White a colour for special occasions

Racial privilege, more pointedly the amnesiac and hegemonic qualities of whiteness in South Africa, needs to be placed centre stage of national debates
by Wandile Goozen Kasibe

In as much as South African history has been about robbing blackness of its dignity, post-apartheid discourse is confronted by a sensitive and problematic issue: the invisibility, apparent neutrality and continued normalization of whiteness. It is a condition exacerbated by the continued inability of writers, artists, agitators, in fact anyone with a vested interest, to question or problematise this issue.

RACE IS NOT OVER Amongst the speakers invited by
Wandile Goozen Kasibe to a recent Cape Town seminar on race and white
subjectivity were Melissa Steyn, author of Whiteness Isn’t What is Used to Be,
Liese van der Watt and Thembinkosi Goniwe and performance artist Peter
van Heerden. The following is a select list of statements made by
participants on the day.

“It’s premature to declare the struggle over; just because third spaces are opening up, race is not over in South Africa.”
Melissa Steyn

“Black people are always performing, adjusting to the system, speaking
the foreign language; it is exhausting … Black people are always
‘becoming’ … Let’s all become part of this process of becoming.”
Thembinkosi Goniwe

“I like the idea of the process of becoming. But we all have to become
… Unless I practise becoming, then I’m not doing anything.”
Peter van Heerden

“The multiplicity of identity shows up the insufficiency. We must start
looking for different solidarities upon which to forge associations.”
Liese van der Watt

That whiteness — by which I mean the ideological construct of being
white — is not invisible leads me to wonder. Could it perhaps be that
whiteness is treated in this country as a public secret? Or is it still
perceived as the standard by which other bodies are measured? If that
is the case, at whose expense are we standardising and keeping
whiteness a public secret? Why is the black subject always an easy
target of white scrutiny when, quite clearly, there is a problematic
white subject that has not been widely exposed? Are we playing with
double standards here or is there some kind of conspiracy that I don’t
know about?

I am worried about the complacency of the academy, both black
and white, towards the unveiling and problematising of the historical
and present normative structures on which whiteness is founded. It is
important that we formulate this discourse. By not doing so, by not
questioning the central relevance of whiteness in our post-apartheid
context, we run the risk of contributing to its normalization. And in
so doing we fall victim to the very thing that needs to be abolished in
this country: white supremacy.

My thoughts here are motivated by the hypothesis that the
mechanisms that both support and sustain whiteness are problematic.
They are problematic in the sense that their very construction is
founded on white dogma, a system of belief which views anything that is
non-white is inferior. By allowing this dogma to perpetuate itself, we
are depriving blackness of its beauty, positioning whiteness as
hegemonic. Unchecked, this dogma has and will continue to imprison our
world, reinforcing the Manichaean binary of good and evil, civilized
and uncivilized, inside and outside, self and other, us and them, black
and white.

If, as it has been the case in South Africa for too long,
whiteness is associated with goodness and light, I am prompted to ask a
simple question: Where was the goodness of whiteness when non-white
bodies were tortured in prisons cells, mutilated, burnt and buried
alive? But there is no reason here to revisit this troubling past here;
we have all wept for those who fell victims of white brutality. What is
important at this juncture is that we shift of our gaze, from black to
white.

In her essay ‘Under Construction’ (2004), Sarah Nuttall, a
cultural critic and academic researcher with the Wits Institute for
Social and Economic Research (WISER), observed that this process of
de-authorizing of whiteness was still in its infancy locally. “An
important but still embryonic, development has been the emergence of
work which shifts the academic gaze from the problems that come with
being ‘black’ and ‘raced’, to the processes of racialisation into
‘whiteness’ and the social location of racial privilege.”

This is not to deny the contribution of the many academics and
visual practitioners with whom I share the idea of generating a
continuous discourse that cuts across colour lines, a discourse that
will help us revisit and redefine comfortable identities and entrenched
positions.

As the Jamaican-born, UK-based cultural theorist Stuart Hall
once argued, identity is about being positioned and investing in a
particular subject position. “This process of positioning cannot be
understood outside discourse and power. Far from being eternally fixed
in some essentialised past, they [identities] are subject to the
continuous ‘play’ of history, culture and power. Far from being
grounded in mere recovery of the past, which is waiting to be found,
and which, when found, will secure our sense of ourselves into
eternity, identities are the names we give to the different ways we are
positioned, by and position ourselves within, the narrative of the
past.”

In a country such as South Africa, where the past still
lingers, telling its own tales, it has become so significantly
important that we revisit own positions, so that we may adequately
attend to the question of the past. Remarking on this place, the past,
Sue Williamson, writing in 1996, stated: “The past is never another
country, it is a terrain — a psychic, physical which must be mapped,
remembered, reinscribed in the present in a constructive and
imaginative way.”

It is for this reason that I return to the subject of
whiteness, a complex subject position that has for so long clouded,
crippled and paralyzed our society. Complacency to the issue of
whiteness will only further aid this paralysis, contributing to a
colour-blind conversation seemingly allergic to the discourse of race.

As the academic Nirmal Puwar remarked in her book Space Invaders (2004), “whiteness is defined as the norm and the standard neutral space”. Puwar argues that it remains an illegitimate topic, the subject of whiteness relegated to the margins of academic and public discussions. “White … has a strange property of directing our attention to colour while in the very same movement it exonerates itself as a colour.”

It is not simply imported western texts that inform this debate or underscore its relevance locally. In her book Whiteness Just Isn’t What It Used to Be (2001), Melissa Steyn, a sociologist and academic at the University of Cape Town, argues that whiteness has a long history locally, and is inseparably part of the colonial legacy. As Steyn puts it, “Whiteness was a modernist construction, central to the colonization project and achieved through exorcism of everything ‘black’, particularly African, from white identity.”