Louise Ferreira
Louise Ferreira

On whiteness and white guilt

There is a refrain that is often heard around the braai or the water cooler, and it goes like this: “Why should I have to apologise for apartheid? I wasn’t a part of it/was only a child/wasn’t yet born.”

There is another one that I’ve been seeing more often lately, on Facebook and in thinkpieces, lamenting the “anti-white sentiment” of movements like #RhodesMustFall, Open Stellenbosch, #FeesMustFall — of social consciousness in general.

Both of these ideas, I believe, are based on a few fundamental misunderstandings. To explain the latter, let us look at the concept of whiteness.

Whiteness has various definitions, but this resource from the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, is useful. It is important to note that whiteness is distinct from race. In a nutshell, it refers to the idea that when it comes to “social, political, economic, and cultural behaviour … [white] culture, norms, and values” are considered the norm, the standard. Whiteness defines other cultures in relation to itself.

Whiteness, in other words, does not refer to having white skin. Whiteness is not conscious racism. It is the idea that the way white people exist in the world — which is not “wrong”, in and of itself — is what is normal, and it gives us social, political, economic and cultural power.

This is why Open Stellenbosch and the like are not “anti-white”, they are anti-whiteness. They are attacking white cultural hegemony, not white people.

The complaint about having to apologise for the sins of the fathers is a common one. At a recent roundtable on whiteness, Ernst Roets from AfriForum said that asking white people to apologise for apartheid is a “crime against humanity”.

This apparent belief that people only apologise for something when they are directly at fault, is rather odd.

When you attend a funeral and you tell the bereaved that you are so very sorry for their loss, you’re not saying that you caused the loved one’s death. When a friend says that they’re going through a divorce, or they’ve lost their job, or their child is ill, what do you say? You say, “I’m so sorry this happened.”

It’s called empathy.

The Afrikaans word for empathy is “meegevoel”, literally “fellow feeling”. You express sorrow on someone’s behalf because you are sorry for their pain.

There is another type of scenario where you will apologise for something that is not your fault. Let’s say that you are out having a drink with a friend. He is in a bad mood, has had a few too many, and is rude to the waitress. When he goes to the bathroom, you mouth “I’m sorry”, and leave her a big tip.

This is only one example, but the point is this: Sometimes you apologise because you feel shame or embarrassment on behalf of someone else.

And to the people who say, “I was too young”, or “My children shouldn’t be held responsible”, let me ask you — have the older generations apologised? The ones who really, truly cannot deny that their silence made them complicit?

I am not suggesting that (particularly young) white people need to feel guilty for apartheid. Guilt is not useful. It weighs you down. It stops you from being proactive.

I do not personally feel guilty for apartheid, because yes, I was six years old when it officially came to an end. But I do feel tremendous sorrow and rage at its decades-long existence (and colonialism for centuries before that), and for that I will continue to apologise.

Apartheid was built on black suffering. White prosperity was built on the oppression and dehumanisation of black bodies. Do not forget this. Do not ever, ever forget this.

It is accepted in social justice circles that the discomfort of the privileged does not outweigh the suffering of the oppressed. Even if you do feel guilty, that very minor discomfort is not remotely comparable to the cruelty suffered by people of colour for centuries, and the disadvantages that still continue today.

White privilege is real. If you have difficulty understanding it, here are two explanations in illustrated form (the latter also includes links to text and video, which I would encourage you to read and watch). And if you still struggle with the idea that white people continue to benefit from apartheid, look at it this way: people of colour are still, in various ways, disadvantaged by it.

White privilege isn’t only about money. It also means that when you cross the road at a traffic light, no one will check that their car doors are locked. It means that there is no insult applicable to white people that is equivalent to k****r, or c****e, or h****t.

So no, Mr Roets, asking white people to apologise for oppression is not a crime against humanity. But apartheid was.

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