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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.


  • Louise is a freelance journalist and writer living in Johannesburg. She is particularly interested in topics surrounding social justice and gender rights. She's on Twitter as @frrlou.


  1. TheNewFreedomFighter TheNewFreedomFighter 11 November 2015

    Well said! Yours is the inconvenient truth that the cowardly proponents of “whiteness” as a pseudonym for “whites” just can’t bear to hear.

  2. TheNewFreedomFighter TheNewFreedomFighter 11 November 2015

    Reality check: Bee Vee is probably white and you are probably not. What can either of you do about that? You feel the hand of injustice from the past, she feels the hand of injustice from the present. Can either of you change the past? No. Can either of you change the present? Yes. Will black on white retribution change the past? No. Will black on white retribution change the future? Perhaps, for those few who are lucky enough to be the direct beneficiaries. The rest will probably witness no improvement and will most likely regress. If you have any doubt about this look no further than Zimbabwe where retribution has resulted in catastrophic economic failure. The economist, Mike Schüssler writes, “At independence Zimbabwe was in the 67th position (in terms of the size of their economy) and firmly in the top half of the international rankings. The country is currently in the bottom 22 and is the worst performing country in the history of the modern world.” Taken from: Welcome to the decline, South Africa. If you think the issue is about race then you have been trapped in ANC/EFF revolutionary brainwashing. The issue is about so much more. Open your mind.

  3. grant grant 11 November 2015

    Firstly, you don’t apologise to someone at a funeral. You offer condolences. This is distinctly different from an apology because you empathise but the issue at hand is not your fault. An apology is something you offer when you are at fault. So, while I can empathise with people who suffered under apartheid and offer my condolences in a sense, to apologise means accepting the blame and that is where good white people who had nothing to do with apartheid machinery and frankly found it disgusting find it hard to take the sins of others onto their back. You are asking for a Jesus-like acceptance of sin onto one who did not commit it to make another feel better. I don’t think it is honest or helpful. It is not authentic and it won’t work. So lets change the narrative to offering condolences, help, a hand of friendship and many other positive things…unless you were one of the architects of apartheid or the secret police that enforced it in which case you can ask for forgiveness and offer your sincere apology.

    Secondly, white prosperity was not built solely on the back of black oppression. That is a false and highly misleading narrative. Let us reduce it to a simple equation for clarity:

    White Prosperity = F(a x Imported Skills, b x Cheap Oppressed Black Labour, c x Western Cultural Contact, d x Mineral Discovery & Extraction, e x Capitalistic Culture, f x Modern Farming Techniques…)

    You can keep adding things that make up the function of White Prosperity and weight them according to how much you think they added to the pot and you will see that Cheap Oppressed Black Labour is in there and had an effect for sure but if you think that White Prosperity = 1 x Cheap Oppressed Black Labour you have missed a huge chunk of the puzzle, you are misleading people and you have an agenda which is questionable, common to those who pedal half-truths disguised as facts. Australia is a similar style of economy to ours and they have built it to something far exceeding ours in size and quality without cheap black labour at all. It is not vital to building a modern economy. Skills trump cheap labour every time. Fact. So lets build skills for the next generation instead of lamenting about the last one. It is difficult to oppress a generation of highly skilled people.

  4. Barry Dale Barry Dale 11 November 2015

    The author must be cringing, they spent ages saying it isn’t about race. Then you simply make it all about race. Far from refuting my argument you simply back it up.

  5. Jay Jay 12 November 2015

    True. However, in the case of those of us who were neither born in the country nor had parents/grandparents who were, we still benefit from the structural inequities. There may be no family culpability (and frankly coming to terms with the racial minefield of South Africa for us immigrants is somewhat overwhelming), but there is nevertheless a space that is held open for us that would not be otherwise.

  6. Gray Liddell Gray Liddell 12 November 2015

    Stefan Molyneux said 6% of the population of South Africa pay 99% of the taxes.
    Does that get entered on the Is that White Guilt Payment line?

  7. TheNewFreedomFighter TheNewFreedomFighter 13 November 2015

    “Empathy, humility and a sense of justice are required to break apartheid’s bonds” This is definitely your “whiteness” speaking. Most “white” folk I know, having voted to end apartheid in 1992’s referendum, to varying degrees express empathy, humility and a sense of justice. Mostly, they want to lead independent productive lives and contribute to our society in a variety of ways, even if it is just to pay their taxes so that these may be used wisely to undo the wrongs of the past. The problem is the political, economic and social discourse from the ANC and EFF is a direct threat to this “productive life”.

    Just one example may make my argument more pointed. It is an undeniable fact that, as an agricultural land owner (many of whom, contrary to popular ANC/EFF rhetoric, live hand to mouth with huge debt to service), if the regime of the day were to claim their land without compensation they would be destitute. How should such a person show empathy, humility and a sense of justice in the face of such a threat? I could give many more similar examples, but I pose these question instead: Why, should the same policy of land expropriation with (ANC) or without (EFF) compensation not be applied to ALL land, including residential properties, owned by people of “whiteness”? Why only make a portion of the “whiteness” pay for the sins of apartheid?

    I may be wrong, but to my way of thinking a solution that singles out some because of their “whiteness” is a poor solution and shows a regime that is intent on racial retribution, not nation-building through social justice, cohesion and shared responsibility through equitable governance. In short, present or future racial victimisation (as under apartheid) is not a different crime against humanity as was apartheid.

    We need a visionary leader because the current incumbent, and even the crop of hopefuls that loiter in the political wings, are hopeless and have not transcended racialism.

  8. Larsen Bjorn Larsen Bjorn 1 December 2015

    The fundamental flaw in this sermon is that you are not given any choice in your supposed political relevance. It starts from the assumption that some self-described identity (race, in this case) is what defines your relevance. The result is that individual choice and accountability are consigned to irrelevance and that identity rules everything. Yet, absolutely no case is given why this approach is better than any other. I reject such collectivist thought at the level it should be- its very foundation. I am an individual responsible for making my own choices in life, and so is everyone else.

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