Press "Enter" to skip to content

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.