White people themselves have to debunk the myth of their supremacy. It can't come from blacks, writes Malaika wa Azania.
Many arguments have arisen out of the article by Gillian Schutte titled "Dear white people" (Thought Leader, M&G Online, January 2).
Perhaps the most progressive opinion was provided by Jackie Shandu in an article titled "Black people, fight your own battles" (Thought Leader, M&G Online, January 10). Shandu argues that Schutte's letter ought to be discussed and dissected primarily by the white community, which it seeks to engage in dialogue.
This argument by Shandu is correct in that it is expressive of black consciousness literature that locates the role of white anti-racism activists in the conscientisation of their own white community rather than in the forefront of black struggles.
Black people have the responsibility to reject the tendency of white liberals to want to hijack any resistance struggle that blacks wage.
If we are to deal with our post-traumatic slavery disorder and the ongoing state of soporification in which we find ourselves, we must reject with utmost contempt white liberals who use us as tokens to get European donors to fund their non-governmental organisations.
We must reject white liberals who toyi-toyi for service delivery, only to return to the vulgar comforts of their homes in the most affluent of suburbs.
We must reject white liberals who use the black condition as a topic for honours dissertations and master's and PhD theses; who speak on behalf of black people about conditions they've only confronted for a few months and, even then, as spectators.
White anti-racism activists, if they are genuine in their fight against the system of which they are beneficiaries solely on the basis of their pigmentation, must employ their energies on the debunking of white supremacist philosophies within their own white community.
Preaching the need to end white racism to black people who are on the receiving end of its repressive constructs is a futile exercise devoid of any authentic intention to truly deal with the racial antagonisms that continue to permeate the miasmatic South African atmosphere.
There have been other less progressive arguments resulting from Schutte's article. One in particular, posed by Andile Mngxitama and Athi-Nangamso Esther Nkopo in an article titled "There's no unlearning whiteness, despite what 'anti-racists' say" (Mail & Guardian, January 11 to 17), holds a regressive and somewhat contradictory argument.
They say that white people cannot engage (even among themselves) in critical dialogue about race because, as inherent beneficiaries of white racism, any contributions they make are bound to be an affront to the black struggle against the conditions that the very existence of whiteness created.
The two black consciousness activists argue that Schutte's article reflects her "liberal" agenda, which takes on a paternalistic approach in a bid to neutralise the race discourse. They argue that Schutte's appeals to the white community end with the acknowledgment of their guilt without really giving constructive solutions on how to dismantle and obliterate the structural and institutionalised white racist realities that centuries of colonialism and apartheid have entrenched.
The issue of Schutte being married to a black man and having a mixed-race child also receives mention, but because such arguments that seek to attack a person rather than an idea must never be dignified with a response, I will not delve into it.
Mngxitama and Nkopo's argument is defeatist and senseless.
First, by claiming that white racism cannot be unlearnt, the two "activists" are submerging black people in a state of defeatism. The oppression of black people is a product of the white supremacist philosophy. As such, black oppression will truly end when there is no white supremacy. Saying that the very reason for our oppression can never be destroyed is openly admitting that we are to remain in this nervous condition forever. If such arguments are to be taken seriously, then all of us who are engaged in struggles to fight white hegemony must throw in the towel and welcome perpetual defeat. This, of course, is not a solution, for no truly liberating pedagogy can treat the oppressed as unfortunates and as a defeated people.
Second, by claiming that white people cannot unlearn racism, Mngxitama and Nkopo employ a naturalist and biological reductionist perspective on the antagonisms between whites and blacks. They present white racism as a natural system infused within the chromatin network of white people, rather than something that is learnt. And we must understand that white supremacy is learnt. White racists undergo a primary and secondary socialisation that teaches them that, by virtue of the colour of their skin, they are better humans. Racist adults transfer and transmit their beliefs to their children not through DNA processes or during gestation, but by teaching them racist ideas from a young age.
The two "activists" fail to recognise that the existence of whiteness as an oppressive system is informed by the construct of whiteness as an oppressive idea. Without it, such a system would be incoherent. White supremacy exists because it is first theoretically designed and then institutionalised. And so, unless that belief itself is dealt with, the practices that arise out of it will not be dealt with.
Steve Biko argues, and correctly so, that: "Whites must be made to realise that they are only human, not superior. Same with blacks: they must be made to realise that they are also human, not inferior."
And so if black people are to become their own liberators, they must necessarily exclude white people from black affairs. They must embrace black consciousness as a philosophy to free themselves from the chains that bind them.
In the same way that black people must first recognise their oppression in order to fight it, white people too must recognise that they are being oppressive. And they must come to that realisation without the aid of black people. This is why Schutte's letter is so important. It is a white voice speaking to and educating a white community. Mngxitama and Nkopo's argument that Schutte does not offer solutions is premature, because for white people even to begin to deal with the structural oppression they benefit from, they must first recognise that such a system exists.
White people have been benefiting from black oppression for so long that they actually believe it is natural that they should be at the top of the hierarchy. They have become desensitised to what white privilege means for the rest of humanity. As such, they must be educated about their direct role in our oppression, but not by us. It is not the responsibility of black people to educate white people on the regressive nature of white racism; it is the responsibility of white activists. And that education must be truly radical and transformative.
Education must either function as an instrument that is used to facilitate integration of the younger white generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity, or it becomes the practice of freedom - the means by which they deal critically with reality and discover how to transform their thinking.
White racism can, will and must be defeated.
Picture credit: Mail & Guardian Online
- Malaika wa Azania is the founder of Afrikan Voices of the Left journal, a second-year student at Rhodes University and a steering committee member of the African Youth Coalition, a pan-Africanist alliance of youth in Africa and a project of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation. This article was published on Mail & Guardian Online.