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Whiteness is like herpes

You know now that you have it but prefer not to talk about it. Every now and then it surfaces like a rash, provoking discomfort, not in you, but in others. You have lived with it for so long that for most of your life you didn’t even notice it. In fact, you were surprised when someone, unable themselves by virtue of colour to have it, discovered that you did, and pointed it out. The diagnosis hurt. It was uncomfortable knowing that others saw in you something that was damaging to them, but not directly to you.

And now there are calls to have those with whiteness pay for the damage it has done to others. This makes you uncomfortable, knowing that, like herpes, you cannot eradicate whiteness from your own being. It is just there. Subliminal, under the surface, unseen by you and others like you.

To others whiteness is as glaringly obvious as a flashing neon sign, like the trappings of privilege in good residential addresses, private schooling, the latest smartphones and flashy cars. More worryingly, whiteness manifests in an absence of empathy and understanding of the distorted benefit that those with it enjoy. This is one reason why those without it fear contamination or infection by the same values. This is why whiteness is a barrier to good relationships, just like undisclosed herpes.

There may be a solution however. This can be learnt from those who have herpes, or hepatitis or HIV and have managed to successfully and happily live without causing harm to others. The infection does not go away but its consequences are significantly reduced to the point that it becomes simply a part of one’s identity, and not a disease.

This solution could be as easy as simply saying something like this:

“I have whiteness. I didn’t know what it was and didn’t know what damage it did. But I do know now. I understand and acknowledge all the harm that I and others like me did, even without realising it. I am sorry for the way that things were and are. I accept whiteness exists in me, and am willing to talk about it, and listen as to how it affects others, so that those effects may be reduced and one day eradicated. I know this will not happen immediately, that it will take time, and that others with the same will probably resist this initiative. From time to time my whiteness may get in the way again, and I may not see it. I ask that those that do point it out to me. We need to talk about whiteness and its harm at all levels, as we do with disease, by education starting in the schools, being sure that those with it bear no stigma. We must have open and frank dialogue, overcoming our discomfort, until one day whiteness, as a clear distinction from skin colour, no longer exists.”

I believe this is possible. I know it is unavoidable if we are to heal this land.

For more on “whiteness”.



  1. chris chris 30 October 2015

    There is a very simple solution to this white problem. just give Afrikaners external self-determination (as per international law agreement) and they are safely out of the way ……

  2. ian shaw ian shaw 30 October 2015

    Rugrat: no debate, it is just the usual denial that only whites can be racist.

  3. ian shaw ian shaw 30 October 2015

    Karl-Heinz: I vaguely remember that it was one of the Rwandan tribal leaders who called the other tribe “cockroaches”. There were no whites involved there.

  4. esme esme 31 October 2015

    We are all affected by de facto racism of course I am. Because we live on this planet and its in transition. In fifty years time this will be a ridiculous conversation. Priveledge etc in this country is always looked at as if the past dictates our destiny. It only does if you keep thinking it does. If you want transformation start acting and thinking now as if we are all have equal potential because we do. I live in an awareness of the unity of humanity. Not this constant blame-guilt cycle that ties us to what we don’t want.

  5. esme esme 31 October 2015

    I hear what you are saying but please understand the average white person does not own hectares of land to cede or huge reserve funds. You are right to want these excesses redressed. But Martin’s article is not about that. The kind of issue you are referring to is selfishness and greed and I wish all South Aficans understood that is a human sickness not confined to this country or any skin color.

  6. esme esme 31 October 2015

    With great respect do I sense a bit of fear mixed in with your guilt. How is any of that helpful? Do we have to “confess” our white priveledge as a pandering technique so the radicals will spare us when the crunch comes? How, do tell, does the “awareness” you want whites to awaken to help in real terms? By having a nice white group and a nasty white group so the radicals can tell these two apart? Do you honestly think we are not way past that point? We have a ghastly situation in SA but to think priveledge is unique to SA and has not been part of human development world wide is just narrow thinking. Change never came anywhere racial or class because the priveledged realised their folley. It is a force of individual and group evolution and growth and will happen here too. Being all “woe is me for my history” is just a kind of abstract navel-gazing leading nowhere.

  7. esme esme 31 October 2015

    You have actually hit the nail on the head. Humans need to stop speciesim as urgently as all the other negative ways they think and behave. Thank you.

  8. esme esme 31 October 2015

    Yes you are right! And not just technology. There is a new stream of awareness, compassion and understanding for All Life that is emerging as we speak. That is where we should place our energy and focus so that can grow in all humans. Race will dissolve as a separating issue in the coming years/decades as humans all blend. And the “economy” will change from a grasping/excluding one to a sharing and abundant one. I hold that belief and seeing the “new” children now being born and starting school I am very confident..

  9. Martin Young Martin Young 31 October 2015

    I have absolutely no issues with ‘being white.’ I recognise however, that being white brings with it hidden prejudices that make us react in certain ways to black people and the issues facing our nation.

    Unless others are made aware of the same, we will not progress and inequality will continue to plague South Africa. We deal with ‘whiteness’ by acknowledging it as a force that holds us all back.

    If people get upset and uncomfortable about this topic, and start talking about it then my intention is being achieved.

  10. Martin Young Martin Young 31 October 2015

    Please point out in my article where I for a moment suggested ‘self immolation?’ Or is this a defensive knee jerk reaction? Acknowledging ones privilege is not an admission of guilt. What it does is open ones understanding of why the underprivileged in SA make the demands they do, whether they are reasonable or not, and how to go about addressing them.

  11. Voldemort Rupert Voldemort Rupert 31 October 2015

    It’s not about the colour of your skin, dude! And I’m quite sure it’s not tongue in cheek either. It’s very real and very true too. Did you even follow the link at the bottom. I only did now and what an awesome read that was. Oh, and sorry for the down-vote; I just wanted to reply but my mouse aim is sometimes a bit off.

  12. Voldemort Rupert Voldemort Rupert 31 October 2015

    I just followed the link at the end now and WOW!! This whole ‘whiteness’ thang actually pre-dates whiteness as such. If you study enough history you soon realise that slavery and oppression (and gender inequality) stem from what we were taught at school to call the birth of civilisation.

    Basically it was Sumerian culture that was the original ‘whiteness’. By the time they had been absorbed into the predominant ‘races’ of that time and place all those cultures were desperately trying to live up to Sumerian culture. This was the start of the wave that has now engulfed the world via the roman empire, colonialism and now corporonialism or what Rushdie called the coca-colanisation of the world.

  13. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 31 October 2015

    Whilst I’m not completely convinced that being self absorbed, supercilious and ignorant is limited to any skin colour, I do know that the attitude is a highly contagious disease which should be cauterized at the first opportunity.

    Skin colour (along with height, weight and aesthetic features) do give people a huge advantage in life. That is anywhere in the world. People would employ (pay more to and put up with worse performance from) the Brad Pitt lookalike way before they employ the Danny DeVito lookalike. Charlize Theron is also always going to get a lot more movie rolls than Queen Latifah. Not fair, not nice but it is reality

    In South Africa, our skin colour still gives us a huge advantage. Not only did we have parents who were educated enough to help us with our homework, we don’t suffer the indignity of being the ‘usual suspect’ or having crappy service. Our parents probably know someone who knows a contact who could get us a job … and we will probably get the job too. Like the Brad Pitt lookalike, our physical appearance makes people treat us differently

    I am no more ashamed of the colour of my skin than I am proud of the size of my feet – both were a genetic potluck. What does make me cringe is when my ‘tribe’ make ignorant comments. The recent student protests brought to light some very disturbing insights into how sheltered white South Africans really are. Trying to explain that you ain’t gonna ‘just get a part time job’, if you aren’t a 5’9″ blond bombshell with a well connected daddy and reliable after hours transport, was rather difficult.

    Too many of our people (of all colours) simply have no idea of what reality is like for anyone else

  14. Romilia De Andrade Romilia De Andrade 31 October 2015

    Thank you for what you are doing, Martin. It takes courage and is worth it. If even a tiny seed of awareness is planted it may eventually take root and grow ….

  15. Mr5306 Mr5306 1 November 2015

    You know this whiteness problem you talk about reminds me so much of the “Jewish problem” of the 1930, did you know they where also considered “privileged”?

  16. JenWin JenWin 1 November 2015

    Only in loony leftist land is someone enjoying the fruits of their labor or their ancestor’s labor considered “privilege”. I’m not going to apologize for being white, I’m not going to feel bad about it, not once, ever, and I’m not going to tolerate this 1930s-style racial marginalization and demonization.

  17. Alfred States Alfred States 1 November 2015

    Amen. The recent Double-Speak issuing from Malema’s mouth is very disturbing to anyone well versed in the Nazi propaganda campaign leading up to the genocide.

  18. Alfred States Alfred States 1 November 2015

    I read the link too and it seems to be essentially a lot of semantic gymnastics, which attempts to say that, what is being said, is not really being said. As for example when someone says “You are fat and ugly – but I don’t really mean that you are fat and ugly” – Why say it in the first place?

  19. epaminondas3294 epaminondas3294 1 November 2015

    This might be one of the most racist things I’ve read in a long time. By ascribing guilt to skin color you make the argument that all whites born in every generation are to be blamed for the actions committed by any other white at any time in history. That is the very definition of racism. You are no longer identifying a person’s moral character by their own words and by their actions, but by guilt through a common skin color. I hope you can understand philosophically how wrong that is. You wouldn’t dare do this to any other race. You don’t blame “Asianess” for the crimes committed by Imperial Japan for example. Crimes of which included bayoneting infants, mass rape and decapitations for sport. That was of course a long time ago, and almost no one alive today in Japan was responsible for that. It would be wrong to hold them accountable for the sins of their grandfathers. Guilt is not transferable to the next generation or to another person. Today in America, Asians score higher on average than whites, are more educated than whites and have higher paying jobs. Yet no one in my country brings up “Asian privilege”. Why is that? It’s clear that what is happening is nothing more than a variant of the Christian concept of “original sin” only applied to white people for just being white. In fact you argue there isn’t anything you can do absolve yourself of that sin, you will always live with it and short of committing suicide, there is nothing to cleanse yourself of that sin.

  20. John Mars John Mars 2 November 2015

    Because white skin is magic. Didn’t you know that?

    If you have white skin you don’t have to plan, you don’t have to organise, you don’t have to work. In fact you don’t have to do anything, you can just sit back and relax.

    All the things will just appear out of thin air for you to enjoy! Like free water, free electricity, free houses and free education.

    p.s. Funny, but I have never seen this publication referring to Blacks or Jews as a STD. But I guess that would be hate speech…

  21. Jenny_Tawls Jenny_Tawls 2 November 2015

    Martin, I agree completely. As a white woman and a feminist I am in the unique position of being both privileged and underprivileged. On daily basis’s I am confronted by the usual male dynamic and at the same time I must also come to terms with my own dynamic that as a white woman I was born to hold a privileged place in society by virtue of my skin yet still must come to grips with the daily belittling that goes with being a woman. It is a very difficult thing to talk about especially with those who are prone to shutting down an argument simply because they don’t think certain genders are worthy of opinions. How would you suggest women overcome this barrier? Can men come to recognize masculinity as herpes? You may have answered similar questions in one of your other articles, I am sorry I have just now stumbled upon you, I will be reading more from you! Yours is a voice we need!

  22. Donn Edwards Donn Edwards 2 November 2015

    When American white supremacists start joining in the debate, then its a case of “there goes the neighbourhood”. Keep up the good work, Martin, and thanks for making South Africans (re)think the race issue once again.

  23. Lee Murray Lee Murray 2 November 2015

    I suspect, Dear Doctor, that your wonderful education, your success and subsequent wealth (all hard earned, I’m sure) placed you comfortably on the other side of the buffer zone. Your personal journey to the realisation of your whiteness was, as a result, delayed. White South Africans, without a tertiary education and/or a scarce skill (i.e. those living on the other side of the buffer zone), as well as some who do hold these hard-earned benefits, came to the realisation that their whiteness had devalued very significantly at the point at which affirmative action was implemented. No longer could we obtain (or remain in) the jobs we had before. We faced and continue to face a very scary and insecure future. The jobs we had before can be done with equal competence by our black counterparts who, as a result of AA, are the favoured applicants. Some of us who were lucky enough to possess the remains of our white advantage, have used skills and possessions to eke out a living. Many have not been as lucky.

    It is possible that in your social and professional network, you do not mix very often with the lower middle class white person – a place where we live from month to month, support destitute family members as best we can and live two to three generations in one home in order to pay the rent and share the financial food burden. I live in a small complex of 20 units where nine of the units have cross-generational residents – and those are only the ones that I know of. It’s our reality.

    Our whiteness is not the same as your whiteness, Dear Doctor. The tenuousness of our whiteness dawned on us years ago and has been all but obliterated since then. It has been replaced with insecurity and fear – something you may perceive to be whiteness.

  24. Donn Edwards Donn Edwards 3 November 2015

    My cat has Herpes. I was born white and clever (and modest), and inherited some privilege. I worked hard at school and university, and believe I am contributing to society and the economy in a meaningful way. I guess I could do more.

    But I refuse to feel guilty about being “white”. That’s what cheap politicians want to exploit, and what “entitled blacks” like to dish out as some kind of insult. Good luck with that.

    Thanks for putting the issue into clear thoughts. My only fear is that as long as we keep talking about race and racism we will never solve any of our problems. And there are many. So let’s return to the task at hand: eradicating poverty and corruption and crime …

  25. ononynous ononynous 3 November 2015

    White privilege is just original sin rebranded for a secular religion.

    And if darker people feel so wronged by whites, why do they keep emigrating to countries founded by and historically populated by white people? No one is flocking en masse to Uganda or Mexico, they’re going to Europe or the US to take advantage of the evil white man’s expansive welfare state.

  26. Suntosh Pillay Suntosh Pillay 4 November 2015

    Dear Martin,

    Nice attempt at initiating some real discursive steps forward in acknowledging whiteness.

    As a fellow health professional, and to extend your medical analogy, denial is the first obstacle towards treatment. The bulk of the comments here prove your point entirely – and denial is certainly being used defensively here!

  27. Brian Guld Brian Guld 5 November 2015

    Whiteness is an ailment? And here I thought the disease to get was alcoholism.

  28. CloneMe CloneMe 5 November 2015

    hear hear!

  29. CloneMe CloneMe 5 November 2015

    well said

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