Denying the Wages of Whiteness

By Richard Pithouse · 13 Sep 2011

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Picture: www.blackeducator.blogspot
Picture: www.blackeducator.blogspot

The words that escaped from Darren Scott's private life and crashed into the public realm via an argument in a bar are no unique perversion. For anyone with any doubts about the extent to which white racism not only spills over into the new order but also continues to reinvent itself the comments sections on news and analysis websites, spaces that enable public anonymity, make for dispiriting reading.

But with the exception of extreme figures like Steve Hofmeyer white racism is a passion that doesn't often speak its name in the public realm. The desire to hold out a manifestation of whiteness as a power to be obeyed, or an idea of whiteness as a norm to be conformed to, tends to cloak itself in appeals to the authority of wealth, expertise, the law and claims about the weight of the opinion and power of foreign investors, tourists and the 'international community'.

The paranoia so evident in the rush to silence public reflection on race is so intense that its even reached into the usually arcane world of academic discussion. When Rhodes philosopher Samantha Vice wrote a paper on the ethical burden of whiteness she found herself amidst a storm of astonishing hostility. When Stellenbosch philosopher Anton van Niekerk expressed some sympathy for Vice's arguments, he was assaulted.

This is all rather extraordinary given how peripheral most academic work is to the public sphere. Academic conversation often refers, with a self-deprecating smile, to an American study, perhaps apocryphal, that concluded that the average academic article was read once. If this study does actually exist its findings are not entirely surprising. Academic prose is often stolid and charmless and its far from unusual for academic writing to be more concerned with situating itself in a discourse with some currency in the academic world than in sincerely grappling towards some sort of comprehension of some aspect of the world.

But there are diamonds sparkling in the vast fields of academic dust and every now and then a paper is mined from the academy and thrust into the hurly burly of our increasingly fractious public sphere. In its response to Vice the F.W. de Klerk Foundation declared that dangerous ideas, even from the deepest reaches of provincial academia, must be resolutely opposed. The essential thrust of their argument was that: “A substantial proportion of whites cannot be described as being ‘privileged' at all. The vast majority have acquired whatever wealth they have through the same means as their counterparts throughout the rest of the world: through hard work and enterprise.”

Neither race nor racism are all about money. But the racialisation of wealth and poverty in South Africa remains stark enough for no discussion of these matters to be able to proceed without taking the realities of money into account. The fact that white claims to power are often masked as the claims of an economically competent elite whose particular interests coincide with the general interest compound this obligation.

Rhodes University, where Vice wrote her paper, is in Grahamstown. The town itself is named after John Graham, a colonial soldier, who, with what he called ‘a proper degree of terror’, drove twenty thousand Xhosa people from the area in 1812. Graham stole their cattle, burnt their gardens and killed their soldiers. Rhodes University is built on the site of Graham's garrison.

Today the municipality that governs Grahamstown is named in honour of Nxele Makana who, in 1819, led an attack on Graham’s garrison. He had six thousand soldiers with him and thousands of women and children behind the soldiers ready to resettle the land. But Makana was defeated, captured and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island. After a year on the island he led an escape in which guards were over powered and a whaling boat captured to get the men to the shore. The boat capsized in the breakers and Makana drowned.

Many of Graham's soldiers, and the settlers that followed them, were poor people. Many of them may well have been made poor by the brutal enclosure of common lands in England. But here in South Africa they became white people and so, for most of them, and their descendents, hard work was usually redeemed. Whiteness here, as in other settler societies, had its own wage. For many black people work was as endlessly unredeemed as the labour of Sisyphus.

Today there are moments here and there where it could be said that the legacies of Graham and Makana have been brought together in a higher synthesis. But, on the whole, the colonial structure of Grahamstown remains strikingly and terribly evident. Racialised inequality is starkly obvious and is built into the physical structure of the town. These facts are not solely a hangover from the past. Evictions from farms turned into game reserves continue to drive people into shacks. And post-apartheid development on the part of the state has often taken an actively neo-apartheid form simply extending, rather undoing, the spatial logic of apartheid.

Of course there are some poor white people living in the township and there are black people living in the suburbs. But the average white person continues to live a life of comfort and security. The average black person is unemployed, living a life of stress and indignity, and without any real prospects of making a viable path towards a decent life.

Under these circumstances any assumption that white wealth and power is purely a consequence of white initiative and dedication to work is a denial of the history of racialised dispossession. It is this dispossession, and the systemic racism that followed it, that has so often enabled generations of white work to be redeemed in houses and degrees while generations of black work have so often led to life, often wage-less, in a shack or crumbling RDP house.

The F.W. de Klerk Foundation doesn't use the crude language of Darren Scott, but the racial denialism that they display in their sneering attempt to beat Vice's questioning back into submission is just as crude.

Questions about how to live in the world are not worked out in abstraction from the practice of being in the world. And being in the world is always a complicated business. But asking questions about things like power, privilege and the weight of history is essential if we are to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. And, in our history, and, indeed, the history of much of the world, whiteness has been central to many of those mistakes.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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12 Sep

Promoting the Racist NDR

Deriving dire conclusions from the utterances of an intoxicated person is not something one expects from an academic.

Moreover, my impression is that few people are denying anything and most want transformation as per the Constitution, 1996.

However, the National Democratic Revolution is threatening to spoil everything for everybody.

Joe Slovo wrote extensively about the NDR.

He said inter alia:-

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12 Sep


Richard, though your comments are leaning to the far left, "discrediting" whiteness, it says very little or nothing about the progression of "blackness" when they took over the reigns, even in African countries where they had it all along. Will the latters failings always be blamed on colonial whiteness indefinately and when will they start being held accountable ? Without accountability, comes no responsibility

I feel the truth of cooperation and future success for both black and white is somewhere to the middle ground and i therefore cant go with your reasoning or logic. It is far too one sided, ignoring a complexity of other historical data

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16 Sep

Responding to Responses

Dear TheDrake,

I'm responding to your response.

Re wanting transformation, I would say that there are a lot of people in South Africa who want transformation. We may disagree what that looks like. I think negotiating some of this may be a way forward. There are some things that we need to widen our scope around though, all of us, in order to achieve this.

Firstly, you mention transformation based on our constitution. I'm going to point you to an article by Jane Duncan, which I think you posted a similar response to, perhaps there is something in there that deserves a re-read though. Our constitution is not free from the problems that pervade this debate about race and transformation:

The privileges Joe Slovo was talking about are captured in Richard's piece - and this one too - - they're a combination of material and symbolic privileges that have been historically developed in the colonial encounter and the continuation of Nazi racist supremacy in South Africa in the 1940's (did you know, many of the architects of apartheid studied in Germany in the 1930's and were heavily influenced by Hitler's policies and thinking?).

The perpetual fear is not only felt by white people in this country. And it is possible to live without the fear. In my opinion, this fear is also something that is manufactured in our society in its current structure as a way of perpetuating racism. I don't hold it against you, I see it as one of the symptoms of a country with a long history of structural and personal violence, a 'reaping the whirlwind'. I would also ask you to consider the fear that many black people live with constantly of being robbed, raped, attacked and stolen from without access to the kind of resources afforded by middle class privilege to be able to buy the high walls, security patrols and barbed wire we live with.

Mr White Average is not criminal, perhaps ignorant, very defensive, and as a function of structural and symbolic privilege trying to hold on to that privilege by muddying the waters. Here's some great satire that hopefully will make you laugh as much as it did me: and

No, not singling out Mr White Average (and why not Mrs by the way), we're all complicit in this system. We all use it to some degree. However, as a group, at the moment white people STILL benefit more from our particular history than other groups in this country. Check the stats:

And, those rights, they're not unproblematic either. The right to property and ownership of property - well, refer back to the Jane Duncan article on the constitution for a better written more nuanced account than I could write here.

It is complicated, it is messy, this is the space we occupy. Reducing our lives to race is a function of the society we live in, because our society relies so heavily on the stories we've made up about it. We do need to revisit the unfortunate state of affairs, I agree. But not without acknowledging the realities of the impact of our history which Richard has tried to do. Perhaps it might be worth stepping away from the defense of whiteness and take a look at the arguments for their own sake?

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16 Sep

Dear Emmanence

Thank you for your reply and the opportunity to supply further insights.

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Anton Barnard
12 Oct

Lead by Example

I take it, Mr. or Dr. Pithouse that you, as a white, will set an example for the rest of us? By this I mean sell off all your possessions that you "stole" from the blacks and give the proceeds back to them and most definitely resign your "undeserved" job in favour of an AA appointee.

Haven't you done so already in fact? Not! My, my. Clearly you are just another bleeding-heart pinko whose motto is: "Do as I say, not as I do."

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