Press "Enter" to skip to content

How to challenge your whiteness…

I am a white South African man, and when I wrote about the problems of white masculinity I faced a barrage of abusive tweets, threats and even a phone call to one of my work colleagues to complain about my writing. Ironically, all of this proved the argument I was making.

More importantly: it proved that people — regardless of who they are — struggle to look inwards, to think about who they are and where they come from. When someone raised the point that there was a need for people to look within themselves and discuss the way they love and treat other people (women, in this instance), there was an instinctive move away from thinking about why they behave the way they do and believe whatever it is they believe.

Introspection could lead to change and challenge — an internal revolt, even. It is much easier to withstand the internal revolt that comes from recognising that many of our beliefs are tied only to our surroundings. It is easier to pretend that our mind is ours alone. The contradiction in this is that the human mind is very much a creature of the ruling ideology of the day; and it is only when we lead an internal revolt against this ideology that we actually take control of our mind.

In the documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology Slavoj Zizek, the infamous Slovenian philosopher, draws on Hollywood films to outline the ways in which ideology (the overbearing neoliberal, capitalist, individualist ideology that surrounds us) permeates our lives — and even our dreams. Zizek speaks about the tragedy of living within ideology — it is enslavement by our reality, and our failure to recognise this enslavement.

Zizek, while referencing the cult classic Fight Club, says: “If you want to get free, first you have to beat yourself.”

He calls for an internal revolt against the ways in which ideology enslaves our minds. The challenge for us is to live and dream in a way that is not linked directly to the status quo. In the context of a society which is often polarised on the basis of race, I would say that this internal revolt must be about breaking down the preconceived notions we have about people — and ourselves. It is about coming to terms with the stories embedded in our skin, and the stories we read into the skins of others.

This introspection creates the space for us to emancipate ourselves from the ways in which we experience the “other” — those who are different from us. For example, by evaluating the ways in which we, as white South Africans, have grown up in a culture that affirms our superiority, we can break apart these incorrect assumptions and affirmations. We can challenge the myth of white exceptionalism, and separate the ideology and its loaded stories from the people we meet.

An internal revolt against the ideology we are exposed to from the moment we exit the womb does not merely change attitudes and mind-sets; it is essentially about liberation and taking full control of one’s life, mind and body.

It can — and must — simultaneously be about challenging your whiteness (blackness, even?), manliness, straightness. Beyond tackling the problems of identity, this internal revolt must challenge the goals you want to accomplish and the things you aspire to, as these are most definitely tied to the ruling ideology. Your values, your connection to the social world, the things you devote yourself to, and the way you love others are all indelibly connected to the ideology — and unless challenged, it controls your happiness and future.

Zizek notes that the process of stepping outside ideology is painful, difficult — bloody even. Our complicity in ideology — be it the overbearing ideology of money, money, money or the ideology of white supremacy — makes the process particularly difficult. In the face of revolt, the human mind fights back. The abuse and the heckling faced by people who speak out about complex issues like race, gender and sexuality isn’t merely an expression of ignorance — it is the way in which human beings react to internal revolt.

The failure to introspect is a failure to take control of our lives and our minds. It is only through an internal revolt that we can be free and ultimately live and exist with others.


  • Thorne Godinho has been a struggling freelance writer, blogger and editor for years. He completed his law degree at the University of Pretoria, and is embarking on an LLM focusing on the intersection between law and democracy at the University of Cape Town where he is a Claude Leon Scholar in Constitutional Governance. Thorne is a committed social liberal. He writes in his personal capacity. Follow him on twitter: @ThorneGo.


  1. Willem de Jager Willem de Jager 3 July 2014

    I strongly agree that “[t]he abuse and the heckling faced by people who speak out… is the way in which human beings react to internal revolt”.

    But implying that a neutral experience of otherness necessarily translates to delusions of supremacy is in itself a debilitating and polarising ideology.

  2. Kevin King Kevin King 3 July 2014

    I wish that white bashing would stop, and people just started being HUMAN beings again, not white or black.

  3. Manu Manu 3 July 2014

    [ I faced a barrage of abusive tweets, threats and even a phone call to one of my work colleagues to complain about my writing]

    Amusingly, this is precisely the reason why few non-whites comment to online articles using their real names or profiles. In an economy dominated by whites, the danger of being victimised for ones opinions (particularly about racial issues) is simply too high. You can lose your job or business because a white person didn’t like your opinion. This is a reality not understood by sites like the daily maverick.

    In fitting irony, the result is that the dominant voices in many of these online discussion are white.

    Now I mention this because the resistance offered to the internal revolt you speak of isn’t just personal ideological inertia, but also the consequences that come with revolting against collective prejudices.
    Somebody wanted to destroy you and they called your workmate. What this tells us is that changing ourselves forces others to change themselves. So an internal revolt trigger a collective revolt.
    However, people in the past will have already devised mechanisms to prevent collective revolt to preserve the status-quo. For example, from a young age we are taught to preserve our cultural identity and to treat all who question it as a threat.
    When you questioned white masculinity, you unwittingly questioned an entire culture.

    So encouraging personal revolt will be helped immensely if those choosing to do so are protected from…

  4. Ben Ben 3 July 2014

    If the author of this piece is serious about developing as a writer, he will welcome dissenting commentators. Instead he does the same thing as every other precious leftist that writes on TL by questioning the motives of his critics. You were rightly derided for your gross generalizations and poorly constructed arguments. Instead of panning your critics why don’t you address the dissent that your previous piece generated? Or did none of your critics have a single valid point to make?

  5. Withaak Withaak 3 July 2014

    I find Manu#’s comment particularly apt. Any process of deterritorialization and reterritorialization(shedding steorotypes prejudices) and attempting to get at the Real tends to make those around one hostile. It seems that a lot of people prefer to stick with their accomodations with the prevailing ideology so they can comfortably assume that their position is correct. The cognitive dissonance that arises from questioning the validity of this ideolgy results in vilification of the cause of the dissonance and a radicle marginilization of the person or group as either crazy or dangerous. Of course the person questioning or challenging can also be aware that the grind of earning a living is enough stress for most people and challenging the status quo though vitally important can be viewed as somewhat of a luxury even though the hell one goes through is quite the opposite, but worth it. There is a need to be gentle with people. We all face tremendous violence everyday, we are atomised, isolated and frightened. Worst of all we are angry that we are victims but our anger can only safely be expressed at those nearest us and those less powerful in the pecking order. Gently with understanding we can show the real.

  6. John John 4 July 2014

    Thanks for an insightful synopsis of Zizek and the application to SA. I would agree, and suggest that all sociall identities need to be subjected to deconstruction and critique – whether it is the kind of self-critique you suggest or external critique. It has become quite fashionable to bash white maleness, with all of the generalisations that this involves. I have found that being on the receiving end of this critique has been healthy and libertating, but also unfair. Empirical study (rather than speculation) might also reveal that certain ideologies are pervasive beyond the boundaries of white maleness, and that white men are far less ideologically homogeneous than assumed.

    No one is “ideology free”, not even Zizek ;-). We live at intersections of competing ideologies and to privilege certain ideologies (because they are not “white male” without subjecting them to deconstruction and critique is foolish.

  7. Gavin Foster Gavin Foster 4 July 2014

    Hmmm. Sounds like a massive case of insecurity to me. I must be one of those of whom you speak because I have no intention of challenging my “Whiteness” to suit the opinions of others. I think for myself, I don’t patronise and I don’t need to be patronised.

    And what if the personal revolt you encourage swings the other way? Would you still be so keen on it?

  8. Lindsay Lindsay 4 July 2014

    I think it was Paul Zeleza who said that the pages of African history are awash with the blood of invented identities. We have (and continue) to work extremely hard, as a society, to create and maintain boxes of race, sexuality, gender, class, ethnicity, religion etc to put people into. Black, white, straight, gay, Christian, Muslim, Zulu, English, man, women, rich, poor, etc etc etc. Because these invented identities express power relationships and because they mediate access to resources (emotional and psychological as much as they are material) people are invested in them, and prepared to defend them – as Zeleza observes – even with their lives. As you observe, it’s not easy to challenge these investments. But every little challenge counts!

  9. Baz Baz 4 July 2014

    Let’s move on. Stop bashing the white male. we are all different in stature, educational background, our tastes in various things differ greatly. It’s becoming tedious by a long shot.

  10. bernpm bernpm 4 July 2014

    @Stevin King….thanks Kevin for your sane comment.
    I have been a whitey for the last 77 years, travelled around in various places and worked with many different “colours” or cultures as well as religions (another one of these prominent differences).
    Again, if we can start to joke and laugh with each other rather than pick on the differenced, life would be easier.

  11. Conrad Conrad 4 July 2014

    Getting opposing opinions confirm your arguments? How? The fact that you suffer from these insecurities does not mean that others do, or that they have not come to terms with their position in a racially polarised society. You assume far too much and generalise far too much. Bring us some incisive arguments and analysis, as opposed to regurgitating the most current academic fashion in deconstruction without real application.

  12. Sakina Grimwood Sakina Grimwood 4 July 2014

    Hi Thorne. I admire, respect and honour what you say here. Thank you. I am a black woman who is doing a lot of inner work and really taking on my inner revolution. My struggle with my blackness has been and still is a big part of this journey. The vast majority of white people I have met are unconsciouness about their whiteness and how it shapes their reality and their responses to black people. I have met gems, like you, who are doing that difficult inner around whiteness. I want to thank you for doing the healing around this that you need to and encourage you to continue to speak. We will only see a different world in a substantial and meaningful way where there is more love if we all do exactly what you, and Zizek, call for: Inner Revolution. Love to you, Sakina.

  13. Fiona Wallace Fiona Wallace 5 July 2014

    Really interesting, Thorne, that so much of the ‘critique’ of your article is couched in terms of certainty vs ‘insecurity’. I would think that insecurity is one thing NOT being exhibited by those who have the courage and strength to look inward and question what lies there.

    Interesting too that the other reaction is to deflect responsibility away from self and claim victimhood in ‘white male bashing’. Sometimes the complacency is astounding.

  14. Fongkong Tiger Fongkong Tiger 7 July 2014

    Sorry, you lost me at Zizek.

Leave a Reply