Martin Young
Martin Young

Unpacking ‘whiteness’

My last post “Whiteness is like herpes” did exactly what I thought it would. It resonated with a small number of fellow whites who correctly understood the analogy, and then provoked an angry reaction from many more whites who simply just proved my point, that “whiteness” (as an issue that is being spoken about internationally in an attempt to improve race relationships) is heavily misunderstood by those who possess it the most.

Louise Ferreira has already given an excellent explanation as to why discussions on “whiteness” should not be looked upon as being “anti-white” in nature. If anything, discussions on the topic are intended specifically to address issues with the aim of improving relationships between the races, making life better for everyone. With South Africa on a knife edge as it is, any effort to do this should be seen as progressive and positive.

cartoon

Perhaps what is lacking from posts to date are specific examples of “whiteness” in action. I draw these from my own experience, from the way I used to think and be. I still get it wrong from time to time. Here goes:

1. You don’t know at least one of the following things about your domestic helper — her real “African” name, her age, where she lives and the names of her children. And she’s worked for you for 15 years.

2. You still think Christopher Columbus “discovered” America, or that Jan van Riebeeck “discovered” the Cape. (Okay, Bartolomeu Dias then!)

3. You bemoan the mess left on the beaches over public holidays that the municipality has to clean on Mondays. You call your maid in to clean up on the Sunday after your party.

4. You take your complaint to the white guy at the shop, not to the owner, the black guy at the back.

5. You look at a black guy in a big Mercedes and assume he is taking tenders from government.

6. On an introduction to a potential black business partner you talk to the white guy about the black guy in the third person, and he’s standing RIGHT THERE!

7. You have no idea why black people are still angry. You think they are ungrateful.

8. You talk in a different tone or use different words when talking to a black person who speaks English. You don’t do that to the French when you visit Paris, or to an Afrikaner.

9. You’ve said, to at least one black person, “But I don’t think of you as black!”

10. You’ve said “But you’re different,” to the same person. You don’t understand why this is offensive.

11. You think that tensions between the races come down only to issues of “culture” and not down to those of “inequality” and “unequal access to opportunity”.

12. You use the term “garden boy”. He is already a grandfather. You don’t know his surname. After 10 years.

13. You still keep a separate cup and saucer for him.

14. You decide to learn another language. You choose Spanish, rather than an African language.

15. This article offends you and makes you angry rather than makes you feel uncomfortable.

Doing any or all of these things doesn’t make anyone a “bad” person, or even a racist. So many of these are unintentional, subliminal things that we haven’t really thought enough about, yet of which black observers of whiteness will be very much aware.

These might be “little” things to us, but are major slights against black people who have hoped for many years that whites will also make significant changes. These examples might be good suggestions on where to make small beginnings.

There are probably many other examples — perhaps black folk will be kind enough to make us whites more aware by giving gentle suggestions here?

Because we really need to talk about this. Our future as a prosperous nation demands it.

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