On whiteness

IMG_0357Written January 2016

Whiteness is new. It didn’t exist in conversations or in the press before 2015. It has been birthed by a new generation of left-wing South African youth who regard the state as an unholy alliance between the last of the revolutionary leaders and multinational capitalists, whose priority is to feed the foreign investors and political fat cats at the expense of the poor.

Whiteness is used pejoratively to describe and critique the privilege of the white-skinned population.

Why not just use the word white?

Well, because whiteness comes in different shades, different strengths.

Absolute whiteness is equated with absolute privilege. These are the people who drive BMWs, take overseas holidays, work in mining, send their children to private schools, live in gated communities, never set foot in the city centre, have never been to Soweto and never intend to. Absolute whiteness exists in an absolute bubble of absolute privilege. It is an extreme which does not describe the lives of all of the 9.2 million white South Africans. (And which also describes the lives of some black South Africans. However.)

A paler shade of whiteness exists in the ordinary white: the person getting by on an average salary, who drives a small car, who do not own swathes of land – maybe just a little house in Westdene – and who feels they have neither economic, moral nor political power.

When those whites South African try to deny their privilege, the rebuff is that they still have whiteness because of the system.

When something goes bump in the night, the police come because they are white.

When traffic cops are pulling people over, they do not get pulled over.

When they run out of money, they know what to ask the bank manager to lend them some more.

Ordinary whites have whiteness because they understand the machinery of the capitalist system, because they are part of an extended network of people, among which are definitely people who would be able to bale them out.

To have whiteness is to have a safety net.

Even though they might argue, they don’t feel very safe.

But still, comes the reply, you are still safer than me.

And so, regardless of your circumstances, if you are white you are guilty of whiteness.

Guilty, of course, because whiteness is not a nice thing.

Well, that is not quite correct. Whiteness is a nice thing in that it harbours enviable things like a BMW, private schooling, a good job in mining, a nice home and a safety net.

But it is a bad nice thing because it is not an earned thing. Whiteness is a privilege that has been acquired unfairly, through a political system that oppressed black people, that stole land, and so although the trappings of whiteness are desirable, whiteness itself is despised, and right now it makes everyone feel uncomfortable. Especially whites.

Because well, the things is, in the same way that not everyone who has been a smoker gets throat cancer but everyone who gets throat cancer has been a smoker; so not everyone who is white has complete privilege, but everyone who has complete privilege is white.

And on an average day, in an average street, there’s no way of telling the cancer patients from the non-cancer patients.

Everyone looks sick.

Everyone looks white.

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