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Non-racism in a racist South Africa – the opiate of the chattering class

In Racism without Racists, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva writes: “Nowadays, except for members of white supremacist organisations, few whites (in the United States) will claim to be racist. Most whites will claim that they don’t see colour — just people; that although the ugly face of discrimination is still with us, it is no longer the central factor determining minorities life chances; and finally, like Martin Luther King, they aspire to live in a society where people are ‘judged by the content of their character – not by the colour of their skin’.”

This is the new non-racist discourse that contains implicit racism but never once admits to it.

In an increasingly globalised world where neoliberalism has taken hold, this new discourse of “non-racism” exists in a system that pays lip service to multiculturalism, diversity and equality. But this “non-racism” is clearly not a global reality, as incidents such as the Trayvon Martin case exemplify.

As understood from Bonilla-Silva’s writings and bringing this into the South African context, the contemporary discursive trend appears to be to downplay the race element in the master narrative and rid the public discourse of the possibility that racism is still the problem. It is now all about race denialism and it is very clear how the discourses of power, social discourses and media discourses seek to soften, circumvent and even ignore the issue of racism in contemporary societal narratives.

But the thing about racism is that it will not vanish simply because some people insist that in a rainbow nation it does not exist … other than over there on the lunatic fringe of course. Racism is like a terminal virus and it will continuously erupt even when society insists it is in remission.

Like any viral disease it is tenacious and has the ability to replicate and proliferate into new neo-colonial neo-liberal strains, much as it did in a post-independence South Africa. In a transitional South Africa when it dawned on the moderate white population that it was inappropriate to speak of black people in explicitly racist terms — whites that harboured racist feelings soon learned a new language that no longer made use of apartheid labels or used distasteful descriptions about racial groups … at least not in public.

What replaced this though, was coded, implicit language that somehow still “evoked” offensive racial stereotyping, but that disturbingly omitted “the possibility of modern-day discrimination” as Bonilla-Silva puts it in relation to contemporary America.

This has become the new form of non-racist yet racist discourse of whiteness. Neo-racist language is now a colour-blind rainbow nation discourse that has a friendly ring to it though it is possibly even more insidious and harmful because it is very difficult to prove that racism resides within it.

Liberal discourse has, however, become synonymous with racism that wears a polite smiling façade. I’ve heard it and witnessed its affect, often facilitated by the most well-meaning people. In fact it is so normalised in our “rainbow nation” that sometimes the recipient will accept it as verbatim kindness. The bearer of this discourse is most often unaware of the implicit racism inherent in their delivery as it is learned but not reflected upon and contains an invisible privilege that is deeply embedded in his/her being. This becomes the mirror for unconscious racism that is inherent in the language and recognised by the recipient but not recognised by the purveyor.

But it is this discourse that is eruptive and disturbing to the recipients who recognise it — as it is felt but often not named. It becomes an uncomfortable and unresolved space that forces the recipient into a state of denialism as it allows no room for questioning. It is brutal in that it is a form of passive aggressive abuse that leaves the recipient feeling destabilised and unsure of their intuitions. This is liberal fascism and it raises its ugly head when it plays out in spontaneous racist social spectacles that many whites do not recognise as racism.

One such example is the attack on the One in Nine protestors at the gay parade in 2012. Here one of the organisers shouts out to the protestors, “this is my route”. The inference is that she has ownership of the streets and the black lesbian bodies do not have the right to be there. The racial implications here are enormous but these organisers to this day insist that race had nothing to do with it — even though the words “go back to your location” rung out loud and clear.

The thing about the whiteness discourse of this neoliberal epoch is that it is expedient. It can accuse black people of being racist and deny its own racism. It is couched in liberalist terms of individualism and contains within it the refusal to acknowledge systemic damage of current and historical white supremacy. This new form of insidious “liberal” racism is perhaps even more oppressive to non-white citizens of the world than outright racism. It shows itself in what white people choose to get publicly outraged by and what they choose to ignore. It often implicitly blames all the ills of the country on black leadership and only admits to this in public outcry over “black racism” or “corruption” or an “utterance” that is perceived as a slight to white “integrity”.

It is the type of racism denialism that has well-meaning white people talk about how Red October, “gives them the chance to distance themselves from right-wing racism and that we should be grateful to them for this”. As if the act of distancing has any impact on anyone and does anything useful in deconstructing or challenging racism. As if the heinous racist hate-speech of the right wing is about us, the white population, and now we can use it to make ourselves look and feel good since we are “not like them”.

This is the anti-racism “activism” of the chattering white class and it is impotent and self-involved.

Surely anti-racism is about on-going activism that seeks not only to challenge, but to dismantle, obliterate and rid our society of a toxic discourse by feeding into an alternative discourse that refuses to let this patriarchal whiteness narrative dominate. Surely this is done through actions and interventions and full-frontal challenge and not through mere “distancing”. It is about never accepting the false construct of the whiteness narrative, whether insidious or right wing, and reflecting on how the two discourses feed into each other.

It is about recognising the aftermath of a white upbringing and constantly being reflexive about how much of ourselves is reflected back to us in racist disruptions, in media narratives, in representations in our schools, universities and institutions. It is about never missing an opportunity to call out racism no matter what guise it wears. In my view unless you are attacking, challenging or agitating against the systemic viral and violent nature of global white supremacy, an entire system that seeks to dominate and destroy all that falls outside of its race-based ethos, I fail to see how you can claim to be anti-racist.

Being anti-racist is not simply distancing yourself from the “lunatic fringe” — or looking for approval from black friends — or showing your “appreciation” for diversity. Anti-racism is about never accepting the status quo — the western patriarchal system of capitalism that seeks to dominate and destroy some “races” and plays out in the corporate hold over governments of developing countries. As feminist activist and author Vandana Shiva has said: “The multiple wars against the earth, through the economy, through greed, through capitalist, patriarchal domination, must end, and we have to recognise we are part of the earth.” That means all of us.

Being anti-racist is being consistent in calling out the supporting discourses that uphold and feed into this capitalist construct, which is one that relies on racialised and gendered divisions and the false construct of whiteness for its survival and proliferation.

White supremacy is not about the right or the left wing in the end. It is about an entire system of domination by one race over others — a system that has been in the making for over 500 years, and it lives in all of us who are born into this construct. We cannot distance ourselves from that — we can only hope to recognise it and abolish this outmoded yet enduring system that was built on falsities to begin with. We can only stand in opposition to all the cogs in this system that seek to uphold racist and sexist forms of oppression, and this means looking way beyond your group of interracial friends or black lovers or biracial children as proof of your “non-racist” views.

In the words of writer Junot Diaz:

“How can you change something if you won’t even acknowledge its existence, or if you down play its significance? White supremacy is the great silence of our world, and in it is embedded much of what ails us as a planet. The silence around white supremacy is like the silence around Sauron in The Lord of the Rings or the Voldemort name, which must never be uttered in the Harry Potter novels. And yet here’s the rub: If a critique of white supremacy doesn’t first flow through you, doesn’t first implicate you, then you have missed the mark; you have, in fact, almost guaranteed its survival and reproduction. There’s that old saying: The devil’s greatest trick is that he convinced people that he doesn’t exist. Well, white supremacy’s greatest trick is that it has convinced people that, if it exists at all, it exists always in other people, never in us.”


  • Feminist, filmmaker, writer, poet, activist and author, Gillian Schutte has a degree in African politics, an MA in Creative Writing and a Film Director's qualification from the Binger Institute, Netherlands. Winner of the Award of Excellence for her documentary entry to the Society for Visual Anthropology Festival in Washington, 2005, and author of the novel After Just Now -- Schutte fearlessly and creatively tackles issues of race, identity, sexuality and social justice in her multimedia work. She is founding member of Media for Justice co-owner of handHeld Films. and co producer of the online Reality TV series The Schutte Singiswas'.


  1. J.J. J.J. 22 October 2013

    The “being brushed off with a big white smile” is not a “whites only” phenomenon, It is a South African phenomenon. Hence South Africans are often mistrusted in Europe when we go around smiling at everyone. But, this is not ubiquitous – many people in South Africa, especially in small town, villages and rural areas are genuinely friendly.

  2. Cynical is good Cynical is good 22 October 2013

    Geeze Louise!… now Gillian doesn’t want whites to smile, while there’s not much to smile about in SA these days I admit, one is forced to at least grimace at the idiocy of this, the latest attempt at blaming the white race for something, anything, whats next?

    I am probably going to be removed, but, just look at the smile on my face while you do it, it’s not racist just a weary Gillian Schutte induced one!

  3. Salome Salome 22 October 2013

    It’s just as well that social scientists and Marxist feminists are not bound by the same rules of logic as engineers or real scientists. If they were, we would have cars that can’t drive and planes that can’t fly. But at least – here is the great thing – it would all be someone else’s fault.

  4. Jerome Jerome 22 October 2013

    The point of a red herring is that it ultimately needs to bear a defendable correspondence to reality. – the red herring in itself needs to contain an element of verisimilitude. The red herrings of patriarchy, racism, White supremacy etc. as primordial evil can only achieve that by confusing cause with effect, and of course they did have the advantage of catering to the perpetually resentful, giving them a life well beyond their sell-by dates. (That, ultimately, is probably what red herring are for).

    But when we attempt discourses striving towards honesty, meaning, utility and truth, it behoves us to recognize that fashionability contains none of these, except perhaps very temporaneously, and that we must confine these fallacies to the previous millennium in that warped space of nineteen sixties campus politics adhered to by the congenitally incompetent.

    In short, we’re talking of a grand narrative here which is badly dated, and which didn’t age well.

  5. J.J. J.J. 22 October 2013

    You are basically asking people to reject their own colour and culture (on the basis of “being guilty for having been born white”), which I think is neither feasible, nor the solution This black and (vs.) white thinking is divisive. We need to do is find the middle way – and aspire to it – aspire to be South African/South Africans first and foremost (who happen to be from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, which we celebrate in our communities).

    What we need to do is define what exactly it us to be South African regardless of race. We need to find a unified/united/uniting approach to live as South Africans in South Africa. We all need to be able to be proud to be South African (no pun intended – and need to let go of cynicism in that regard), regardless of race, in order to become a unified (as in having respect for each other / for all). Insisting on “the guilt of whites” regardless of what they do (because it cannot possibly be genuine) is more than counterproductive. Who are you or anyone to say that my (black) friends are in fact only “token friends”…?.

    Of course, we have to/should fight/stand against wars against the earth, the destruction of the environment, and the planet and we should work towards sustainable solutions, etc, but saying all of this is the fault of “whiteness” ignores reality (China? India? Brazil? etc).

    Highly unrealistic to expect all white people to just reject capitalism, because it is “white”…

  6. Alois Alois 22 October 2013

    It is puzzling that an ever so cautious a publication as M&G even publishes the challenging exposition Miss Schutte sets forth in straightforward, understandable language. She doesn’t mince words, which makes her narrative compelling. You just can’t write about a disturbing social pattern in Elizabeth Barrett Browning terms. M&G has an annoying habit of editing unwanted criticism through its obvious “your comment is waiting…” Nonsense. South Africa has gigantic social problems that no amount of “polite” conversation will disguise. But thank you kindly, Miss Schutte. You are indeed a much needed voice in a country situated on a mound of hidden molten lava. Much of what you set forth herein fits the North American social narrative, too, a POTUS of mixed African/European descent notwithstanding.

  7. Barry Hilton Barry Hilton 22 October 2013

    ‘Anti-racism is about never accepting the status quo — the western patriarchal system of capitalism ..’. Really? Like the western patriarchal systems – dreadful, chauvinistic oppressive barbaric regimes – of Scandinavia or the Netherlands possibly? As opposed to the super tolerant gender accepting feminist eastern regimes of Saudi Arabia or China? Or Russia? Or the terribly un-patriarchal, feminist loving leaders of Uganda or the KZN tribalist ANC? Such unadulterated balderdash barely deserves commentary – but can inspire laughter.

  8. J.J. J.J. 22 October 2013

    Let’s rather just take colour out of it and let’s debate these issues on their own merits.

    *There is no doubt that infinite growth, continuous industrialization, profit before and above else, neo-liberalism, globalisation, the free-market approach, etc are Western and by the nature of it, has European (as in ethnically white Caucasian) origins.

    Expecting white South Africans to take responsibility for all of this is a bit of a stretch (too far). All the guilt and sackloth and ashes in the world (ad infinitum) will not change the status quo, though.

    *I totally agree that the above is not sustainable, is destroying the plant and is extremely unfair, but it also considered to be part and parcel of modern democracy (which is apparently the best system we have and which I’m sure even you Gillian support)… this is a paradox which needs to be looked at.

    It is not a black and white issue (pun intended).

  9. CJ Botha CJ Botha 23 October 2013

    Dear Gillian

    So according to you:
    1. If you are a capitalist you are racist.
    2. If you are liberal you are racist.
    3. You do not have the right to freedom of expression if you are white, especially if you criticize the ANC.

    I do not think so !

  10. Marleen Marleen 23 October 2013

    Excellent article. Uncomfortable truths…

  11. J.J. J.J. 23 October 2013

    We are not (in) America.

    Nobody denies racism exists – by using colour terms in our discourse all the time we are reminded of it 100 times a day, every day in this country.

    White extremist groups are fringe groups in societies. They are what they are and the reality is that they will always be around. You have them in every country in the world where you have “whites”: USA, UK, Ireland, Norway, France, Sweden, Australia, etc, etc, etc.

    They are a minority in this country and to an extent (already) marginlised. Why antagonize? By completely ignoring their grievances, because of “who they are” or the way they express themselves, and in fact attacking them for voicing their opinions, white liberals/you (as per your definition of them) are acting against freedom of speech and being racist themselves: promoting being “anti” a particular section of a particular race in society… We cannot say: The murders of whites in rural areas or specifically farmers who speak a specific language, are less important than the murder of blacks, just because the people murdered are “probably racists”… or were previously advantaged, or speak a certain language. is this approach any different from xenophobia? This approach is legitimizing the victimization of an “unpopular group”, which goes against the spirit of Ubuntu and against what the new South Africa is meant to stand for.

    Ironically “white liberals” have become the promoters of racism (it seems).

  12. Tofolux Tofolux 23 October 2013

    You know Gillian racism is a practise and it seems that when we talk about non-racism we forget to talk about the programmatic action of talking in a non-racial way. It seems that talking about non-racism is just talk coupled by non-action. What I mean action, it means dis-abusing oneself from racial thoughts. ie a man becomes a man in ones description of man. When we talk about programmes we talk about employment equity and affirmative action as two simple eg. Now, given all the campaigns against EE and AA which are but two eg, can we say that corporate SA is on the same page as our constitution when it talks about practises of non-racism. I raise corporate world because our attention has been deflected from the very centre of where redress was supposed to be addressed and re-balanced. I raise corporate world because this is the critical stage where job reservation and gross practises of racism still exists and fact is borne out by the stats. Govt sets the conditions for business to operate and yet results show that the conditions they operate is the best ever and this under an ANC govt. Hence why is business resistant to non-racism? There is a huge battle underway in those governing in the WC govt. their members, the city council and their caucases because racial parachuting and this parachuting hs caused major rifts in their party. Why is there no reporting on this huge issue and is there collusion to cover up this fracture? Some must learn, we cannot talk the walk

  13. TQ TQ 23 October 2013

    Thank you Gillian for yet another well written article. I’m glad you quoted Eduardo Bonila-Silva and Vandana Shiva.

  14. SarahH SarahH 23 October 2013

    Thanks Gillian. Your analyses are always so clear and sound and of course it resonates. So when I read some of the comments, I often wonder if some people really read what you have written; or if they are responding to their own projections. In any case, some responses teach us how denial operates. Other responses encourage us to see that there isn’t a ‘coherence of blindness’ (Zinaida Miller, 2008) amongst transhistorically privileged people.

    That aside, what you are saying resonates with so many analyses in different disciplines and beyond the academy. It is wonderful to see and learn more about how silence and silencing operates so that we can find a way to deal with this invisible violence and its devastating visible and invisible effects in every sphere of life.

    Power to you!

  15. Julia Mukuddem Julia Mukuddem 23 October 2013

    freakin brilliant !!

  16. bernpm bernpm 23 October 2013

    @Barry Hilton: thanks Barry. The latest racism related articles on this Thought-leader are slowly turning me into a self proclaimed racist. Why??
    If I say: “I am white” am I then a racist? Not really, I am just speaking the truth and for all to see.
    When Zuma tells the nation to get circumcised I smile. Am I a racist? If I do joke a little further about what to do with the pile of foreskins, am I thus a racist.
    When I get amused when noticing certain cultural differences, am I then a racist??

    The Dutch have for centuries celebrated “Sinterklaas en Zwarte PIet”. Some darker skinned Dutch are now analyzing this 300 year(?) practice and found that the history is related to slavery and the practice must be halted, saying that the Dutch must simply do with Father Christmas. A representative from the UN has been send to Holland to “investigate”. Nothing else to do????

    A related joke hit the internet: The UN is investigating the pool game on racism because of the “black ball” and its function in the game. .

    We should also stop referring to a “white Christmas” as it could be explained as confirmation of the superior feelings of the whites. Must I go on???
    I have (and will continue to) used race related comments with a smile. Friends who understand African languages, have confirmed that Africans make racial comments about whites. Like Dutch make comments on Germans and British and French,

  17. bernpm bernpm 23 October 2013

    Contd: like the British poke fun about the Irish and so on.

    Giliian’s diatribe on racism left me with no answers on the question: “where to go from here?”

    For the time being, I will continue to enjoy my “prejudiced” arrogant white attitude and feel free to maintain (and at times discuss) my existing prejudices about other people of whatever race or color.

  18. baz baz 24 October 2013

    Racism has nothing to do with capitalism. It will take decades to eradicate this problem until we all respect each other and assist each to do better, but there are limitations on how far one go to assist those with potential.
    The self employed create jobs for those who want to work. The problem in South Africa at the moment, no one wants to roll up their selves and WORK. Let me not divert from the subject. That’s it .

  19. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 24 October 2013

    @Barry Hilton:
    Facts are inconvenient things and stand no chance against the Cloud Cuckoo Land of ideology.

  20. The Creator The Creator 24 October 2013

    Some fairly valid points here. However, acknowledging racism is not going to get rid of it in itself. Racism, assuming that it is driven by class-consciousness (and it surely is) is not going to go away simply because it is pointed out. It will simply change its colour.

  21. Mikhail Dworkin Fassbinder Mikhail Dworkin Fassbinder 25 October 2013

    Gillian is right. I have always seen your LIBERAL whitist as more insidious than the old-fashioned bigot. With the latter, what you see is what you get. The honest bigot has at least one ounce of brute integrity that is lacking in DA types.

    On that note, the manner in which Judge Murphy today openly disrespected an African counsel in the SAPS matter underscored again the need for TRANSFORMATION of the bench. The sight of a respected African advocate having to grovel and scrape before a white man he must address as “my Lord” is a chilling reminder of what I had though we had left behind!

  22. Mark Mark 25 October 2013

    I would like to hear commentary on why in this multi-cultural society we are trying to create, it is still permissable to have race only forums. The black editors forum for example. the president speaks at these regularly so they deemed acceptable. Substitute white or indian in there and there will be hell to pay. There is a 50/50 chance that it will be acceptable with the coloured community, but is this an acceptable joke? maybe I’m a racist. When you reserve positions for black people, maybe put a sign on it with the new age derivitive of “slegs blankes” and bask in the irony. That will be hilarious seeing that in the sphere of the judiciary, judges sit on benches. So in the new South africa we can be proud of turning 180 and having black only benches.

    Racism is a discourse and the black population now own it. So everybody who doesnt see eye to eye with the new black nationalist agenda is, you guessed, a racist.

  23. Chris Chris 25 October 2013

    Thank you again Gillian for calling bullsh*t on this ‘non-racial’ charade of a society. It says something about the existential fear and anxiety that surrounds this subject that so many of comments are so quick to close ranks and defend and justify white supremacy and privilege without actually critically engaging with your argument. It’s like a tragic spin on the old ‘how’s the water’ joke. It’s tragi-comic that a forthright discussion of whiteness and racism is immediately construed as an attack on white people, but it also points to a deep denialism that’s become entrenched as we move further and further away from any frank discussions about race and racism.

  24. nguni nguni 25 October 2013

    Schutte (OMG I think we’re related) what’s you take on Zuma?
    C’mon, do you find him ok, a misogynist, an idiot, a progressive thinker?
    Curious minds need to know..
    Time to open your books

    PS Fassbinder you’re an idiot..

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