My friend Dre [actually Andrea Thorpe] has been commenting at various places in the ‘What about Bob?’ conversation and so i asked her if she’d be up to sharing some thoughts of her own…
[I’m a white, English-speaking South African. I was born in the Eastern Cape in the ‘80s. I studied Journalism and Media Studies and English at Rhodes University, and later completed my Masters in English at Stellenbosch. I’m now roughly halfway through my PhD in English at Queen Mary University of London. I’m writing my thesis on South African literature, specifically, on South African writers writing in London from 1948 onwards, and so I spend a lot of time, while living in London, thinking and writing about South Africa. (It’s very meta.)]
I’m writing this as a follow-up to ‘Bob’s’ letter that Brett shared. I don’t want to do a point-for-point response as others have already done, so thoroughly. As Tsholo, particularly, has eloquently pointed out, some of Bob’s ideas about progress and colonialism are problematic, probably racist (e.g. that colonialism ‘saved’ Africa from itself.) One of the commenters on Bob’s post said it even more pointedly, calling him “ignorant” and “bigoted”. And I’ve asked, in my comments on Tsholo’s post, whether we should actually entertain or even respond to such conservative ideas? Is Bob reaching out for answers, or attempting to justify his privilege and prejudice?
More than anything, Bob’s post seems almost tiresomely familiar. I’m thinking of inventing a new game called ‘White South African Opinion Piece Bingo (2015 Edition)’, which would include boxes like ‘Rhodes Wasn’t Such a Bad Oke’; ‘What About Xenophobia, Hey?’; ‘Reverse Racism is Totally a Thing’; ‘I Know This is Politically Incorrect but I’m Just Saying it Like it Is’; ‘The Country is Going to the Dogs and All They Care about Are Statues’ and ‘Privileged? What, Me?’
Okay, I’m being facetious. But my point is that perhaps these posts are coming from a common place, a shared emotional, psychological impetus, which is maybe worth addressing. This feeling is best summed up by this passage in Bob’s letter:
“I am white, I am made to feel ashamed of a history I had no control of and no one is interested in what a white person has to say because whatever they say or do is racist or from a point of white privilege” and again ,”I am a racist by association and don’t belong in South Africa”.
I read this as expressing two key sentiments: ‘I feel ashamed, and ‘I feel left out’. And what I hear beneath the rambling about government and Mugabe and statues (by Bob and by others) is this:
1) ‘Poor me, I don’t belong’:
Do you really feel as though you don’t belong, or is that your self-pity talking? You have all the rights of a citizen, and furthermore, you are white and therefore privileged.
During apartheid, black South Africans were forcibly removed from their homes, were often forced into exile and were denied the full rights of citizenship. They were truly made to feel as if they didn’t “belong”. Furthermore, in many places, black South Africans still feel excluded. For instance, many black students are marginalised by the structures and cultures of our elite universities: #Rhodesmustfall at UCT, The Black Student Movement at Rhodes and Open Stellenbosch are therefore focused on making our universities truly inclusive.
I think, as white South Africans, we are included more than excluded by South African society. I personally care more about those who, 21 years after the end of apartheid, still feel materially excluded from key sectors, (especially since it’s my field, in higher education) than I do about Bob’s existential crisis of belonging.
2) ‘I feel excluded from discussions about race because they’re not about me’:
I think a lot of white South Africans try and derail discussions about race (“race isn’t important”, “apartheid is over” etc.) because they feel left out, irrelevant. Bluntly, it’s not about you. Apartheid did not disadvantage you. The global imbalance of power cantilevers in your direction. So while you can listen and learn and contribute, debates about race are not going to put you – or people like you – in the centre.
3) ‘It makes me uncomfortable when my whiteness is made visible’:
Discussions about white privilege make white people uncomfortable because they are used to thinking of themselves as ‘just a person’ and are not used to having their race matter. Of course, race doesn’t ‘matter’ – we shouldn’t stereotype or generalise based on the category of skin colour – but it has consequences in terms of the economic, political and social power it’s entailed, historically. That doesn’t mean you have to feel ashamed about this: it’s just a fact. Also, having privilege does not automatically make you racist: it’s not acknowledging this privilege which is problematic.
4) ‘I don’t like it when people accuse me of racism’:
We’d all like to think of ourselves as tolerant, good people. But even if we try really hard to be non-prejudiced, our immersion in South African society (hey, in the very imbalanced world) has a way of coming out of the woodwork. Racism is not just about disliking black people. Racist ideology hides itself in a whole series of assumptions about ‘culture’, ‘civilisation’, education, the West and Africa, identity and so on. If we want to be better South Africans, better humans, we need to able to acknowledge, and hopefully transform, our deep-seated ideas about race.
I know I can always do better. I make mistakes and reveal skewed assumptions I didn’t even know I held, all the time. Example: I’m not even sure if it’s okay for me to write this post. Maybe it’s inappropriate of me to speak on behalf of black South Africans. Maybe I’ve made generalisations or over-simplified certain issues. Maybe not, but it’s worth asking the question. (So let me know what you think.)
It can be uncomfortable carrying out this mental ideology check, constantly, but it’s essential. Of course it’s not just about ideas: ideology can (and should, if it’s beneficial) translate into action, but your mind is a good place to start, I think.
What ABOUT Bob?
Maybe it’s pointless to respond to people like Bob. Maybe they don’t want to change, because that would mean accepting the possibility of a transformed South Africa which might not fit their needs and wants. But I hope that this discussion, sparked by Bob’s letter, can open our eyes to our own assumptions, and can help us to look beyond our own insecurities and emotions, so that we can truly, humbly listen and empathise.
When our kneejerk reactions to being told uncomfortable truths about race and privilege are defensiveness and self-pity, we miss out on an opportunity to really engage with our fellow South Africans, to acknowledge their pain and our shared, difficult history, and to make our country better.
[This is becoming a long conversation, but there is a lot of greatness and importance in here and so we need to keep on with it – get involved in the comments section, bring your friends to look and if you want to find your way to the beginning of it all with links to all the consequent pieces, click here]