Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

Confronting our white ignorance in a time when #RhodesMustFall

By Roné McFarlane

As the #RhodesMustFall debate continues, there are aspects of white reactions that need to be talked about … by white people.

There is, however, a danger in discussing whiteness in the time of the #RhodesMustFall protests. You could rightly argue that it would be detracting from black struggles that are receiving more attention than they have in a long time. I am aware of this danger, but it is because those struggles are so intertwined with whiteness that I think it is valuable to reflect for a moment on whiteness in post-1994 South Africa.

As a white South African, watching the #RhodesMustFall process unfold has been simultaneously painful and exciting. So has the process of trying to pen down my thoughts on the issue. I initially tried to avoid commenting on the many threads that flowered all over my Facebook newsfeed. On the one hand, as a white person, I am often afraid that my comments will reflect some ignorance that I am not aware of and offend a black person reading it in a way I did not anticipate. There is also a very good chance of offending the people I engage with, people who are sometimes very dear friends. On the other hand, I am worried about sounding self-righteous while I am obviously also privileged and often naïve in my thinking.

However, I became increasingly uncomfortable with leaving it up to my black friends to engage with white people. Does my fear of offending really trump my increasing conviction that, as a white person, I cannot keep quiet on this debate? In a recent talk at Oxford University Trevor Phillips, former chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission in the United Kingdom, argued that for us to really engage about racial issues, we need to be less worried about offending. It is often only when we stop being so concerned about saying the wrong thing, when we are willing to put an honest opinion out there, that we can learn how it offends — and decide whether that matters. This is my attempt at doing just that.

During this debate I have witnessed so many comments made by white people that have made me, to be honest, ashamed to be white. We are obviously not a homogenous group yet we cannot escape the reality that we are often regarded as one (the same problem faced by other races as well). I cannot make a normative argument about what all white people should say and how they should think, what is offensive and what is not. But I can say what I, and I believe many other white and black people, have experienced as reflective of a denial of post-1994 structural and economic inequalities, power dynamics and racism.

For some reason, be it the design of South Africa’s cities, the segregated character of many schools, the whiteness of universities or white economic power, many white people seem to think we are the majority and, in turn, believe that gives us the right to dictate the terms of how things should be. Either that or we just believe we know better (consciously or unconsciously). I believe this arrogance informs many of the other white opinions on the #RhodesMustFall debate.

Many white people have argued that the statue really cannot be that offensive — it actually makes no difference to daily life on campus. As white people, we have never experienced what it means to be of any other race. We don’t know what it means to live in a society that expects you to prove that you are intelligent or competent or honest just because of your skin colour. Despite this, we have the arrogance to think that we can decide whether black experiences and emotions are valid or not.

This points to another, in my view, ignorant opinion: that a debate about the statue is silly and if students are really so unhappy, they should rather focus on the more important structural issues. Firstly, as Ntokozo Qwabe has pointed out, it has obviously from the outset been about much more than a statue. He argues that it is also aimed at broader institutional racism at UCT. Actually, I think it has evolved into something even broader that speaks to a structurally racist South African society and even global racial inequality. Secondly, there is some arrogance in thinking that as a white person, you should dictate how black people should voice and approach their struggles.

Furthermore, I believe we should be overjoyed that there are now enough confident black students at a university to stand up, start a movement and have their say. Instead many, white people rolled their eyes at these “unruly students causing chaos when they should be studying”. “They must be thankful that they have the privilege to study at a university.” The fact that students as far away as Canada, The Netherlands, England and the United States have responded to something that is happening at a university in Cape Town should make us extremely proud. This is a historic moment! Surely these students are not the ones missing the plot?

Finally many have argued profusely for the statue to stay. They argue that we should not forget history, yet in the same breath say black students must just make peace and move on. This while the daily lives of black students make it impossible to do so. And in fact, so should it for all of us. This is not to ignore the complexity of dealing with the historical aspect of the debate (The Heritage Association of South Africa gives a comprehensive layout here ), but highlights that you must be very careful what you argue black students should do, when you yourself clearly don’t think it is a good idea.

These opinions do not, of course, reflect the opinions of all white South Africans. While #RhodesMustFall is not in the first place about white people, it has encouraged critical debate among many, causing us to pause and think again about our role and privilege in this country. To see increasing numbers of white students engaging with, rather than avoiding the issue, acknowledging the unfairness of our institutions and society, and joining black students in demanding change, has been truly encouraging.

But the fact that the debate has also encouraged so many comments that reflect an ignorance of the very real inequalities in this country, places a responsibility on all white people to engage each other further. This entails being brave enough to offend when necessary, but also wise enough to understand.

The reality is that we are living in a society that is still figuring out how to carry and ultimately get rid of the burden that apartheid and colonialism has left us with. While some argue that we are all victims of apartheid, I think to use the term in such a way is dismissive of the horrific suffering and continued struggles of black people in South Africa. I don’t believe white people are victims of apartheid, but we are also products of it.

Does this mean that we should be excused for our ignorance and arrogance? No! It does, however, help us understand how certain ideas are perpetuated through apartheid legacies that still permeate our societies and institutions. It points to the extreme complexity of our society that blurs the lines between good and evil. It reiterates our responsibility as white people to stop pretending that we are South Africa’s saving grace and to call each other out. We cannot sit back and wait for #RhodesMustFall or black students to do it.

But most importantly, it highlights that more inclusive spaces – cities, businesses, universities, schools – for which #RhodesMustFall advocates, are essential: so that never again will our society be able to foster this kind of ignorance.

Roné McFarlane is a 2014 scholar. She is currently pursuing an MSc in comparative and international education at the University of Oxford

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