Malaika Wa Azania
Malaika Wa Azania

If whiteness can’t be unlearned then black oppression is permanent

Many arguments have risen out of Gillian Schutte’s “Dear White People” perhaps the most progressive provided by Jackie Shandu in “Black people, fight your own battles”. Shandu argues that because Schutte’s letter is addressed to white people, it ought to be dismantled and dissected primarily by the white community who it seeks to engage in dialogue. This argument by Shandu is correct in that it is expressive of Black Consciousness literature, which locates the role of white anti-racism activists in the conscientisation of their own white community rather than in the forefront of black struggles.

There have been other less progressive arguments resulting from Schutte’s article. One in particular posed by Andile Mngxitama and Athi-Nangamso Esther Nkopo in “There’s no unlearning whiteness, despite what “anti-racists” say”, holds a very regressive and somewhat contradictory argument that white people cannot engage (even among themselves) in critical dialogue about the race question because as inherent beneficiaries of white racism, any contributions that they make are bound to be an affront to the black struggle against the conditions created by the very existence of whiteness.

The two “Black Consciousness activists” argue Schutte’s article is reflective of her “liberal” agenda, which seeks to neutralise the race discourse by taking on a paternalistic approach. They go on to argue that Schutte’s appeals to the white community end with the acknowledgement of their guilt without really giving constructive solutions on how to dismantle and obliterate the structural and institutionalised white racist realities that have been entrenched by centuries of colonialism and apartheid. The issue of Schutte being married to a black man and having a mixed child also receives mention but because such arguments that seek to attack a person rather than an idea must never be dignified with a response, I will not delve into it, only focus on the former.

The argument raised by Mngxitama and Nkopo is defeatist and senseless. Firstly by claiming that white racism cannot be unlearned, the two “activists” are submerging black people in a state of defeatism. The oppression of blacks is a product of the white supremacist philosophy. As such, black oppression will truly end when there is no white supremacy, for even if as blacks we were to be conscious of white racism, unless that system itself is annihilated, the racial antagonism that exists today will not cease. And so saying that the very reason for our oppression can never be destroyed is openly admitting that we are in these nervous conditions eternally. If such arguments are to be taken seriously, then all of us who are engaged in struggles to fight white hegemony must throw in the towel and welcome perpetual defeat. This of course is not a solution, for no pedagogy which is truly liberating can treat the oppressed as unfortunates and as a defeated people.

Secondly by claiming that white people cannot unlearn racism, Mngxitama and Nkopo employ a naturalist and biological reductionist perspective on the antagonisms between whites and blacks. They present white racism as a natural system infused within the chromatin network of white people, rather than something that is learned. And we must understand that white supremacy is not natural, it is learned. White racists undergo a primary and secondary socialisation that teaches them that by virtue of the colour of their skin, they are better humans and that equally, by virtue of the colour of their skin, blacks are lesser humans. Racist white adults transfer and transmit their anti-black beliefs to their children not through deoxyribonucleic acid processes or during the period of gestation, but by teaching them racist ideas from a young age.

The two “activists” fail to recognise the fact that the very existence of whiteness as an oppressive system is informed by the construct of whiteness as an oppressive idea, without which, such a system would be incoherent. White supremacy exists because it is first theoretically architected and then institutionalised, in that way given expression systematically. And so, unless that belief itself is dealt with, the practices that arise out of it will not be dealt with. Biko argues, and correctly so, that “as a prelude whites must be made to realise that they are only human, not superior. Same with blacks: they must be made to realise that they are also human, not inferior”. And so if black people are to become their own liberators, they must necessarily exclude white people from black affairs. They must embrace Black Consciousness as a philosophy to free themselves from the chains that bind them. Equally, white people must then architect, by themselves, pedagogy that will first and foremost, hurl at their consciousness the truth about a philosophy they have entrenched and that they benefit from. In the same way as blacks must first recognise their oppression in order to fight it, whites too must recognise that they are oppressive. And it must be them who come to that realisation, without the aid of black people, which is why Schutte’s letter is so important.

It is a white voice speaking to and educating a white community. Mngxitama and Nkopo’s argument that Schutte does not offer solutions is premature, because for white people to even deal with the structural oppression that they benefit from, they must first recognise that such a system exists. They have become desensitised to what white privilege means for the rest of humanity. As such, they must be educated about their direct role in our oppression, but not by us. It is not the responsibility of blacks to educate whites on the regressive nature of white racism; it is the responsibility of white activists. And that education must be truly radical and transformative, for education must either function as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger white generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which they deal critically with reality and discover how to architect the transformation of their thinking.

White racism can, will and must be defeated.

Malaika Wa Azania is the founder of Afrikan Voices of the Left journal, a second-year student at Rhodes University and a steering committee member of the African Youth Coalition, a pan-Africanist alliance of youth in Africa, a brain-child of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation.

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