Gillian Schutte
Gillian Schutte

I know whiteness through and through

Racism is alive and living in the confines of the whiteness construct. This year alone has thrown up many local and global racist incidents that prove that we are a long way off from a post-racist society. It seems to me that whiteness is losing the plot and in serious need of deconstruction — hence I have made it my business to write about it from a deconstructive perspective. I will share these articles on this platform … to keep the conversation going and hopefully provide some balance to Brendon Shields’ fatuous offerings on matters of race.

Let me begin with the minstrel cake.

In April this year the social media world went into shock as they beheld the Swedish minister of culture perform a clitoridectomy on the sculpted vulva of a human-sized cake, which took the shape of an African woman and played out as her undergoing forced genital mutilation. She then fed it to the black-faced artist who screamed in agony as she sliced through the baked labium — much to the amusement of the white guests. The inside of the cake was blood red and the guests smiled and ate of the black female cake-body, seemingly oblivious to the macabre nature of the whole affair.

The response from feminists all over the world was visceral. They called it racist, misogynistic and hateful. Many black women expressed outrage and hurt, given the historical referencing to the Saartjie Baartman narrative.

As a white woman I was sickened to the core and momentarily at a loss for words — and it was this response that got me thinking about how deep the construct of whiteness really goes. It took me a while to grasp that the horrible, misdirected and grotesque tastelessness of this gastronomic protest art actually successfully made a point about whiteness.

It exposed the European cake eaters as savage in their non-responsiveness to the horror of the act in which they willingly participated, apparently ignorant to the notion that the “art” was in the observation of their behaviour. This, I think, is what was so disturbing to the white gaze, which was forced to gaze upon itself and try to make sense of the primal nature of it all.

It disturbed the white certainty of rationality and possibly pointed to our own complicity in the insulting and grossly insensitive act of the eating of an African woman’s most private body parts in what became a reversal of the anthropological participant observation ethos.

It certainly got me thinking about my own upbringing in a country that was built upon the dehumanisation of black people while I was trying to make sense of what appeared to be an uncanny physical manifestation of feminist writer bell hooks’ thesis on “Eating the Other”. I was forced to ask myself if it is really possible for those of us who grew up white in South Africa to fully transcend the inevitable unconscious hold of the whiteness construct, even those of us who are in interracial relationships.

Furthermore how much does the same macabre insensitivity to blackness play out in the day-to-day lives of white South Africans that we may also be oblivious to?

Having our cake and eating it
I know whiteness through and through. I was raised on it. I’ve lived it, I’ve eaten it and mostly I’ve heard it: at tea parties, at dinner parties, at braais and pubs and family gatherings … and all in all I have come to the sad conclusion that, besides the miniscule number of renegade white folk who may or may not have authentically transcended the whiteness trap, whiteness has largely remained a static and unyielding phenomenon in South Africa.

This is thanks to the liberal legacy of the Nelson Mandela epoch, which created a situation in which there is no real pressure on whiteness to change.

While white concerns remain central to the master narrative — in the economy, in the press, in film and popular culture, whiteness in South Africa remains an obdurate monolith mostly in denial of the social, political and cultural privileges still accorded to whites in our unequal society. It would seem though, that whites are carefully taught not to recognise white privilege just as males are taught not to recognise male privilege.

This is evidenced in the average white dialogue around race in which whiteness is often presented as victim to the “savagery” of blackness in the form of endless whinging about crime, corruption, inefficiency and BEE. From intellectual discourse, to mainstream chatter, to barely-educated braai banter, whiteness is always sure of one thing — superiority over other races — particularly the African race. Whether it is disguised in liberal equanimity or downright racism, this whiteness discourse espouses the same learnt notion that white is right — even in a so-called rainbow nation.

This mythical rainbow nation, it turns out, is none other than the “liberalist” enfant terrible that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) gave birth to while South Africa was dealing with the labour pains of a reconciliatory-premised transformation. Though it was established as an emotional clearinghouse for the traumas and atrocities experienced and committed in the days of apartheid and as a catalyst for healing the nation — it turned out to be the motherfucker of all fuck-ups for blackness.

In fact it did nothing for black folk, who were apartheid’s rightful victims. Rather it alleviated white folk’s guilt and annulled their fear of a retaliatory bloodbath. Hell, it even allowed perpetrators of racist and heinous crimes against humanity to develop a newfound camaraderie with Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Cyril Ramaphosa — all three of whom have since been appropriated by the white liberal narrative as icons, mascots and success symbols. Viler though is that this trio is also held up by the whiteness construct as empirical evidence that some black folk do indeed contain intelligence and humanity, because, after all, they display the same gentle virtues, rationality and corporate acumen as whites.

But it is the image of Mandela that has been most “eaten” by whiteness, to use bell hooks’ term again when discussing the ways in which whiteness creates a false gastronomically expedient relationship with the “other” through the romanticisation of blackness for the purposes of cultural commodification — (just one example of the many she describes).

When apartheid was in full swing, the black freedom fighters could not have foreseen the commodification of their struggle in the contemporary profit-driven smorgasbord claimed by whites in South Africa — a banquet table laden with delectable and marketable black cultural commodities, such as Steve Biko T-shirts, Ubuntu slogans and Madiba Magic. As Winnie Mandela allegedly did not say — Mandela’s aging smiling image is used by certain white folk as a fundraiser in a wheelchair — so shameless is this Madiba Magic feeding frenzy.

Mandela’s smiling effigy has also become a symbol of reconciliation in South Africa and is held up by liberals as a sign that progressive political change is indeed taking place. His image has been appropriated, re-colonised and stripped of a revolutionary history to be devoured as a symbol of white liberalism and logic. Thus the previously demonised Mandela has miraculously become an icon in the West and has created a kind of denialist insanity in the average white liberal mind. He’s cute, he’s old, he smiles a lot and he somehow absolves white folk of their guilt — much as Jesus on the cross absolves Christians of their sins. Like the Jesus icon, he is not really real — he’s kind of a fuzzy deified construct through whom one can transcend all sorts of racist misdemeanours.

But when it comes to the rest of “them” — as in those “blacks”, who by their mere presence do not absolve white folk of their guilt and who cannot be directly commodified and consumed, those who have the cheek to beg at robots, who dare protest their poverty and demand dignity and who at times have to steal to survive, well white people generally say disgusting things about “them” real black folk, using a veritable plethora of terms. Sometimes it is outright racism — like “those monkeys can’t run a country” to “fucking kaffirs” (often in Virgin Active gyms). Other times it is simply changing their accents to some sort of monosyllabic phonetics when talking to the gardener or the maid. Many times it is the overuse of the words “us” and “them”, as if indeed, black folk are a different species.

In fact much racist white banter seems premised on the fact that “they” may not belong to the human race at all, as the father of “absolute knowledge” Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel suggested in the early 1800’s when he posited, with great white man authority: “The Negro, as already observed, exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality — all that we call feeling — if we would rightly comprehend him; there is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character.”

And here we are, hundreds of years later and 17 years into a “rainbow nation” and mainstream white racial banter remains the same dehumanising rant, albeit delivered in less erudite language.

But these mainstream racists are openly despicable and easy to spot.

It is the liberals that espouse a so-called post-race epoch that need to be watched out for because it is this uber-privileged class of white folk that has become even more dangerous to blackness than the outright white supremacists. Members of this echelon have been the direct beneficiaries of the TRC and it is they who have cleverly constructed a new liberal “discourse of disguise”, largely designed to dupe fellow humans into believing that they are not white supremacists even while they maintain their stranglehold over the dominant discourse of knowledge and capital. They are largely the educated and academic class of self-appointed gatekeepers who have been forced to move over slightly and share the institutions of higher learning and business with black folk.

Despite their polite liberal façade, the white folk that populate this class most often secretly believe that black people are not nearly as learned as themselves and that they lack the type of leadership skills needed to run these institutions. Thus they often set about sabotaging the black folk in these positions of power by withdrawing their moral support and using subtle and insidious put-downs camouflaged as supportive language. Behind closed doors though, and safely with “their own”, they openly critique blackness with smug little laughs and comically raised eyebrows and nudge-nudge wink-wink commentary, in a sort of “having their cake and eating it” ritual.

When they are called to book they draw upon their vociferous “hegemony-denial” and make up nonsensical and expedient new terms such as “black supremacy” while conjuring up new fields of learning aimed at disproving their “god-given” privilege.

This is white dominion at its best.

As someone who grew up inside the construct of whiteness, that for over four decades has dished me up a platter of privileges, which I’ve oft imagined I have long since rejected — my disgust at the black minstrel female cake eating debacle has, incongruously, also left me asking the hardest question of all — is it possible for white people, myself included, to ever fully transcend the whiteness construct or are we all vulnerable to being exposed and tripping over our own unconscious programming by some genius provocateur?

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    • Alex Muller

      Gillian, thank you for this article, and for speaking out on behalf of anti-racist whites. It is long overdue to have this point heard. I read most comments (which I shouldn’t have, because as always they simply make me angry). The defensiveness (often masked in aggression against your person) speaks to how much work needs to be done. I am not sure that it is possible for us white people to transcend the whiteness construct – not as long as white supremacy is alive and well, and reduces all our individual efforts to just that – individual efforts of resistance and race suicide within a well-established system. But that does not mean that we don’t have the responsibility to try as hard as we can anyway.

    • Gerhard

      @ Jeremy & @ Dave. You’re both missing the point completely. I have no need to defend myself from quasi liberals such as yourselves, but I do feel that if you lambaste everything and everyone, yet offer no solutions, you might as well keep your mouth shut.

      If you two, like Gillian, feel it your duty to ONLY NOW THAT IT’S DEAD judge a political system you were all a part of and played a role in (I wasn’t alive back then) you are free to do so.

      You are, however, becoming a bit of a snooze. I’ve yet to see a single solution to the problem come from your guilt-ridden blabbering.

    • Sam Slyme

      The two things that disturb me most is

      (1) those who categorise Ms Schutte as a “liberal” (with various prefixes). Many years ago, before she actually snagged the Nobel Prize, Nadine Gordimer, anxious to keep on the politically correct side of things, announced unasked that she was not a liberal but a “radical”. :The two words mean radically different things.Liberalism could best be described by a truly great writer’s words: “Tolerance, good temper, and sympathy”. Radicalism, on the other hand, is well described by Ms Schutte’s style: intolerant, bad-tempered and lacking in real sympathy. Liberalism has never been the top dog in South Africa — it has always been the most hated political philosophy by both the radical left and the reactionary right.

      (2) Defenders of Ms Schutte’s rabid diatribe who complain about the “defensiveness” and “aggression” of those who differ from her. Are they really unaware of the extreme aggressiveness of her writing? And do they not see the defensiveness behind the aggressive front? Read her essay again, and read it carefully.

    • Dave Harris

      Simply saying that the old system is dead is disingenuous because you’re still enjoying those privileges and ill-gotten gains – THATS why you prefer to shut Gillian up.

      Now kindly tell us what you are doing to clean up the mess that apartheid created?

    • Jeremy

      @ Gerhard: QED.

    • Guinness Holic

      You have blurred the line between racism, and libbie patronising. I will grant you that patronising black people is even more destructive than racism. And white libs are adept at it.

      Poor old Brendon has learnt a valuable lesson in engaging with the race-pimps out there, who seem capable ONLY of condemning those of us who find some loose fault with Africans. He has discovered – ironically enough – that there is no point in laying bare your soul and voicing valid opinions, when they would prefer you continue to pay lip-service, excuse shortcomings, patronise modest progress and ignore cultural baggage that seems to get heavier as the post-Uhuru years trot by.

      The truth is that Africans are completely incapable of finding any cultural fault with themselves. They’d rather wave their fist and scream race-filled epithets at those of us (apparently we whities) who plan our lives, put in the spade work when it comes to bettering ourselves and have a history of ensuring the standards of living of our children will be better than ours. That’s what whities generally do!

      I always love those who drag up Saartjie from the Victorian era of freak shows. She was one of 1000’s of freaks on display over the years. Why is she singled out? What about the rest? How we’re all expected to be our white brother’s keepers who died a hundred years ago, is more a testament on how you lot like to keep the hate alive. Racism has become a cottage industry for those who can’t keep up.

    • Dave Harris

      Oh and Gehard, here’s an example of white privilege created by the apartheid regime that you benefit from:
      The thugs at the Goodman Gallery called a “security guard” from the Core Tactical private security company, was filmed trying to restrain the young black guy, head-butting and flipping him to the ground, while the older white guy is treated like royalty. I though someone was even going to hand the white guy a drink of water after his efforts at defacing the painting! LOL

      How do you explain this phenomenon in this day and age in our so called center of culture in our New SA. So do you see how ludicrous you sound when you claim that apartheid, a crime against humanity that lasted for generations, is dead?

    • The Critical Cynic

      @Lucky Ntuli #
      thanks you for that acknowledgement. Two of my best friends (white males, born 1962, young idealists opposed to apartheid in 1980’s South Africa) died in 1994 after a decade exposing apartheid for what it was. They risked their lives almost daily while at the same time recognising and aknowledging their own racist attitudes and working within the system to make a difference. At some point I expect the Harris’ of the world to find some way to vilify their efforts too.

      Many of the “guilty” who risked their lives still keep quiet about it because of it’s unacceptability in their social circles. They bite their tongues, just as many of all colours had to in those dark days. They quietly endure these generalising criticisms and know when the cap doesn’t fit them, just as they know their own racist generalisations often don’t apply at the individual level.

      My point is that despite their failings most humans are trying to become better people. To judge them for where they are now without taking any cognisance of who they were or are trying to become is pointless, even insulting.

      I think Lucky has a good question there Gillian. In fact I’m sure you’ve got some thoughts on Nkandla or how about the toll-free highway that will take you there once another R1.5bn of taxpayer money has been funneled that way? Why not write a piece defending these situations, or how about you comment on 3rd degree, carte blanche, and Special assignment exposes?

    • Cynthia Frazier

      I am impressed with the bias free way this is written. I am hoping that many of my fellow blacks will read this. It has been an eye opener for me

    • Blogroid

      I particularly enjoyed the Hegel quote, thank you.

      I felt that it most appositely described the feelings of the platoon of [so-called] Black policemen who in fear and trembling opened fire on a storming mob of [so-called] Black spear wielding warriors intent on impaling them, at Marikana recently.

    • Humanist

      Accusing others of racism has become SA’s national pastime, and it is the passionate pursuit of the least educated and most dogmatic individuals. And it’s become much like the Salem witch hunts. ‘Your’e a witch! Throw her in the river! If she floats, she’s a witch. If she sinks, she’s dead so it doesn’t matter either way.’ It’s become such an intellectually vacuous accusation, such a Catch 22, with a whole industry and catechism built around it, such a hollow charade where the skin colour of the accused and the aggression of the accuser are the only criterion, that it’s become completely meaningless.

    • Richard

      Important thing also to recognise is that cries of “racism!” are also simply yanking people’s chains. It says, “Look, I know I don’t have much power, but I have this power. Be afraid! Be very afraid!” And of course, everybody is.

    • Azanian

      If one considers that 97% of South Africa’s wealth is controlled by a 3% of this country that are white males, then one could appreciate the absurdity in the claim that we’re all equal in the “post uhuru era”. Racism is at the heart of white South Africa! and that’s been the case since…FOREVER. I attribute the “white attitude” in South Africa” to Mandela’s negotiation skills (lack thereof) and the STUPID TRC that was a mockery. If these Nazi’s were exempted from punishment for massacring millions what worse could be done to them? This is why white business acts with impunity and actively opposes government policies for transformation…the white cartels paddling an estimated billions out of the country annually are informed by Mandela’s delusions of grandeur about having a harmonious and “rainbow nation. That could never be on a unequal footing and mutual respect! These delusions further afford idiots like “Guiness Holic” the luxury of assuming that whites have resources because they’re resourceful and plan for their kids future…sadly that’s not the case, apartheid afforded those privileges from the perks of having black slave labor that didn’t have a pension fund until ’94. So in essence we had to start from scratch and the racists that controlled the economy from the apartheid days are expected to have been reformed and accept black people and employ them based on merit? The whites that migrate to other country’s often have to justify their racism…

    • Azanian

      By having to exaggerate the crime figures of this country and all of them were coincidentally were victim to BLACKS. The story turns comical once you’ve heard it at least a 100 times. The US, Europe and everywhere they may be. They assume that whites elsewhere are just like the ones down here.

    • KMS

      As i grow older, it shocks me how few non racists really exist. Moving from WC to GP some years ago, one
      realises hows difficult it is to walk the talk…

    • David Robert Lewis

      In Lewis v Media24, judge accepted respondent’s claim that racial profiling at its community newspapers was “just a coincidence of homogeneity” and had nothing to do with the results of the apartheid system, in particular the group areas act, being reflected back in terms of editorial, i.e people are the way they are in Mitchells Plain not because they were foreceably removed and put there during apartheid, but because they just happen to be there by divine providence. I argued that the historical reality meant proactive steps needed to be taken to avoid any perception created by these demographics and objected to the use of racist terms by the editor to describe the target market, they argued they merely “in the business of making money” and the groups history of involvement and support for the apartheid regime (Naspers/Media24 literally created the system) did not compel any steps at transformation. Thus the denialist position was accepted while the TRC report was also thrown out as having no basis in reality, effectively there is no possibility of racism in terms of content according to the definition used by the court, which BTW has been repudiated in a number of civil rights cases in the US. The judge went on to characterise my claim as false, while upholding a blatant lie by the respondent, one which is demonstrably untrue. According to their version of events, I am supposidely guilty of plagiarising an interview i conducted myself with Chris Syren and and also of…

    • Dillon

      One of the most difficult things for any human being to do is to look at your indoctrination from the view of a third party and objectively embrassing or denouincing it. I have also come to realise that most people are just not as self aware as others.

      This having been said, i must submit that most white people were victims of apartheid as they were also just born into it. Not victims in the same sense as black people, but victims to their own indoctrination. My solution to inter-racial and many other social problems is to put more stress on self-awareness and introspection. My own self-awareness prevents me from being unjust to all people, regardless of race. You only ever have to ask yourself how you would like to be treated by the next person and then come to the realization that you are the next person to someone else. Simply do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

      I’m so tired of the race issue. i have always been a human being with dreams, aspirations, feelings and hopes and i have never assumed that any other human being is any different.

    • Mark

      It’s always been interesting to me how blind white people are to black suffering, as if it were something abstract and not of this world. And when black people mention it, making reference to past injustices, I can’t help but think how much white people act like a man who had been caught cheating by wife: “Why do you have to bring that up? Why not just let it be? Forget about the past; look to the future!”

      Many of the things you mention have been bugging me for years, simply because I knew them without knowing how to express them. This was simply brilliant.

    • Moerkoffie

      Hi Gillian

      My take on it is that people are different – live and let live. Common respect can bring about a very strong foundation.

      I think you will be able to achieve more if your write in more simple language (for a white Afrikaans male like me your academic style is a bit too high) and tackle one issue at a time with spesific examples.

      Nothing pisses me more off than any person or group thinking they deserve more or are better than others.

      Channel energy to specific issues and you will be surprised how especially the younger South African generation will support such efforts.

      The best is yet to come, but nothing wrong being a kwaai tannie from time to time.

    • HendrikAfrica

      I am a middle class white South African. The biggest problem to me is that their is very little middle class blacks with whom I can mix. Have as a neighbor or talk with at the spar etc. At work I find they are mostly appointed as part of affirmative action and do not fit in their position resulting in whites not accepting them as buddies. The worst scenario is that they always appoint only blacks in positions like cleaners etc. Even though their may be whites suitable for positions like tea girl or telephonist they will keep on appoint only blacks in those positions.
      We must accept there are blacks and whites in all levels of society but by appointing only blacks at the lower etchelons you are actually saying the whites are to good to be appointed at such low levels or that only blacks fit those low key positions.

      The blacks either drive BMW’s, high class, or work as laborers just like they did during the apartheid era. That is where the real economic difference is in our nation, the rich blacks and the blacks from the informal settlements.

      Get the government to supply bursaries, lots of them, for teachers. Without good educators we can not escape from low class citizens to middle class people. We need enough good qualified teachers, esspecially at primary school level where the culture and respect of education is bred. Schools, how come this government are taking us all for a ride with far to few PROPER school buildings. Teachers and schools !!!!