Roger Young
Roger Young

Whiteness, shame and “this strange place”

“The liberals must realise that they themselves are oppressed if they are true liberals and therefore they must fight for their own freedom and not that of the nebulous “they” with whom they can hardly claim identification.” – Steve Biko

So much has been written on whiteness recently that it hardly seems worth adding to the debate. Mostly because this clamouring-on, this hand-wringing over what “whites should do” is taking up so much space, it’s as if white people, after having learnt the lesson that they cannot speak for their black compatriots, now have something that they are “allowed” to talk about again. It’s everywhere, this whiteness talk, even I now add to it. This may be self-reflective but it’s not the silence Samantha Vice suggested in her academic paper that posited the idea that whites should feel shame for being born white, for inheriting privilege and should, therefore, turn inward and withdraw from public life.

As part of his lecture (hosted by the Gordon Institute of the Performing and Creative Arts) on whiteness and Samantha Vice’s infamous article on the subject, Professor Pierre De Vos dealt mostly with Vice’s position being an essentially inadequate, and undemocratic, response to the challenges South Africa faces daily. He spoke eloquently and convincingly about participatory democracy, he joked about his white liberal credentials and he raised the idea that a “non-racial future” was impossible, that we are all raced beings, even though it is only one part of what defines us as individuals. De Vos concluded, “Not remaining silent is not always going to be risk free and it is not always going to be easy or morally pure … but that is what is required of us as full citizens in this democracy continuously coming into existence. Do we really not have the luxury to not dirty our hands?”

But on Vice’s call for shame, De Vos registered that he was “still ambivalent, because there might be a place for feeling shame”, positing that feeling shame was unhelpful and perhaps a little self-involved, framing Vice’s vision, in my head, as one of white people reacting like Pilate. Should we also, he asked, “feel shame for benefiting from the economic exploitation of others because we take part in the capitalist system? Is the avocation of shame not a paralysing moral cop out in response to the injustice around us, injustice in which we are steeped whether we are “white” or “black”?”

This “place for feeling shame” could not have been more adequately spelt out in the question and answer session that followed. I reproduce, partially and without descriptive context or comment, three of the statements made by audience members below (If you wish to listen to the full Q&A, it’s available here).

“It’s actually the least white people can do, really, is to shut up and let black people (and not just Mandela, Zuma and the corrupt people) design a new paradigm of black power … I think it’s important to acknowledge that the symbolic power of whiteness resides in the scheme and it goes together with … the history of whiteness and you cannot at some point feel that now you want to salvage whiteness by focusing more on the subjective agency of whiteness and almost forget the subjective violence of whiteness.”

“I had a lot of problem with her idea of bodily shame, if you grow up in a female body it is a body that is shameful, and from shame comes silence. So I think that is not a particularly useful emotional.”

“On the question of shame, I used to steal sugar when I was young at home and my mom loves tea very much. And very often I wouldn’t be aware that I was stealing the sugar to the point of finishing it. And she would come home and not have any sugar to drink with her tea and I would feel shame for this. For me, at that time, it was a horrible thing to feel, but in retrospect it was actually a good thing to feel because it meant at least that I had some conscience. That I am responsible for this missing here, for this not being here, and if I can correct my behaviour there onwards to make sure my mom drinks tea and everyone in the house is happy then that is something I will be able to do.”

And finally, someone in the audience asked De Vos if there was any personal moment of shame, linked to whiteness, which he would like to share. “I was about sixteen,” he started, “when I one day noticed that the woman who worked for us in the house was given a separate tin plate, we ate out of porcelain plates. And it was, it is, one of the most profound moments in my life where I went, why? My mother, the person who I really deeply loved, has decided that this is way the world is, and how I’m implicated in that… separation and denigration of a fellow human being. And it’s one of my big regrets that I never confronted my mother about it, in those terms.”

When Vice says that as white people in South Africa “we shouldn’t feel comfortable”, this is what I imagine she was talking about. It is indeed instructive that De Vos spoke about shame over whom we are born as as being unhelpful and then registered that he carried shame for something that he had failed to confront.

The outpouring of debate over this issue (to the point that the Mail & Guardian has a section on whiteness) is a vast registering of that shame. What the debate does not need is every white person placing their shame over the more important issues of economic injustice. It should not be shame over whom we are but rather what we have failed to do, collectively as a nation, and as individuals.

As President Zuma recently stated in his Freedom Day speech, “For white compatriots who had benefited from the policies of successive racist regimes, April 27 [1994] brought about the lifting of the burden of guilt or shame.” Why should there be, 18 years later, this sudden outpouring over shame and guilt for being white?

In 1994 everyone had different expectations of what the new dispensation was going to do, but most of these expectations revolved around equalisation, the leveling of the playing field. The ANC has had a difficult time of transforming a system that was designed to serve the few over the many, into one that serves all. The outcome, however, is that the needs of the many have not been met, and for the few the perceived primary cause is self-enrichment and corruption. While the many are still living under the same conditions as they were pre-1994, so are the few, the whites who have, as any individual would be expected to do in a capitalist society, held onto their privilege and wealth. In this light, it is extremely difficult for the many to blame the revolutionary movement that they understand to have bought them freedom for their continuing lack of “a better life”, and it is extremely easy for those of the few that are conscientised to feel helplessness and shame for continuing to have privilege. In essence the ANC administration’s shortcomings have highlighted the privilege gap.

If you are being shamed for something that is inherently you and unchangeable, be it sex, gender or race, disability, mental illness, addiction, or religion, you have to come to terms with the fact that you are not at fault. It’s hard to know though. You only have to look at how effective apartheid was at stripping the nation of its self-esteem to understand how powerful a tool shame is in dehumanising people. But, conversely, shame can be helpful, if it is about something you can change.

During the Q&A, De Vos spoke about attending the AGM of the Law Society at the Kelvin Club. “I told them,” he said, “why, you know, are you not briefing more black advocates? Now you complain about transformation on the bench and that they’re appointing the wrong people but you don’t actually brief the advocates, even as a junior counsel. Why not? And then you feel the hostility in the room rising. I wonder why that is, because it seems to me that even if you have no moral consciousness whatsoever, just for strategic reasons it is in the interests of white people to do these things.”

Is Tutu’s suggested tax on whiteness (although in last weekend’s Sunday Times he seems to have backed off that idea a little bit), the guilt tax, a solution? The idea of a taxation-for-forgiveness system reminds me of the medieval religious practice of buying indulgences, and while it might be affordable for the wealthy, it would be crippling (ideologically and financially) for those that are already struggling under the tax burden. If there was to be such a guilt tax, it should be on companies that were apartheid profiteers and not individuals. There would, however, be cause for doubt that this tax would ever find its way back to the people.

White people should be asked to register their shame by the sharing of their privilege. Not by handing over money, which then places an inappropriate value system on the act of atonement, but rather though a systemised network of community service-like education programs for the disenfranchised. That is, whites should proactively, and through consultation with black consciousness-centric academics, develop a system in which to share the one thing about white privilege that makes it so; the expertise and knowledge resources that it takes to rise above poverty. The problem with this solution is that, for the most part, those that feel shame for their past inaction are probably doing something already, or have emigrated.

Before you vent your outrage in the comments about being asked too much from this country, I must ask: Can you truly say you’ve done enough? Do you only pay your domestic worker or lower-wage level staff the minimum wage required? If your response is that it’s not your fault that they do not have the acumen or skills to do anything else, I need to correct you. If you matriculated pre-1989 and you didn’t actually stand to lose anything in the struggle, if you didn’t actively try to help those who were suffering or not being educated, if you went to the army and patrolled the townships, then I say yes, it is your fault that there are people in this country who lack skills and education. And no, having voted PFP is not enough.

On the other hand, according to some black consciousness or black power schools of thought, this solution would present problems as well, as it could be an attempt by white people to impose their will and importance on black development, which is why I suggest that this community service skills education program needs to be managed in consultation. There were rumours that the End Conscription Campaign was trying to start up this process a while ago, but nothing seems to have come if it.

In fact black consciousness thinking and Vice’s views have similar colonial foundations. They both lie rooted in this idea of us as “we” and “they”. The black/white division. We may understand that a total non-racial paradigm is an impossibility, and that our young people are already moving more towards a manner of relating that is post-racial (that is, it does not see race as a primary factor in forming opinions about people), and yet we continue to use the terms of division created by the colonisers. In her follow-up M&G piece, “Why my opinions on whiteness touched a nerve”, Vice constantly uses the term “we whites”. She, in an odd way, reminds me of those National Union of South African Students (Nusas) members from the seventies that Biko despised, she fails to see her withdrawal (as the Nusas members failed to see their activism) as a part in the equation of dehumanisation. As De Vos pointed out, the proposal of withdrawal from public life is a vain and narcissistic act, like a child in a tantrum.

During De Vos’s talk he repeatedly returned to the phrase, “in this strange place”. It’s in the question that opens Eusebius McKaiser’s article which broke word of Vice’s paper, “Confronting Whiteness?”. The phrase itself is borrowed from Bernoldus Niemand’s song Reggae Vibes Is Cool, but in the context of this discussion it irks me as much as the we/they approach to things.

This land is not strange, not to me. And those people who see it as strange have not fully understood it, I think. It is a hurt land, a beautiful land, it is home, it is the home of others we don’t listen to enough, and it is a place pregnant with discovery and promise. No, it is not a strange land, and none of its myriad people are, in bald reality, strange, even though we still need to cross this divide created by the colonisers and the economic tyrants. We are, in fact, all in this together, searching for our souls, our peace, our truth, trying to find a way for to live our fullest lives in good conscience. Surely we should not be asked to turn away from that?

How do we make a difference to the lives of others, how do we register and atone for the shame of inheriting something, without being dehumanised in the process? If the only ideological viewpoint is to turn away and hide our shame (a rather biblical response and one which smacks of colonial evangelism) then what are we meant to do? And here I am really asking, how are meant to respond to this ideological deadlock?

We’re lucky then that we are people rather than pure ideology, that we are human before we are raced, and that we can take part in the participatory democracy, to contribute, to make our voices heard. It is not for this or that race group to shut up so others can have a turn; it is up to individuals to speak up, to be listened to, to expect to be heard and to desire debate. It is time for the people to head off the disaster that economic apartheid is speeding us toward. We have now reached a time for those historically privileged who have yet to step forward to be respectfully proactive, no matter how politically incorrect it might seem, about sharing, not of their material wealth, but something even more important than that: their time and their acumen. It is time for them to feel pride in what they have, while acknowledging how it was acquired, and to achieve a sense of belonging by sharing it. To paraphrase Goethe, if we want this country to change we should treat it not as it is, but as we want it to be. If we were to behave in such a manner, whether you identify as black, white, or just plain human, I don’t think there would be any cause for shame at all.

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  • South Africans should stop thinking in terms of race
  • Creating space to talk about the politics of shame
  • Reattributing shame as an act of social justice
  • Kingsolver’s narrative indictment of colonisation: The Poisonwood Bible