The A-Z of white privilege and racism

I can no longer stand by as a white South African while other white South Africans – knowingly or unknowingly – parade their racial supremacy over black South Africans, unable or unwilling to detox their thoughts and actions from the harsh dogma the apartheid government stuffed down our throats.

Think of this as a wake-up call, an idiot’s guide to what white South Africans need to know, if you like. Criticise me, troll me, call me a ‘libtard’ or worse, berate me for not being qualified to lecture you, shoot the messenger. Do what you must. But do yourselves a favour and read on. Because white South Africans have to open their eyes, ears and wallets to those we have put down for centuries.

There is simply no other choice.

A is for apartheid
The Nats managed to impose apartheid on South Africa for 46 years because the majority of white South Africans supported it. It eventually ended because the majority of adult South Africans demanded a better life and the rest of the world put pressure on our fascist leaders. But 1948 wasn’t the year white people started oppressing black people in South Africa. This began way back in 1652… (See C is for colonisation)

We are all familiar with the codified set of limitations and exclusions apartheid placed on black South Africans. But many fail to appreciate what such a system does to the psyche of the oppressed. So, repeat after me: Never tell a black South African to ‘get over’ apartheid. Never say you’re ‘sick and tired of talking about apartheid (x) many years after it ended’. Not in 2016, not in 2046 or even 2076. The pain that apartheid inflicted (and its aftermath and legacy continue to inflict) on black people is a deep-seated trauma that no one should ever be told to get over.

“Apartheid was racism on an industrial scale. Its key architects took the opinions of your dumb, garden-variety racist, like Penny Sparrow, and turned them into a ruthless, systematic machine of disenfranchisement, impoverishment, torture and murder over decades.”
Justice Malala in The Times

B is for blind
The old adage goes, There’s none so blind as those who will not see. Take off your blinkers and your white tinted glasses. Start reading out of your comfort zone. Contact me if you want some recommendations.

C is for colonisation
Back to 1652… Various black tribes inhabited the land we now call South Africa before Jan van Riebeeck arrived to set up a halfway stop for passing ships. It was only a matter of time before the self-proclaimed colonial authority started allocating land to the settlers, the genesis of the battle for land in South Africa.

And it’s not just about land. JVR and his countrymen and the Brits who came a century and a half later effectively took control of what is now South Africa and imposed their customs, institutions and language on the existing inhabitants. So, when black people speak of decolonisation, they mean far more than the democratic freedom they won in 1994.

Decolonisation in our context means ridding South Africa of its institutional whiteness, the remaining effect of the colonisation that ended officially in 1961. Because, when South Africa attained its independence from Britain, it was a hollow victory for black South Africans who still had to endure another 33 years of white rule in SA – and who knows how many more years of white economic power.

The tangible expression of this movement is seen in protests like #RhodesMustFall – but decolonisation is not just about ridding South Africa of the physical manifestations of colonisation by the Dutch and British. It is also about establishing a new frame of reference, one that better reflects who we really are as a nation.

D is for defensiveness
Many white South Africans justify their racist views by pointing out that, ‘Jacob Zuma is corrupt – he’s the real problem’; ‘I heard a black man say that he hated whites’; ‘Affirmative action/employment equity/ BEE robbed my son of a job.’

Stop becoming defensive and listen for a change. While all of the above may be true, they do not justify racism and divert attention from the real social issue facing South Africa: many white South Africans believe that black South Africans are inferior.

This is not about us – it’s been about us for too long. The time has come to stand back and look at the damage we (white people in general) have done to the majority of people in this country.

E is for economic freedom
Political freedom means little if it doesn’t confer on the holder economic freedom. The immense generational wealth that so many white families were able to build up over the last 350 years came at a massive cost to the majority of South Africans, many of whom formed the cheap labour the white masters used to pick their grapes or mine for their gold and diamonds.

And even if you are not a descendant of one of the free burghers who received land from the Dutch East India Company, even if you are a ‘self-made man’ who ‘worked damn hard to get where he is today’, you still had the benefit of whiteness to help you along the way. (See W is for whiteness)

Because economic freedom requires access to resources, which include land, money or access to people with money, familiarity with corporate culture (the ‘way things are done’) and the language of business, and personal networks – all the people you or your father/aunt/cousin went to school or varsity with who are now doing big things.

The vast majority of black people have no access to resources. Remember, JVR and his merry men – and later the Brits and still later the Nats – grabbed what they wanted and – surprise, surprise – prospered. It’s hard to feel the same way about the historically wealthy in South Africa after looking at it that way, isn’t it?

And it makes it easier to understand the claims to ‘white land’ by people like the leaders of the EFF. Because the white colonial settlers stole the land from the black people who inhabited the land before they arrived. You may not personally have stolen anybody’s land, but the white people who did so over the last 350 years created a society in which white interests mattered and black interests were disregarded. And, to say in words what white South Africans fear the most, the original title to the land you now own was, on a balance of probabilities, obtained unlawfully, by force, or both.

F is for freedom of speech
The raging debate at the moment is where the line between free speech and hate speech lies. This is a complex discussion and one I don’t have space or expertise to analyse in depth.
But watch this space – I think we’ll see judicial clarity soon on the extent of the limitation on freedom of speech in s16 of The Bill of Rights and the prohibition on hate speech in s10 of the Equality Act when several high profile cases come before the courts.

G is for gardener but not for girl
The people who work in your home or business are employees, not children. Calling them the ‘girl’ or the ‘garden boy’ is demeaning, derogatory and reveals your feelings towards them. Because you would never refer to a grown woman you respected as ‘the girl’. Use people proper job descriptions: cleaner, gardener, domestic worker and housekeeper all describe what they do.

H is for hate speech
Think before you say anything that could be considered hurtful to another person or class of people. (Obviously, it’s better if you simply don’t think these thoughts.)

I is for individuals
Even if two or three or hundreds of members of the same demographic behave in a similar fashion, it doesn’t give you the right to pronounce sweeping generalisations about people linked only by the colour of their skin, the language they speak, the religion they follow or the township they live in – mainly because you’d be wrong. An encounter with just one individual from a group that disproves your prejudice makes it harder to repeat the falsehood you’ve carried around for so long. So, take off your blinkers…

J is for justice
If I were a black South African, I would be angry and hurt and impatient and more. But most of all I’d crave justice. I’d feel physically ill whenever FW de Klerk or his foundation dared to air their views (which are usually odious, racist and reminiscent of the bad old days). He is an apartheid leader with blood on his hands. And an opportunist who acted not out of conscience but because of political and economic pressure. If he had a shred of decency he’d retire quietly and leave the rest of us to sort out the mess he and his party made.

I’d see red when Wouter Basson claims he had ‘nothing to do with apartheid’. (Sunday Times, 17 January 2016). And weep with despair to learn that he still practices his craft (at Mediclinic in Durbanville) and says nonchalantly, ‘Life goes on.’

And I’d be gatvol when yet another white South African talks about ‘equality’ or being sick and tired of talking about race.

I may even say hateful things about white people and their attitudes of entitlement. And I’d certainly agitate for the criminalisation of racism and hate speech. Because no one has ever properly been brought to justice for the crime against humanity that was apartheid. And, because of the terms of the TRC and the negotiated settlement that saw the birth of our democracy, none of the masterminds ever will. And that is something I as a black South African would not be able to live with. I struggle with it as it is.

K is for the word that must never be spoken
Got it? Good.

L is for language
If you won’t commit to learning one of the other nine official languages, at least learn to pronounce people’s names properly as a sign of that you acknowledge them as a fellow human being. Words like Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky, Van Gogh and Siobhan roll off white tongues. But an assistant at my daughter’s school last year had to tell the children and parents to call her Brenda because Nyayi was too difficult.

No. Damn. Way. Call people by the name they want to be called, not the one that is easiest for you. Mkhuleko Hlengwa, an IFP MP, said it best during the vibrant Twitter #TheYearWeMispronounceBack fest on 1 and 2 January: “If you can say Gert or Gatvol then surely you can say Radebe” . (The ‘r’ is pronounced as the ‘g’ in ‘gatvol’. It’s that simple.)

M is for money
Although some call on white South Africans to stop the ‘patronising’ soup kitchens and charity donations, I believe we need to give in whatever way we can. Start by paying your employees more than what all your friends pay theirs.

Give. Give. And then give some more. Share what you have with those who don’t have. Give more than your financial advisor feels is prudent. And always ask what you can do to help someone in financial distress – don’t assume you know what it is right for them, an unwelcome manifestation of the white saviour complex.

Share because it’s the right thing to do. And because you got where you are today at the expense of other South Africans, no matter how defensive you feel about that statement.

N is for Nats
Never, ever, make the mistake of thinking South Africa was better under the Nats. It was a warped, artificial Stepford built on the blood, sweat and tears of black South Africans. Advancement at the expense of someone else’s pain is perverse.

O is for overseas
If you feel dissatisfied with your lot in life, and believe the situation in South Africa is to blame, rather move on than carry on whinging and pining for the ‘good old days’. If you choose to stay – or are forced to because you can’t ‘get in’ anywhere else – you’d do well to change your attitude and your narrative. Your negativity drags us all, including you, down. And we are so tired of the same conversations being rehashed. Give us all a break.

P is for privilege
Oxford Dictionary defines privilege as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group”. Peggy McIntosh, an American feminist and anti-racism activist, describes it more graphically as “an invisible, weightless backpack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank cheques.”

As a general rule, if you have to ask what privilege is – or don’t believe it exists – the chances are you benefit from it. White South Africans, rich and poor, all benefit from white privilege because the parameters of the institutional framework of our society were set up by our colonialist ancestors and perfected through 350 years of white rule. And the system is still stacked in favour of white people, more than 20 years after the Nats lost their political stranglehold over the country.

So please don’t come back at me with a variation on the AA/EE/BEE are racist theme. If you can’t see why some legislative redress is a necessary antidote to continuing white privilege, then start reading the opinions of those who do. It’ll become apparent, I promise.

Q is for q
Now’s the time to learn more of the 11 official languages. I’ve started with Xhosa and I found this pronunciation guide very useful:

“To pronounce the palatal click, q, press the tip of the tongue against the front palate and then follow with the same procedure as with c. This sound may be compared with the sound a person would make when trying to imitate the sound of a cork being pulled from a bottle.”

R is for racism
Structural (or institutional or systemic) racism is the legacy of apartheid and the lifeblood of white privilege, an invisible bubble that keeps white people in and black people out.

Individual racism is when Penny Sparrow calls blacks monkeys; or you don’t know the proper names of your domestic employees; or Siv Ngesi gets called a k****r on Twitter; or you think of black people as ‘them’ and say things like ‘That’s just how they behave’.
White South Africans were specifically and painstakingly taught to be racist. We have to consciously unlearn what the propaganda machine of the Nats drummed into us about ‘Die Swart Gevaar’. That is our challenge as white South Africans.

There is another fierce debate raging, this time around whether black people are capable of racism. Central to this discussion is whether traditional critical race theory, which maintains that racism requires both prejudice and power, applies. Under CRT, blacks can’t be racist because they hold no real social power – the right to vote has not transferred actual power to black South Africans. A column by Eusebius McKaiser in the Sunday Independent two years ago offers the view that blacks can in theory be racist and demonstrates why it would be absurd to think otherwise.

Thuli Madonsela tweeted about changing her view from CRT’s insistence on victims’ incapacity to be racist: “Being a victim of systemic racism and structural racial discrimination does not exempt you from being a racist”. Thando Mgqolozwana, on the other hand, believes that “Racism is the cultural, economic, and systematic subjugation of one race group by another, and black people have never done that to whites.”

Wherever you fall on the spectrum and whatever you call it, there’s no escaping the fact that there are black people who are prejudiced against – and even hate and wish harm on – white people. (Who can blame them?) But black racism is a distraction, a convenient way to justify or deflect the spotlight away from white racism, which is what we need to tackle.

Speaking about the cacophony of racist ranting that characterised the first few days of 2016, Max du Preez wrote in a News24 column:
“We have allowed the cancer of racism, crude and subtle, to continue to grow in the years after we became a democracy. We tolerated it in our midst…
We whites didn’t honour the pact we made with the rest of our nation in 1994. We only honoured those parts of our constitution that benefited our interests.”
It’s time to stop focusing on our own interests and look beyond our own narrow lives.
This includes the Penny Sparrows and Justin van Vuurens, who openly spew racist vitriol on whatever platforms they can; the Nicole de Klerks, whose true colours show when they are drunk/angry/under pressure; and, maybe more importantly, those white South Africans who go to great lengths to mind their ps and qs, honestly believing the things they feel and say are not racist.

S is for ‘Show me the money’
Those of you have read this far may now choose to navigate away from this page. Because this is the crux of the matter. White South Africans have a duty to help the transformation of our society by sharing their financial resources with black South Africans.

As Gillian Schutte put it in the Sunday Independent: “Until we form a mass movement of whites calling for and engaging in authentic transformation, reparations and redistribution of wealth, we are all Penny Sparrows.”

I can say it no better than that, other than to add a reference to Panashe Chigumadzi’s column in the Times, aptly titled ‘We don’t want white apologies, we want our land back’.

T is for trauma
Refer to what I wrote about apartheid and the traumatic scars it left on generations of black South Africans. Then remember that pain is subjective, it belongs to the person who feels it and it is wrong to ever tell someone else to ‘get over’ their pain, no matter how long they’ve been carrying it.

We’d all do well to think as Fiona Snyckers does: “I am not a protagonist in this story. I have a nonspeaking, walk-on part that requires me to shut up and listen.”( Thought Leader column after the 2015 Franschhoek Literary Festival)

U is for us
It’s up to us to effect change in South Africa – every single one of us. Play your part. Re-educate yourself. Start by reading widely to begin to understand other South Africans’ views. Read SA fiction, non-fiction or opinion pieces. Immerse yourself in someone else’s reality so that you can empathise with their pain.

V is for victim
This ties in with defensiveness. White people often play the victim of racial interactions and are quick with a story about the downside of being white in South Africa. Stand back and look at the bigger picture, look at what happened to you in the context of all that I’ve written about. Can you really justify framing your life as that of a victim?

W is for whiteness
Rather than a colour, it’s a way of being in a world constructed on white privilege. It is why the minority is regarded as the accepted norm in South Africa. Open your eyes to your own whiteness and the special position that affords you in society.

X is for x
“To pronounce the lateral click, x, place the tip of the tongue against the hard palate as if you were going to produce the n sound. Press one side of the tongue against the side of the jaw. Then, without shifting the tip of the tongue from the hard palate, withdraw the side sharply from the jaw. This sound differs from the other two in that the release takes place at the side(s) of the tongue and not at the front. This sound is sometimes made to express regret or to spur on a horse.”

Y is for you
I’m talking to you. Yes, you.

Z is for #ZumaMustFall
Zuma is, in the minds of many South Africans – me included, a leader whose time – if ever there was one – is up. I believe you can be anti-Zuma without being anti-black or even anti-ANC. In fact, many black people, some who support the ANC, have expressed their belief that Zuma is a incompetent and selfish leader. But there are still many who perceive criticism of Zuma as criticism of black people – spurred on by the fact that many white South Africans infuse their anti-Zuma rhetoric with anger at what they perceive as black South Africans’ incompetence to govern.

“Indeed, white enthusiasm for #ZumaMustFall aligns with white South Africans’ love for uniting around causes that serve our narrow interests, while absolving ourselves of responsibility for SA’s sociopolitical and economic malaise.” Kelly-Jo Bluen (of IJR) in Business Day

Move on from the infantile refrain of ‘Just look at Zuma! He’s corrupt and uneducated. It’s criminal how they’ve ruined our country.’ Educate yourself to be able to engage on a more meaningful level than this, without the racist undertones.

And while we’re talking about crime, never forget that our ancestors stole South African land from its black inhabitants, whom they then forced into slavery. #NeverForget

 First published in Rand Daily Mail