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Mngxitama and the whiteness debate

By Max Rayneard

I’m a white South African, admittedly seated in a coffee shop in upstate New York where I teach African anglophone literature to American students, but wanting desperately to be home. I agree with Andile Mngxitama’s characterisation of whites “dealing” with complicity as something akin to a pastime: something one does now and again, rather than an experience lived day to day. His critique in “End to whiteness a black issue” is valuable, so too his anger and insistence that the path forward for black South Africans is one of self-determination rather than white imposition.

That said, I am profoundly discomfited by the constitutive asymmetry of his perspective. I understand this asymmetry as inevitable and perhaps appropriate, considering the pernicious one-sidedness that characterises the history of white privilege built on the oppression of black people. Nevertheless, I am discomfited (in itself, I believe, not an invalid response).

Mngxitama’s article appropriately and necessarily centres black experience, but does so, implicitly, at the expense of a humanising engagement with white people. By this I mean that while he explicitly understands struggle for black economic justice to be dependent on an ongoing process of conscientisation, he disallows whites the same as they struggle to come to terms with their place in the South African experiment. For Mngxitama, it seems, whiteness is a signed, sealed, and delivered ontological condition. To be white is to be set, to be done, to be finished: a shiny product with fatal flaws that renders it irredeemable in light of new, better-suited and adaptable technologies.

Obviously, that’s not how I see myself nor my thinking white friends. As skewed as our views may be, as insular as our knee-jerk responses are, as redundant our gestures, we ARE trying. We are in process. Many of us want a better world. For those of us who understand that we have few real complaints about our own lives, that desire is often, if ineffectually directed outward. We are, in other words, dissatisfied with injustice, even as we don’t always know what to do.

Part of our problem is that we encounter injustice mostly in the abstract — we read fora like this, newspapers, journal articles, watch TV or surf online. The strong among us move between suburbia and the townships. The point is that we nearly always have another option, an elsewhere, an escape. We don’t live injustice in the same way as many black South Africans do. That makes recognising it (never mind guarding against or fighting it) something that doesn’t come easily. Injustice hardly hurts our bodies, and so putting our bodies or our livelihoods on the line is less than intuitive. That’s the privilege of whiteness, and the way in which, in the current discussion, we are hamstrung.

But, and it’s a big, stressed “BUT”, we’re TRYING.

Often, reading this forum, I feel like a student who keeps stumbling because I have not acquired the necessary skills. Being a student is difficult. As a teacher, I have to recognise this. One of my primary starting points is faith in my learners. To be effective in what I do, I have to believe that they are doing their best. Often, that faith seems misplaced. When it does, I have to remind myself that their wonky priorities (their unwillingness to read, or question, or make deadlines) might be a function of their histories — they might be first-generation students, or come from underprivileged schools, or struggle with learning disabilities, or be dealing with emotional baggage. Sometimes (very rarely, once that I can remember in more than 10 years teaching in South Africa and the US) you encounter a learner who is irredeemably feckless and entitled. And yes, there comes a point at which you just have to say, “no more, enough — the energy I am expending on the one is hampering my ability to facilitate learning in the many”. That is an absolute last resort. To do so is to risk going against another primary principle of effective teaching: humility.

What I read sadly between the lines of Mngxitama’s article, is that kind of dismissal, even as the forum in which it is published is stuffed with white people, putting up their hands, and, implicit to the very act of writing considered if flawed responses, saying “I’m trying to make sense of this and I’m struggling”.

Student: Mr Mngxitama! Sir! Sir! How about this idea?
Mr Mngxitama: Fuck off out of my forum, you lazy, entitled idiot.

This response, then, serves not as a rebuttal of Mngxitama’s argument, but as a request for an addendum. White people may not yet be doing our best, but then we’re also working without clearly designated requirements. Many black commentators, dare I say teachers, like Mngxitama, are not being forthcoming in their pedagogy. What, in their opinion, would a white “best” look like? When giving is something we want to do, it’s paternalistic. When we speak, we’re drowning out black voices. When a quiet and assiduous argument that whites should withdraw and look to themselves first is mainstreamed, we are accused of being conflict averse (when in many ways Vice’s stance is born of conflict — internal and external). We want to be better at being South African, but we don’t know what that means. So what do you think? What options are unexplored? What questions unasked? Bridges uncrossed?

I should add that this posture should not be read as a prostrating of whiteness at the foot of blackness. I am wary of the desire to be “approved” a “good white”. I write, instead, in defence of constructive discussion. All the great 60s and 70s conscientisation pedagogues (Steve Bantu Biko, who Mngxitama sites in support of his position, is assuredly in their number) argued the necessity of deflating the status of teachers. Top-down pedagogy is suspect, to paraphrase Paulo Freire, because it is premised on the idea that oppressed student heads are empty and to be filled with the flawless knowledge of the (traditionally) European-trained teacher. Certainly, Freire’s pedagogy was meant for oppressed people (as the title of his most influential great work makes explicit). As certainly, white people striving to be better at being critically conscious and contributing members of South African society, should not, by most stretches of the imagination, be considered oppressed. That said, the principle stands. White people struggling to come to terms with themselves, just like oppressed black people, are not know-nothings. None who arrive in this forum are void of their own histories’ lessons. None, I assert with faith, lack the dynamic, evolving ability to do better, even if some (here’s looking at you, racists in the comments section) lack a willingness to learn. But there are those of us who ARE willing, and I, for one, struggle to keep going when I’m told that I cannot, despite all my efforts, pass the course in which I am enrolled.

As Freire understood, students are more likely to find their own critically-conscious voices in a horizontal and mutually constructive space. Such pedagogy is not safe for anyone involved. It is risky. How could it not be, when the task is to transform consciousness? Letting go of certainty is profoundly destabilising, and things worth learning hurt. To facilitate this process ethically, the thinking goes, teachers must assume the same risk as students in process. They must value their students for the knowledge they bring to the classroom. They must take student ideas seriously and risk being wrong in the process. They must risk learning too. They must become students. This, it strikes me, is what Mngxitama’s position precludes.

And so I feel I must step beyond the station I am designated: Mr Mngxitama, sir, in this regard I believe you are wrong. I understand, of course, that your priorities may not lie with the privileged beneficiaries of apartheid. I admire your focused social accountability. All South Africans can benefit from people like you. But I want South Africa to be better place for all its citizens because of people like me too. Your insights are instructive. Any ideas?

Max Rayneard a South African Fulbright Scholar currently teaching African anglophone literature at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York.