaged that it raised concerns by the World Health Organization who recently proclaimed that this unique form of the disease is lately contained within Sub-Saharan Africa and strangely affects mainly the white population. 😉

      So I’m afraid, we have to figure out how to combat this contagion ourselves. Ideas anyone?

    • Zi Karon

      PS! …this post represents my earlier contributions a bit clearer…

      white liberals…should be credited with saving SA from an all-out-murderous orgy of violence and they were the peaceful, moral pillars and ambassadors of what many blacks perceived were the blue-eyed-caucacian-SA-devil incarnate (SA Whites)…they were the buffer between black-anger and white-hegemony…

      White liberals did much, but are not proprietors of black emancipation in SA (I thinks Verash’s (Indian chick) article with much humor and light-heartedness brushed on this)….white liberals were the consciousness (goodness) of white humanity and saved their race in SA and also moderated/tempered Black’s seething, hateful anger and clamoring for acknowledgement as Men, Women of beauty and `intelligence…

      SA’s white liberals outstretched hands of humanity also allowed SA whites current co-existence in Africa (SA in particular)…some SA whites (you the author, possibly not very consciously included) that somehow thinks that them/you and their/your display of photos on their/your mantle are Black’s saviors to which proud, beautiful, intelligent Blacks are beholden, sadly detracts from the nobility, humaneness of true “SA white liberals” (Ruth First included)…go well…

    • Zi Karon

      PS!…To the author, Ms Freeman….my final take on your well-written, slightly passive-agressive :) and sincere sharing of ideology…

      “Is it in the realm of possibility that those Blacks (i’m assuming)non-white-SA-liberals were possibly more deserving of the university bursary or better suited, more qualified,a better organisational fit for the job than You a very intelligent SA-white liberal that so glibly mentioned in your opinion piece?…just wondering…)

    • Jeff Jones

      I’m a white liberal and quite frankly I don’t give a damn what people think of my political philosophy. Liberals must be doing something right because we are hated by bigots and lunatics of all races, creeds and philosophies.
      Most people who despise liberals of any race do not have the slightest notion of the political philosophy of Liberalism.

    • Jeff Jones

      Being a classic liberal also means I don’t have to be politically correct about anything. I tell it as I see it. There are many so-called “white liberals” I wouldn’t give the time of day to. Being a patronising do-gooder does not make one a liberal.

    • OneFlew

      You take yourself much too seriously.

      The proper response to tongue in cheek satire isn’t ponderous, worthy analysis. It is a tolerant smile. And if rebuttal is needed it’s in the form of a retributive dig. Or a short, pithy, denial.

      And forget the semantics about being a “classical Liberal”. The term “white liberal” as used in SA, and as used by Pillay, is an almost entirely unrelated concept.

    • MuAfrika

      I have long accepted that unity accross color is impossible. My focus now is getting Africans understand that they need to end poverty, starting by stopping this over-rated child bearing when there is no financial stability in their lives….

    • Johenius

      When I first read Verashni’s column, I was outraged. Then I began to realize that she wasn’t talking about ignorant “white liberals”, she was talking about “ignorant white liberals” (note apostrophes) – there was no false dichotomy, it was about a specific subclass of a specific class of people.

      I agree with some here in the comments who say that the piece was meant in satire and that some are being over-sensitive, but I still maintain that the ending of the piece was condescending, and I can’t help but feel that while Verashni’s humour, normally so appreciated, is always a bit sharp, this time it felt like it went a bit too far.

      However, I also recognize that this is the first time that I myself have been the target of broad, sweeping generalizations in her writing, so acknowledge that I may be somewhat biased :)

      So thank you, Carol, for the insight and analysis. As always, your point of view is appreciated and valued, and it helped (me at least, even if I can’t speak to others) to diffuse the last bit of resentment I may have had.

    • Paul Whelan

      Still asking – What’s a white liberal?

      We really ought to be told, you know, before some of us say the whole lot of them are all a bad lot and should all be sent packing, or worse.

    • Belle

      Okay, Zi Karon, so we need to up the number of black middle class families by 28 million to reach the 75% mark. Thats obviously not going to happen overnight.

      In the meantime you could just eliminate 4 million middle class whites to give you instant demographic representivity.

      Or you could just take their homes/jobs/business/assets and hand them over to poor blacks, creating another 4 million middle class blacks.

      … I think Mugabe tried that, but it didn’t work, for some reason.

      I propose that you take some Rennies for that bitter ulcer brewing in your belly, and 2 Ativan daily. That way you will feel much better while we wait a couple of decades for the black middle classes to grow.

      My ‘privileged’ background enabled me to train as a nurse, Zi Karon, so you can trust my prescription.

    • Zi Karon

      I do think that the challenge that most SAWhite Liberals are faced with is that they really believe that “they are the Spidermans” of the world and that they are blessed by genetics,ordained by the cosmos for a higher calling,such calling being to save the wretched and cursed peoples of the world.

      White Liberals in SA especially should realise how short on truth these haughty assumptions of theirs are.

      Blacks are also winners of beauty and intelligence in the lottery of genetics and our “numbers” are encoded in our earthy hues,broad smiles, effortless and rhytmic sways of our bodies whether walking, dancing or making love.

      Us Blacks don’t want any white to define our hurts, anguish, faults and failures or successes for that matter. We can do so ourselves, Whites..dont set our timeframes for us to “just get over Apartheid and past injustices….it’s been 16 years…you say”…it’s not for YOU (SA Whites) to say…period.

      We want frank engagement on issues which affect our country…we don’t need any of you to be so condecsending and apologetic.

      BEE, land redistibution and affirmative action are needed; these are merely pragmatic tools to rightsize injustices caused by past-ideologies which you all benefited from.

      WE can discuss sunset-clauses,but in these discussion no Whites (especially SA Whites) should be prescriptive …intergenerational wealth should be allowed at least 50-75 years to cascade and permeate the black societies.

    • Alexander Eichener

      Mvelase and Sipho and Philip and OneFlew and probably Jason are ever so right in their anti-critique. Carol Freeman’s piece, it must be admitted, starts with loud wailing; signalling that Verashni really stepped on her tail and even smartly turned her heel there. Twice. And cruelty to liberals is certainly an offence under the Eudemonist Society by-laws.

      And yet, Carol’s piece picks up some substance, unexpectedly – Chico put his finger on the right spot, when she became strong and convincing and forgot her aching tails (or squashed balls).

      As to black and satire, Africa’s best cartoonist is black (Gado of the Nation Mediagroup. Nairobi), and not all Kenyans (inborn tribalists from white over Indian and black to navy blue) always appreciate his caustic anti-tribal wit.

      And – nodding to my namesake Alex – still I want to see a suitably acidic piece from Verashni’s pen, putting desis up against native Indians; setting loose cotawing Syedna sycophants with deep emerald green safai chittis against “whaddayamean, I have an acccent, hell I studied in the USA” évolués. Verashni’s tirepuncturewallah clichés were nice, but too mild… :-)

    • Jeff Jones

      @Alexander Eichener,
      You’re being too much of a “smart Alex” here.