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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. Martin Young Martin Young 9 November 2015

    The more we whites talk about this, so that it no longer becomes uncomfortable or embarrassing to do so, the better.

  2. Karl-Heinz Sittlinger Karl-Heinz Sittlinger 9 November 2015

    The thing is this: while whiteness itself does not necessarily mean having a white skin colour, it is derived by cultures of white people over the centuries, and therefore indirectly does accuse white people. Some go so far as to equate whiteness to a disease of sorts, immediately telling us it’s whiteness but not whites that is meant by this. And while the behaviour of the past definitely needs to be scrutinised, and we have to look at the full picture (for instance the role of the church in conquest and assimilation of other cultures), the current thrust to look for all problems and laying blame on it, has a dangerous side effect. It dehumises and legitimised violence and exclusion of whole population groups and is used as an excuse for a narrow agenda. It been done before, in many ways, and never has it been a good thing in history (ww2 for instance).

    The thing is, I have little problem acknowledging my privilege. Whether or not people keep on saying “if you don’t agree with me you are either racist or to stupid to understand the difference between ‘whiteness’ and being ‘white’ “, I believe the way the whole whiteness debate is being presented is destructive and alienating.

    Yeah, we need a frank discussion about many of the topics outlined by whiteness, but sure as hell not by generalisations as such. History has taught us that this kind of thinking, whether masked by semantics of white vs whiteness, can only lead to more strife, hardening of thoughts and even worse the loss of wanting to listen.

  3. Jay Jay 9 November 2015

    It does still amaze me that people don’t get this. However, I think that it is important not to conflate empathy with apology. When you say “I’m sorry your father died”, you literally mean that “I experience sorrow on your behalf”. When you say “I’m sorry I shouted at you” you mean “I apologise for having caused you to feel sorrow”, and imply that you feel the sorry as well. The former case is not an apology, but a statement of empathy, whilst the latter is an apology (and may also include empathy). Expressing sorrow on someone else’s behalf is not the same as an apology.

    Having said that, I think your example of the restaurant is the most appropriate – you are apologising on behalf of someone with whom you are intimately connected that has done wrong. In the case of “born free” white people, who have benefitted from the wrongdoing without perpetrating it, the real need is to understand the effects of apartheid, to empathise with the realities of those on the other end of the heinous arrangement, and to apologise on behalf of the actions for which we may not have been responsible, but with which we are certainly intimately connected.

  4. Daspoone Daspoone 9 November 2015

    i dont subscribe to the notion of white privilege, never will and I really couldn’t give a dam to those who think i should.

  5. Lynette Van Rooyen Lynette Van Rooyen 9 November 2015

    Agree with a lot you’ve written. Most “white” persons I know are just so fed up with the mostly violent/destructive manner of the protests. It only reinforces their “whiteness” perceptions. The fact that is undeniable too is the compensation policy of affirmative action. If you,because of your whiteness, can not get a job/promotion and you experience that someone else(sometimes incompetent but without whiteness) gets the job is unfair in their eyes. How do you address these (mostly real) perceptions?

  6. beggarsfarm beggarsfarm 9 November 2015

    A thoughtful and intelligent contribution to the discussion. Thank you.

  7. Leah Leah 9 November 2015

    Those who ‘get’ it have made peace with themselves and are living a more conscious existence. Those who don’t ‘get’ it – possibly never will (and likely won’t read M&G unless they feel like arguing, denying or dissing articles and comments from other commentators – sometimes from ‘skaamkwaad’).

    The more people who can write about it in a variety of ways the better.

    Despite the removal of most (but not all) of the Apartheid era legislation, Apartheid continues to be a crime against humanity because of the deeply entrenched injustices and desperately divided communities. This country – and the citizens of this country – desperately needs unity.

    The sooner denialist folks can accept that whiteness and lack of empathy, etc. continue to drive the wedge of ‘divide and rule’ – the sooner more of us can work together towards a unified and strengthened future. The legacy of apartheid will haunt us for many generations. Empathy, humility and a sense of justice are required to break apartheid’s bonds.

  8. Barry Dale Barry Dale 9 November 2015

    Whiteness is just a terribly poor choice of term. The fact that someone has to write so much to explain that White has nothing to do with race, when in normal discourse white has everything to do with race, highlights a serious problem. In other countries whiteness has other dimensions to ethnicity that spell out privelege. In a country that is trying to address race issues, using White as a marker is actually making this all about race. The real risk is that it gives permission to a certain type of person to make this all about race, then all about ethnicity, then all about religeon and down the hole we go. The issue is real, but the guilt that allows others to use race laden words to define the issue shows the lack of maturity in the discourse.

  9. James Ellis James Ellis 9 November 2015

    Unfortunately when the ruling party, opposition parties and the majority of citizens in this country spew forth their vitriol against whites, they make it clear that they are referring to “Whites”, White people”, “White minority” “Colonialists” and “Oppressors”, and not to this fanciful philosophical abstract “Whiteness” term that is the rage with psuedo intellectuals these days. When Malema says he will come to sandton and take what is his out of your fridge he means you, a person, a white person. When fees must fall protestors at Rhodes tried to exclude “whites, because they cant be trusted”, they were not referring to an abstract state of mind, and when they called on whites to be a human shield so that they (black protestors) wouldnt be arrested, they didnt want a buzzword in front of them, they wanted a real live white person.

  10. Bee Vee Bee Vee 9 November 2015

    One has to seriously question this one-sided diatribe. Nowhere in this article is there any acknowledgement of current unfair discriminatory practises and institutionalised racism meted out on minority race groups and the excesses that have emerged as a result of such racial nationalism e.g. political patronage, endemic corruption and gross mismanagement. There is no recognition of the emergence of black privilege and the new politically connected elite on an unprecedented scale but sadly much to the expense of the poor and downtrodden.

  11. Jessica Jessica 9 November 2015

    Whites have been apologizing publicly, profusely and forever, haven’t you heard? And you seem to be fond of outrageous generalizations: South African history didn’t start with Apartheid or the colonies.
    We can’t spend our lives on our knees and wringing our hands on a permanent guilt trip. Get it and get over it.

  12. david7 david7 9 November 2015

    A little bit off-subject, but I am curious as to how respect for liberal values is a sin of “whiteness”. Somehow Marxism does not suffer from “whiteness”, but sometimes it feels that the idea of a constitutional state does.
    The UCT “Do not stand in the way of the Revolution!” incident might not properly reflect the mindset of these movements, but if Alan Paton’s liberalism is too much “whiteness” I find it difficult to even understand where they expect to end up with these movements when the history of countries not governed by liberal constitutions almost invariably denies freedom to the majority of the subjects, not citizens, of those countries by the ruling power group.

  13. Chris Andrade Chris Andrade 9 November 2015

    Beautifully said James. This is what bothers me about the whole ‘white privilege’ debate. On intellectual forums such as this, it is neatly packaged and eloquently described as an abstract ‘whiteness’.

    In reality, this is used by the left wing EFF to incite racial hatred and division. Even the ANC has jumped on the ‘everything that is white is bad’ bandwagon.

  14. SchalkPaljas SchalkPaljas 9 November 2015

    Another racial thought-puff-piece that ignores the fact that there are many people, of many colours, who earn and own much more than most, and are very privileged in every way. Just look at our government, as an easy-target example. Lots of privilege with very little of the ho-humdrum of actually doing some productive work.
    Seriously… meh.

  15. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 9 November 2015

    Why do I never hear those conversations at braais and around watercoolers? The ONLY place that I ever come across this conversation is here on Thought Leader.

  16. dmb545 dmb545 9 November 2015

    I am in the UK where they are in the throes of Remembrance Day, the country comes together in cities, towns and villages, schools and churches across the land, to remember those who have fallen in war for freedom.
    Every year.
    Hymns are sung, prayers are said, and the names of those who died so that we can be free are called out. Two minutes of silence. The Last Post. People wear red poppies, donations are made to the Royal British Legion.
    It is not about blame. It is about remembering. It is about coming together to celebrate quietly. It is to respectfully acknowledge history and so know who we are and what we have been through to get to this moment.
    I wish South Africa had a day (its more like 2 weeks in the UK!) when we could come together, acknowledge and accept our past, and celebrate those who died to win our freedom, and commit ourselves to each other. I think such a reflection would help shape our identities and bring the people of our wonderful country together. What would be our poppy?

  17. Khulman Khulman 9 November 2015

    This is ironic: The fact that black students recognised the backlash would be less if white ppl were at the front is in itself a manifestation of white privelege….I hope you see the point now

  18. Khulman Khulman 9 November 2015

    …you’re probably white, aren’t you. Your current discomfort is nothing compared to apartheid, and the white world that still makes us feel like we’re unwelcome guests in your world (which happens to be in Africa…)

  19. Khulman Khulman 9 November 2015

    ‘get over it’…the eternal words of the perpetrator to the victim – classy

  20. Herman Hanson Herman Hanson 9 November 2015

    Offhand, I see this type of labelling as quite silly; more seriously racist, divisive and negative, but hey, that is how SA rolls; we don’t do reality, nation building; or the future. But OK, I accept “whiteness” however you define it and I am sorry about apartheid (as I hope Slovo, Hanekom, Sacks and so on are), even though, like today’s racist ideas, rules, legislation and practices, I spoke out against it.

    But I get it. In my interaction with Zulu people it was usual to say sorry if someone hurt themselves or were hurt by an outside agency you had nothing to do with.

    Now tell us a little about “blackness” I dare you?

  21. Tim Bester Tim Bester 9 November 2015

    Is whiteness like jewishness, or muslimness, or blackness, or christian-ness, or germanness…or does whiteness occupy a special place? If so on what basis?

    Is Ramaphosa a little more white than Zuma? Is Patrice Motsepe even more white than either? Is Rob Davies less white than Tony Leon?

    Lack of empathy should not be racialized…it is foolish and dangerous.

  22. Erhard van Zyl Erhard van Zyl 9 November 2015

    Call it historic privilege, then we can debate.
    But the term “whiteness” smack of generalisation, intellectual laziness, and is frankly an insult.

  23. HughRobinson HughRobinson 9 November 2015

    I could never have thought of a better excuse for not standing up for ones self and moving forward with vision.

  24. Pan Jandrum Pan Jandrum 9 November 2015

    Why do I get the feeling its Groundhog day again?

  25. Robbie Jansen van Vuuren Robbie Jansen van Vuuren 9 November 2015

    Thx for clarifying…

  26. Galgate2003 Galgate2003 9 November 2015

    If we did apologise they would say we don’t want your apology. “Your apology gives us nothing” “we want the government to give us what was taken”

  27. Kobe Candido Kobe Candido 10 November 2015

    Your -article..Re-” Whiteness”-theory…..What do you say about “discrimination” throughout the world eg. a country very much on the media… today..discrimination through centuries//Nothing to do with “whiteness”.!!!!..Myamar!!…..the old “Burma”….????

  28. EternalVoid EternalVoid 10 November 2015

    He heh, I think there are some people in the comments who knee-jerked to the article. People don’t understand something until it really hits close to home, it is a sad part of being human. Like when Ukraine citizens protested, it was for INSERT_REASON; but when similar protests happen here, words like savages come out. Until the perspective shifts, I feel there are many who these words will be lost on. Sad state, but that is people for you.

  29. Elvis Elvis 10 November 2015

    Good contribution and eye opening. You are right, empathy is a key virtue. It’s all about acknowledging the past and forging forward to the better future.

  30. RodB RodB 10 November 2015

    So we’re living the unbearable whiteness of being as the currently disadvantaged.

  31. ian shaw ian shaw 10 November 2015

    Khulman, Do you remember Oprah Winfrey, who said something like this: the best way to beat racism is to be successful on your own terms.

  32. ian shaw ian shaw 10 November 2015

    Khulam; So what would be the “proper” behaviour according to you?

  33. TerminalA TerminalA 10 November 2015

    manifestation of white privilege or lack of self belief / self worth?

  34. TerminalA TerminalA 10 November 2015

    more like your government makes you feel like unwelcome guests on their gravy train. Even zuma himself said the ANC doesn’t like clever blacks. Please explain how there are still no new schools, universities and massive investment in education for black south africans………..

  35. TerminalA TerminalA 10 November 2015

    i’m still trying to figure out where my white privilege is, must have lost it somewhere considering that my parents couldn’t afford to send me to university, i went to a tech college (which had black students studying there) i also had to work at a pizza place, monday to friday, 5:30 pm to 12:30 am to help pay for my privileged education at the tech….

  36. Bee Vee Bee Vee 10 November 2015

    I am an African and I’m very comfortable being that irrespective of any hue you may wish to ascribe to me in order to satisfy your own generalised and distorted prejudices.

  37. SchalkPaljas SchalkPaljas 10 November 2015

    Permanently treating another racial group with disdain because of the past, and not their present actions: classy. Oo! and hypocritical.

  38. Idalis De Leon Idalis De Leon 10 November 2015

    Whiteness prevails…lol..what I love about they will always lose the argument because compassion and empathy will always win the argument and when white people and people of color understand literally that Slavery is all of our history…not just white history its all of our history…blacks and whites…its an epic story…and it has hurt and pain and injustice…but it is our story and we are cool with it…just don’t tell us to get over it.

  39. Idalis De Leon Idalis De Leon 10 November 2015

    Let me guess you are…

  40. Idalis De Leon Idalis De Leon 10 November 2015

    Whiteness is perfect. Gets right down there in the uncomfortzone nitty gritty just inside. It permeates in your comment which smells of….you guessed it whiteness…let me are…

  41. Idalis De Leon Idalis De Leon 10 November 2015

    Well written. Well done.

  42. Rusty Bedsprings Rusty Bedsprings 10 November 2015

    I recon we keep talking about these things because they are impossible to resolve. I do not think there is a person alive that is willing to accept that they are evil. Even mass murderers will have some sort of delusion that justifies their actions. If you accuse people, they will naturally defend themselves. Discussion over.

    If people truly want to see change, they should start talking about common interests, common requirements, and invigorate the healing process by finding things that can be changed for the betterment of all South Africans.

    We need topics we can all rally behind. Pointing fingers at each other and assigning blame does not solve the country’s problems.

    We should be talking about ideas on reducing crime, improving education standards, or eradicating poverty, instead of wasting brain power trying to find people to blame for our hardships.

    This may be my whiteness talking, but may also be my humanity. But I am no longer sure, because I am told my learned social behavior may be wrong, part of an evil system of oppression.

  43. Karl-Heinz Sittlinger Karl-Heinz Sittlinger 10 November 2015

    Ooohhh what a high horse you must be on…lovely when people feel that not agreeing with their statements automatically means proof. It’s just not that black and white…

  44. Karl-Heinz Sittlinger Karl-Heinz Sittlinger 10 November 2015

    A person…yes…

  45. James Ellis James Ellis 10 November 2015

    Afraid not. The only thing it shows is that the black students believed nothing would happen if white students at the front. It wasn’t true and made no difference at the end of the day, various races and sexes were arrested. We know many black people are of the opinion that all white people are trust fund babies and were given everything by the apartheid government, it doesn’t make it true. By that logic the fact that farm murders are committed by black people means all black people are murderers. The logic of “I think therefore it is fact” is flawed.

  46. James Ellis James Ellis 10 November 2015

    Why this constant need to identify as the victim?

  47. CloneMe CloneMe 11 November 2015

    Well said.

  48. Grace Adieu Grace Adieu 11 November 2015

    Acknowledging the culpability of our parents/grandparents is also part of examining ideas and attitudes that we may have learned from them.

  49. CloneMe CloneMe 11 November 2015

    How can anybody forget apharteid, it is shoved in our faces on a daily basis even if we fought against and condemed it. A small group of radicals created it and the rest of us are blamed and condemed for it despite the fact that most of us were opposed to it but had no choice but to accept it or face the same treatment as those it was directed against

    I will not apologize for those that condoned it and implemented it and enforced it as that is something they must do themselves as I did not think or act as they did. I am as horrified and disturbed today as I was then at the mistreatment of any living thing. Fortunatly today I can speak out more freely against injustice which wasnt the case then.

    It is unfair to paint everyone with the same brush. The majority cannot be held responsible for the actions of a few. Neither can they continue to be reminded to apologize on a daily basis. How much apologizing must one do to sate the anger of the one who cannot forgive and move on. Must my young son continue apologizing long after I have gone, must my grandchildren continue to apologize long after my son has gone. When will this having to apologize come to an end?. When will people learn to forgive and move forward.

    These labels ( like “”whiteness””) are created to delay this forgivness because some live with such hatred in their hearts that they are determined to sow discord and strife in the lives of everyone else. It take a few rotten apples to destroy the whole barrel. Nobody wins everybody loses.

    Our country is busy crumbling around us. Corruption and crime surrounds us. Hunger and abuse surrounds us and global warming threatens us Yet our young people , who are meant to be coming together and focusing on how to secure their future and move the country forward are still focused on labeling whites and harping on about the past injustices even if they dont even remember it.

  50. Martin Young Martin Young 11 November 2015

    It’s not a lack of empathy. It’s ignorance, or blindness. We cannot understand what we do not see. This and other posts are attempts to open our eyes.

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