The Whiteness Smorgasbord

By Gillian Schutte · 20 Apr 2012

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The horrified astonishment at the recent cake-eating debacle has shaken up the world and brought the issue of racism to the fore once again this year.

The social media world went into shock this week, as they beheld the Swedish Minister of Culture perform a clitoridectomy on the sculpted vulva of a human sized cake, which took the shape of an African woman undergoing forced genital mutilation. She then fed it to the black-faced artist who screamed in agony as she sliced through the baked labium - much to the amusement of the white guests. The inside of the cake was blood red and the guests smiled and ate of the black female cake-body, seemingly oblivious to the macabre nature of the whole affair.

The response from women all over the world was visceral. They called it racist, misogynistic and hateful. Many black women expressed outrage and hurt, given the historical referencing to the Sartjie Baartman narrative.

As a white woman I was sickened to the core and momentarily at a loss for words -- and it was this response that got me thinking about how deep the construct of whiteness really goes. It took me a while to grasp that the horrible, misdirected and grotesque tastelessness of this gastronomic protest art actually successfully made a point about whiteness.

It exposed the European cake eaters as savage in their non-responsiveness to the horror of the act in which they willingly participated, apparently ignorant to the notion that the ‘art’ was in the observation of their behaviour. This, I think, is what was so disturbing to the white gaze, which was forced to gaze upon whiteness and try to make sense of the primal nature of it all.

It disturbed the white certainty of rationality and possibly pointed to our own complicity in the insulting and grossly insensitive act of the eating of an African woman’s most private body parts in what became a reversal of the anthropological participant observation ethos.

It certainly got me thinking about my own upbringing in a country that was built upon the dehumanisation of black people whilst I was trying to make sense of what appeared to be an uncanny physical manifestation of feminist writer bell hooks’ thesis on Eating the Other. I was forced to ask myself if it is really possible for those of us who grew up white in South Africa to fully transcend the inevitable unconscious hold of the whiteness construct, even those of us who are in interracial relationships.

Furthermore how much does the same macabre insensitivity to blackness play out in the day-to-day lives of white South Africans that we may also be oblivious to?

Having Our Cake and Eating It
I know whiteness through and through. I was raised on it. I’ve lived it, I’ve eaten it and mostly I’ve heard it: at tea parties, at dinner parties, at braais and pubs and family gatherings ... and all in all I have come to the sad conclusion that, besides the miniscule number of renegade white folk who may or may not have authentically transcended the whiteness trap, whiteness has largely remained a static and unyielding phenomenon in South Africa.

This is thanks to the liberal legacy of the Nelson Mandela epoch, which created a situation in which there is no real pressure on whiteness to change.

Whilst white concerns remain central to the master narrative - in the economy, in the press, in film and popular culture, whiteness in South Africa remains an obdurate monolith mostly in denial of the social, political, and cultural privileges still accorded to whites in our unequal society. It would seem though, that whites are carefully taught not to recognise white privilege just as males are taught not to recognise male privilege.

This is evidenced in the average white dialogue around race in which whiteness is often presented as victim to the ‘savagery’ of blackness in the form of endless whinging about crime, corruption, inefficiency and BEE. From intellectual discourse, to mainstream chatter, to barely-educated braai banter, whiteness is always sure of one thing - superiority over other races - particularly the African race. Whether it is disguised in liberal equanimity or downright racism, this whiteness discourse espouses the same learnt notion that white is right - even in a so-called Rainbow Nation.

This mythical rainbow nation, it turns out, is none other than the ‘liberalist’ enfant terrible that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) gave birth to whilst South Africa was dealing with the labour pains of a reconciliatory-premised transformation. Though it was established as an emotional clearinghouse for the traumas and atrocities experienced and committed in the days of apartheid and as a catalyst for healing the nation -- it turned out to be the motherfucker of all fuck ups for blackness.

In fact it did nothing for black folk, who were apartheid’s rightful victims. Rather it alleviated white folk’s guilt and annulled their fear of a retaliatory bloodbath. Hell, it even allowed perpetrators of racist and heinous crimes against humanity to develop a newfound camaraderie with Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Cyril Ramaphosa – all three of whom have since been appropriated by the white liberal narrative as icons, mascots and success symbols. Viler though is that this trio is also held up by the whiteness construct as empirical evidence that some black folk do indeed contain intelligence and humanity, because, after all, they display the same gentle virtues, rationality and corporate acumen as whites.

But it is the image of Mandela that has been most ‘eaten’ by whiteness, to use bell hooks’ term again when discussing the ways in which whiteness creates a false gastronomically expedient relationship with the ‘other’ through the romanticisation of blackness for the purposes of cultural commodification - (just one example of the many she describes).

When apartheid was in full swing, the black freedom fighters could not have foreseen the commodification of their struggle in the contemporary profit-driven smorgasbord claimed by whites in South Africa - a banquet table laden with delectable and marketable black cultural commodities, such as Steve Biko T-Shirts, Ubuntu slogans and Madiba Magic. As Winnie Mandela allegedly did not say - Mandela’s aging smiling image is used by certain white folk as a fundraiser in a wheelchair - so shameless is this Madiba Magic feeding frenzy.

Mandela’s smiling effigy has also become a symbol of reconciliation in South Africa and is held up by liberals as a sign that progressive political change is indeed taking place. His image has been appropriated, re-colonised and stripped of a revolutionary history to be devoured as a symbol of white liberalism and logic. Thus the previously demonised Mandela has miraculously become an icon in the West and has created a kind of denialist insanity in the average white liberal mind. He’s cute, he’s old, he smiles a lot and he somehow absolves white folk of their guilt - much as Jesus on the cross absolves Christians of their sins. Like the Jesus icon, he is not really real - he’s kind of a fuzzy deified construct through whom one can transcend all sorts of racist misdemeanours.

But when it comes to the rest of ‘them’ - as in those ‘blacks’, who by their mere presence do not absolve white folk of their guilt and who cannot be directly commodified and consumed; those who have the cheek to beg at robots; who dare protest their poverty and demand dignity and who at times have to steal to survive; well white people generally say disgusting things about ‘them’ real black folk, using a veritable plethora of terms. Sometimes it is outright racism - like, ‘Those monkeys can’t run a country’ to ‘Fucking Kaffirs’ (often in Virgin Active gyms). Other times it is simply changing their accents to some sort of monosyllabic phonetics when talking to the gardener or the maid. Many times it is the overuse of the words ‘us’ and ‘them’, as if indeed, black folk are a different species.

In fact much racist white banter seems premised on the fact that ‘they’ may not belong to the human race at all, as the father of ‘absolute knowledge’ Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel suggested in the early 1800’s when he posited, with great white man authority, “The Negro, as already observed, exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality - all that we call feeling - if we would rightly comprehend him; there is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character.”

And here we are, hundreds of years later and seventeen years into a ‘Rainbow Nation’ and mainstream white racial banter remains the same dehumanising rant, albeit delivered in less erudite language.

But these mainstream racists are openly despicable and easy to spot.

It is the liberals that espouse a so-called post-race epoch that need to be watched out for because it is this uber privileged class of white folk that has become even more dangerous to blackness than the outright white supremacists. Members of this echelon have been the direct beneficiaries of the TRC and it is they who have cleverly constructed a new liberal ‘discourse of disguise’, largely designed to dupe fellow humans into believing that they are not white supremacists even whilst they maintain their stranglehold over the dominant discourse of knowledge and capital. They are largely the educated and academic class of self-appointed gatekeepers who have been forced to move over slightly and share the institutions of higher learning and business with black folk.

Despite their polite liberal façade, the white folk that populate this class most often secretly believe that black people are not nearly as learned as themselves and that they lack the type of leadership skills needed to run these institutions. Thus they often set about sabotaging the black folk in these positions of power by withdrawing their moral support and using subtle and insidious put-downs camouflaged as supportive language. Behind closed doors though, and safely with ‘their own’, they openly critique blackness with smug little laughs and comically raised eyebrows and nudge-nudge wink-wink commentary, in a sort of ‘having their cake and eating it’ ritual.

When they are called to book they draw upon their vociferous ‘hegemony-denial’ and make up nonsensical and expedient new terms such as ‘black supremacy’ whilst conjuring up new fields of learning aimed at disproving their ‘god-given’ privilege.

This is white dominion at its best. 

As someone who grew up inside the construct of whiteness, that for over four decades has dished me up a platter of privileges which I’ve oft imagined I have long since rejected - my disgust at the black minstrel female cake eating debacle has, incongruously, also left me asking the hardest question of all -- is it possible for white people, myself included, to ever fully transcend the whiteness construct or are we all vulnerable to being exposed and tripping over our own unconscious programming by some genius provocateur? 

Schutte is an award winning independent filmmaker, writer and social justice activist. She is a founding member of Media for Justice and co-producer at Handheld Films.

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20 Apr

The "Genius Provocateur" Says the Audience did Nothing Wrong

In this article, written by the artist Makode Linde (sorry, it's in Swedish , but try Google translate), he himself - in contrast to loads of people all over the world who assume he has meant to expose whiteness just like Gillian Schutte assumes in the article above - endorses the act of Swedish Minister of Culture Liljeroth and says that she has done nothing wrong, nothing racist. The world is in shock at the obvious racist act - the artist opposes any such interpretation. Hence, he is sadly NOT at all a "genius provocateur". He thinks it is sad that anybody assumes that the Swedish Minister of Culture is racist, and explicitly says that he thinks she is not, quite the contrary - he says that she understood his art. Werid, but true.

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21 Apr

Are We This Primitive

I think Gillian Schutte is exactly what South Africa needs. Rather than pretend we are a happy Rainbow Nation, she is going after this festering boil. Let's rather lance it on our terms before it pops in an uncontrollable way. Let's be grown-ups and deal with unfortunate scourge of unfortunate race relations in our society

Lorna Verified user
22 Apr

Thanks for Courage to Speak

Thank you Gillian for being courageous enough to speak out on this subject. I hope the minister is reflecting, as you have on the meaning of all of this. Whites in SA have very little clue, even the well meaning more progressive ones, of the extent to which they think, feel and act in alignment with white norms, tradition and culture. In my experience there are few, sadly too few, who have transcended the white perspective. Even then I have my doubts. My experience has shown me that one day, the other shoe drops. I have a few very good white friends where loving and trusting relationships have been cultivated and what I see in them is indeed a conscious working to unlearn the whiteness rather than an assumption of oneself as being white and ok because you fight for justice and equality.

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Arlyn Culwick
23 Apr

Insightful Tirade - Now Let's Get Constructive

That was a perceptive and clear enough account of the resilience of whiteness, but I would love to hear a response to it - or a sequel, perhaps - that draws out some sort of alternative discourse for white people to try out. After all, there's little point in saying "don't do x" if the person one is talking to has no notion of what else to do. I suspect that this is generally the case. It's pretty hard to conjure up a new discourse, especially after a few beers around a braai when sentiments turn defensive.

Without an alternative, our current whiteness-construct will not encounter any real opponent in the discourse 'marketplace'. So here's an elementary stab at drawing out constructive elements that are suggested in your piece. To summarise your core notion in different words, the memes propagating whiteness have, thus far, been evolutionary survivors in the competition for discursive space, but are also, unfortunately, destructive in multiple ways. Part of their success lies in an unchallenged cocksureness about the virtues of the sort of rationality and ethical intuitions that party constitute whiteness. Therefore, a useful (but incomplete) strategy to combat this would be - as you imply - to challenge this cocksureness: to call people to account when they express this sort of unreflexive arrogance. This is certainly important - and it can be done with varying degrees of gentleness - since without raising awareness of the unconscious totalising that make whiteness (or anything else) so ethically offensive, there's little that can be done. But once awareness is raised, it's of paramount importance to suggest another way to proceed - some sort of positive alternative. Perhaps something simple like encouraging radical empathy is a useful starting point here. “Don’t totalise; rather understand the other’s paradigm, in all its foreignness” is what I have in mind. If people are challenged to stop assessing another ethnicity in terms of the values and virtues of their own ethnicity, and instead to listen – to be brave and to really try to understand a foreign perspective – then perhaps much good can be done.

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Jo Rhodes
26 May

Biased Reporting

you neglect to note that this artist was Black, how does that fit with the argument? In addition the Minister was concerned she would be lablelled racist if she refused to open this event. Lets keep to the facts and argue from an informed viewpoint.

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