Martin Young
Martin Young

Unpacking ‘whiteness’

My last post “Whiteness is like herpes” did exactly what I thought it would. It resonated with a small number of fellow whites who correctly understood the analogy, and then provoked an angry reaction from many more whites who simply just proved my point, that “whiteness” (as an issue that is being spoken about internationally in an attempt to improve race relationships) is heavily misunderstood by those who possess it the most.

Louise Ferreira has already given an excellent explanation as to why discussions on “whiteness” should not be looked upon as being “anti-white” in nature. If anything, discussions on the topic are intended specifically to address issues with the aim of improving relationships between the races, making life better for everyone. With South Africa on a knife edge as it is, any effort to do this should be seen as progressive and positive.


Perhaps what is lacking from posts to date are specific examples of “whiteness” in action. I draw these from my own experience, from the way I used to think and be. I still get it wrong from time to time. Here goes:

1. You don’t know at least one of the following things about your domestic helper — her real “African” name, her age, where she lives and the names of her children. And she’s worked for you for 15 years.

2. You still think Christopher Columbus “discovered” America, or that Jan van Riebeeck “discovered” the Cape. (Okay, Bartolomeu Dias then!)

3. You bemoan the mess left on the beaches over public holidays that the municipality has to clean on Mondays. You call your maid in to clean up on the Sunday after your party.

4. You take your complaint to the white guy at the shop, not to the owner, the black guy at the back.

5. You look at a black guy in a big Mercedes and assume he is taking tenders from government.

6. On an introduction to a potential black business partner you talk to the white guy about the black guy in the third person, and he’s standing RIGHT THERE!

7. You have no idea why black people are still angry. You think they are ungrateful.

8. You talk in a different tone or use different words when talking to a black person who speaks English. You don’t do that to the French when you visit Paris, or to an Afrikaner.

9. You’ve said, to at least one black person, “But I don’t think of you as black!”

10. You’ve said “But you’re different,” to the same person. You don’t understand why this is offensive.

11. You think that tensions between the races come down only to issues of “culture” and not down to those of “inequality” and “unequal access to opportunity”.

12. You use the term “garden boy”. He is already a grandfather. You don’t know his surname. After 10 years.

13. You still keep a separate cup and saucer for him.

14. You decide to learn another language. You choose Spanish, rather than an African language.

15. This article offends you and makes you angry rather than makes you feel uncomfortable.

Doing any or all of these things doesn’t make anyone a “bad” person, or even a racist. So many of these are unintentional, subliminal things that we haven’t really thought enough about, yet of which black observers of whiteness will be very much aware.

These might be “little” things to us, but are major slights against black people who have hoped for many years that whites will also make significant changes. These examples might be good suggestions on where to make small beginnings.

There are probably many other examples — perhaps black folk will be kind enough to make us whites more aware by giving gentle suggestions here?

Because we really need to talk about this. Our future as a prosperous nation demands it.

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    • DavyH

      More smugness without real substance. Sorry, I’m not buying what you’re selling – whiteness is a northern hemisphere construct. What we deal with in South Africa is casual or overt racism from all groups on a daily basis, it’s merely easier to have a scapegoat and it’s our turn now.

    • Joe Nina

      Sure, DavyH. Stay in that bubble of yours, nice and cosy. What you’ve just written makes you a perfect match for point #7 above.

    • michael j hancock

      This is just more of ” white bashing “, Give it up now, let us all just be South African with all our faults, breathe, it will all be OK!

    • feanor

      While I disliked your previous article for a variety of reasons, this is interesting and thought provoking – a good check list for people to think about.

      There are a couple of points I disagree with.

      8. People usually change their tone or word choice when talking to someone else if the speaker grapples with the language. This is true in the EU and Africa. To do this automatically rather than reactively is the problem.

      14. Learning Spanish, French, Mandarin – or any other language is no more an indication of inherent bias or “whiteness” than learning the guitar rather than the Kora.

      It is also important to remember that those who suffer from “whiteness” are not without valid concerns and grievances of their own. I would argue that to act otherwise is also an indication of “whiteness”.

      To unilaterally take responsibility for all problems and ills is patronising. It implies lower standards for those you seek to empower.

    • Oupa_sit_op_die_stoep

      I’m so tired of these articles posted by purported ‘thought leaders’ I feel like vomiting every time I read one. Tired of someone trying to paint me as ‘racist’ because I ‘must be’ purely because I’m a ‘privileged’ white. No this drivel needs to be rejected with the contempt it deserves, with the same contempt all these social media character assassination hogwash social media excretes all over your desktop every single day. Once we all sit back accept we are all the same regardless of colour, class, origin or heritage, STOP trying to classify groups and realize more harm is done this way, STOP feeling the need to TELL groups to apologize over and over again for the same sh*t, we will realize the way forward is look towards the future as one people and find solutions to our problems. Again, ughhh…

    • Oupa_sit_op_die_stoep

      Spot on.

    • Willem De Jager

      This time a more useful discussion. As a conservative thinker in the current global political arena (one facebook survey thinks I am a ‘right libertarian’), the things you list Martin, are the problems I find my ‘nice’ friends struggling with. Racists I know don’t struggle with the things on the list; they own them outright. Apart from viewing sudden wealth -amongst black AND white with suspicion and preferring to learn Japanese over Zulu, I really don’t struggle with the challenges on your list. How is that possible for a white conservative? I think having worked with people from the “second” and “third” worlds, I’ve realised that they don’t want white people to be accommodating; culturally accepting or any of that white NWO bull***. They want white people to stop being financially better off simply -as they view it- for being white. They want hard currency in restitution for colonialism. They (educated people) support the arguments of ISIS, Robert Mugabe and Julius Malema. They view the entire West with suspicion and disdain as their families still live in cow dung huts back in India. They learn English out of revenge, not because they want to be like white people; not because they aspire to integrate with the western-dominated world -au contraire. I get it. Being nice will not ameliorate the situation. Admitting white privilege over a glass of pinot noir won’t cut it. Introducing your staff to Bach will not make a difference. Until we (A.) stop and redistribute EVERYTHING EQUALLY or (B.) start defending what we have achieved regardless of black offence and separate from western imperialism, we will keep living in this unequal multicultural dystopia comforting ourselves with illusions of nice liberalism and security behind laser beams.

    • Isabella vd Westhuizen

      Yes they are angry but replacing competent people with incompetent merely because of who they are does nothing to address the anger
      SAA, PRASA, ESKOM have all failed because of this process of transformation

    • Karl-Heinz Sittlinger

      Saying the same thing over and over does not make it any more right. It may be hard for you to believe, but I do none of the things on your list, and yet I have a problem with the way you define things and how you push for them. As I said before, and of course again ignored, the term and definition of whiteness is the problem here.
      Again, we can talk about the privileges white people have, but the slippery road of defining whole groups of people with one brush, can never lead to a good solution, and merely serve to polarise our already fragmented society even more.
      Don’t take my word for it, just look at history.
      And the age old trick of stating that if we don’t agree with you exactly, we are obviously guilty of your generalzations in your narrow definition, can only be rejected.

    • Angela Ursery

      Very, very valuable article. I imagine you’re going to get a lot of stick from white people because of it, so thank you for having the courage to write it.
      Oh, one item to add to your list: in conversation, never identifying a white third-party by race, but always doing so if the third-party is black.
      Thanks again.

    • DavyH

      Considering more than 70 years of South African history has involved the cultivation of racial discord by diametrically opposed governments, does it come as any surprise that racial discord is the order of the day? I’m not spouting victimisation here, the facts are that racism is experienced by every South African on a virtually daily basis. As far as the scapegoat comment is concerned, a brief glance at the news should provide ample confirmation.
      Not a cosy situation at all, but you had to get your snide little comment in, didn’t you?

    • Heidi

      All the examples of behavior you mentioned I find thoroughly repugnant and really quite stupid. it is not the observable norm where I live today. Might have been 20 or even 15 years ago, but definitely not today. Maybe these untransformed persons are more in your sphere? Which is why you might understand why I am offended to be associated with certain bigotry just because of the colour of my skin.

    • Marinus Opperman

      My wife is pregnant with our child. Next year we are adding to the population. What do I teach that child? Should I already just guider her to be ashamed of being white? Should I raise her to be racist? What is the truth about our situation? Maybe we should all just acknowledge that every group in history did many bad and many good things. Can we be honest in that way? I wonder.

    • Jon Quirk

      Interesting article but it doesn’t say anything that a thinking person hasn’t thought through , put into action – but without thinking of the epithet “whiteness”.

      I would call it treating as you find, embracing humanness and humanity and based courtesy and consideration, as well as, of course, curiosity.

      Are we not all born with an innate curiosity to learn more, understand more about diverse cultures and peoples; is that not why we travel?

      And South Africa is so diverse you can travel and not cross our boundaries!

    • Rory Short

      Racism, along with real HIV, is the HIV of South Africa and all groups suffer from it in their particular ways. Racism is a social malaise and it behoves us to help one and other to spot its manifestations in each other in order to eradicate it. This is what Martin is trying to do in this post and more strength to him in this endeavour.

    • divvie

      The mere fact that you have thought of these factors makes me think that you are painfully aware of you own attitude to the other race. (your finger pointing at us with your other three fingers pointing at yourself?). Surely there are other factors involved such as class, different living styles, perhaps responding/reacting to the other persons feelings, putting them at ease because they are also conscious of the situation, whatever their colour, class, social position, etc, etc…On the whole, I think you are being disengenuous, simplistic, confusing plain bad manners and lack of feeling, with racism.

    • 1Zoo1

      Still reminds of the essays on the “Jewish Problem” in the 1930s.

      People are different colours. Get over it

    • keithbe

      You mean in the press when race isn’t mentioned the assumption is that the person is black and on the opposite end if a white does anything then they are referred to as white and usually racist at that.
      Like – 4 armed men raped and then murdered the 76 year old woman.
      The white male hit with a hammer in a racist attack.

      Double standards much?

    • Joe Nina

      Sure, DavyH. Keep telling yourself all of the above. Keep living in that bubble of yours where white privilege doesn’t exist. Like you said above: “I don’t get the point of articles like this since they will not change anyone’s minds but will simply put a lot of people on the defensive.”

      Just keep being defensive instead of acknowledging what’s really going on and how you continue to benefit from it.

    • Rory Short

      I agree the term ‘whiteness’ is part of the problem. However Martin does identify behaviours that need to change on our way to a non-racist society

    • Jan Swart

      If whites in general are guilty of these transgressions, should your charges not read “WE” instead of the accusatory “YOU”?

    • Martin Young

      What surprises me is that you think I would not have discussed this with my black friends before writing it – these are issues that they agree on. ‘Whiteness’ as experienced by black people is invisible to most whites until pointed out. Your experience may be different, but you similarly cannot project that onto all white people and say that you don’t think the problem exists when just about every black person you will talk to will say the opposite.

    • Martin Young

      The only thing that will correct this country’s ills is ensuring equal opportunity. That cannot happen until everyone is aware where inequality lies and how it is perceived. This is why open and frank discussion of ‘white privilege’ and ‘whiteness’ is so important. What would be the sense in attempting to correcting issues that are invisible to those who have them most of the time? This is why I chose very carefully the ‘herpes’ example in my prior post – 90% of us have it and it surfaces very intermittently causing our own discomfort. Unfortunately the analogy was beyond most of those who responded angrily.

      You are quite right about those who proudly own the white supremacy label – there is little point in reaching them. My target is the silent majority, those who will be stirred by this writing into rethinking their own positions as South African citizens, as I was very recently.

    • Martin Young

      I own up in the post to having done all of these at some stage in my life. The post is written as a challenge to get readers to think, and I did think carefully about how to phrase this – ‘You’ struck the right note.

    • Martin Young

      It’s not my term – it’s a well recognized concept. Doesn’t the fact that we are uncomfortable with it speak volumes? What would you suggest as a better term? I can’t think of one.

    • Martin Young

      I didn’t coin the phrase whiteness – it’s used all over the world. Why are we so uncomfortable with it? Isn’t that part of the problem, that our comfort zone is being challenged? Is there a better alternative? I can’t think of one.

    • Joe Nina

      Here’s a quote from Martin Luther King that perfectly describes white moderates/”progressives” like you:

      “I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate.
      I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.’ – Martin Luther King”

    • Heidi

      I am sorry, I did not say it does not exists. I said not in my sphere and not how I teach my children. So please do not tarnish me with the behavior of people in another(yours?) sphere just because I am white.

    • ian shaw

      Jon, I was often surprised when some people declared that they are interested in learning a foreign language whenever they’d need it in their work.

    • ian shaw

      No, this article talks about “mindsets”, not about skin colour and not even “culture”. Such a “mindset” needs further scientific clarification instead of embellishing it with further jargon like “decolonization”. How can I “decolonize” my white mind? One should actually research as to how humans learn or digest knowledge. The Marxists say that whatever we learn is contaminated or at least strongly influenced with our social positions. Are there other factors such as value differences and motivations due to long historical traditions?

    • Martin Young

      It’s interesting that of the 2500 people who have read this, some 428 have seen fit to post it to Facebook. Granted, that doesn’t mean everyone will agree, but it does state emphatically that there is an interest in the topic.

      Nothing in this post is anti-white UNLESS the reader owns up to intentional behaviour that denigrates people of colour. As I’ve said, many of these things are done without thought. If you CHOOSE to do and think this, well, yes, I guess that does make you an overt racist.

      For all I know my writing about it might be another example of my own ‘whiteness’ that I haven’t seen. I had hoped more black people would comment. I’m sure I’ll be addressed if I am wrong.

      My objective is to get my race to THINK before reacting to racial conflicts and incidents in stereotypical ways. This is one of few ways I can be part of a changing dynamic that South African society needs. Because whatever is happening now to bring blacks and whites in sync to build South Africa is not working.

    • DavyH

      While Dr. King’s sentiments were laudable, doesn’t it strike you as equally worthy that, instead of being activists 24/7, there are people who want to experience enough peace and stability to go out and earn a living? You know, the people whose taxes actually enable the country to exist?

    • Joe Nina

      You can do both, DavyH. You can work daily, earn a living and still lend a helping hand to cause of ending injustice by first and foremost not turning a blind eye to it and making excuses for it and getting defensive when people point it out. Let me hit you with another quote:

      “The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil is that Good Men Do Nothing … the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. … The sin of doing nothing is the deadliest of all the seven sins.”

      No-one’s asking you to be an “activist”, just stop denying that there’s ongoing injustice and unfairness in the world you live in, that will go a long way towards actually defeating racism/privileges of one group over another.

    • RSA.MommaCyndi

      I could add, the word ‘they’. As in, “THEY always stand too close in the grocery line”. It makes me sad to see people being othered like that.

      My one and only disagreement, on the post, is number 2. I recently discovered an ant nest in the bottom of the garden. When the amaZulu got to KZN, they discovered the beauty of the Valley of a Thousand Hills. Whilst HomoNaledi undoubtedly knew they existed, the folk who discovered the bones did not. These are discoveries because they were not known of (by the people doing the discovering) at that time. If South Africa had sent Diaz a map, he would have known it was here and would not have set out on a journey of discovery. Cleverly, we had kept our little slice of paradise a secret.

    • Quorra

      I didn’t even know that some of these points where a problem, simply because I did not know some people do this. Seriously? Allow and trust somebody in your home and garden but don’t know anything about them? That, to me, has less to do with being white and more to do with just plain being rude.
      That said, I work in an office environment, for a white boss, and she has no idea what my child’s name is, could hardly believe it when I insisted she was still too young to stay home on her own and I need time off (she’s 5) and only knows my surname because she can’t pronounce it. True story.
      Yes I know that it’s just one point in a list of plenty, my point is that even though I have never done a single thing on your list simply because a) I wasn’t raised that way or b) it doesn’t fit with my personality, I have personally been the subject of many of the points mentioned.
      But then I have come to realise that I form part of an outcast and vastly ignored minority … those of us who aren’t “racist enough” to fit in with the right-o’s but also not accepted by anybody else simply because every section of the rainbow spectrum including the left-o’s have decided that ‘white people’ like me is an anomaly and therefore cannot exist.
      Thank you for an interesting and thought provoking article.

    • Peter Leyland

      May we post 15 examples of “Blackness” in action?
      If not, why not?

    • Galgate2003

      16 Not knowing where your Gardner or “maid” lives
      17 never knowing it was their birthday 15 times over the last 15 years
      18 not knowing their favourite pop star
      19 not supplying work shoes
      20 wonder how come they never use your toilet
      21 how much does it cost for them to get to work
      22 wishing them happy new year

    • Ina-Lu Muresan

      Small specification. I am not white, I am caucasian, and pretty soon most probably, I will be cathegorised by DNA. Why? We are in the 21st century. Time to move on.