I would like to propose a challenge. This challenge is for the white people of South Africa, and it takes the form of a list. This list is a list of truths regarding the status of whiteness in South Africa. I challenge the white person in South Africa to engage with this list of truths.
• I am white.
• As a white person, I acknowledge that I should not be rewarded for being born with certain characteristics, like the colour of my skin. Similarly, I should not be punished for being born with certain characteristics, like the colour of my skin.
• As a white person, I cannot and do not fully understand what it is like to be black.
• As a white person, I cannot speak for black people.
• As a white person, I acknowledge that apartheid enabled a system whereby white people benefitted in all aspects of society at the expense of black people.
• As a white person, I acknowledge that apartheid created or reformed South African institutions, the structures of which were designed to perpetuate the supremacy of white over black.
• As a white person, I acknowledge that, over 20 years into democracy, the overwhelming majority of these structures within these institutions that benefit white over black have not been eradicated.
• I am not ashamed of being white.
• I am not guilty because I am white.
The challenge is to engage with each of these points in turn. Acknowledge their truths: post them as your Facebook status. Email them to your white friends and family. Make an audio recording of them. Print them off and stick them onto your fridge. Individually tweet them. Put them in a space where you are able to see them everyday.
It is my hope that this list makes you uncomfortable. It is also my hope that, when you accept this challenge and share and acknowledge these truths with your white friends and family – as a Facebook status, through email, as a printed list in your home – that, over time, through debate and through conversation with each other, it becomes less uncomfortable.
Recent discourse in South Africa has highlighted the need for true transformation in our country. True, unequivocal transformation of our country or our institutions will never be possible if we have not looked to transform ourselves. It is, of course, part of a wider decolonisation movement led by the black challenge against the institutions of this country; however, from a personal point of view, as white South Africans, the legacy of apartheid demands that transformation is similarly dependent on our own introspection and subsequent transformation.
This list of truths humbly aims to enable this personal transformation. Specifically, this list of truths aims to enable a change of mindset that will lead to a personal transformation; in turn, in time, this will facilitate and simultaneously accompany the wider decolonisation of this country.
The current mindset that we need to alter for our personal transformation is the mindset that white skin is worth more than black skin.
The current mindset is the result of years upon decades upon centuries of manipulation and discrimination that has demanded and ingrained the belief that white is worth more than black. It is a colonial dimension from which we have not yet been decolonised. We are enslaved to a set of ‘unthinking prejudices’ that requires us to value white over black, male over female, straight over gay. We have been born into a racial hierarchy, and the realities of daily institutional life have constantly and consistently told us that we are superior. The fact that this racial hierarchy exists, and has done for years, does not make us immoral or bad; however, because of the way this racial hierarchy exists, we would be immoral or bad if we did not challenge it.
At this point, I think it is prevalent to quote a white man reflecting on white racial identity in a documentary called ‘Whitewashed’:
“I don’t have any trouble in admitting that I’m a racist. I think it’s absurd to try to fight with that. I grew up in this society, I was conditioned by it; I think, internally, in my psyche, I have grounded and rooted those attitudes, and I see it in me all the time. I’m always dealing with it. I don’t think that makes me a bad person. I don’t think that means I’ve grounded an original sin or anything. It just means that I’ve been well indoctrinated. But it does also call me to do something about it.”
In South Africa, we have an opportunity. As with the above documentary, it must be acknowledged that this set of ‘unthinking prejudices’ is not unique to South Africa – it is a worldwide perpetuation of white supremacy. We, white South Africans, have an opportunity to write a new chapter for ourselves in history by rejecting this mindset that has been enforced upon us and perpetuated by declaring that we take responsibility for its transformation. We can accusingly point to the failings of the current government, but that does not change the fact that we are the sole owners of our own mindset.
They talk of Black Rage. We talk of White Humility.
“When people get used to preferential treatment, equal treatment seems like discrimination,” noted Thomas Sowell. White Humility, where the white South African aspires to develop the quality to acknowledge their current standing in society, recognise that it is wrong, and actively decides to challenge it.
I realise and fully acknowledge that this is an outrageous, impossible challenge. Many of you will choose to remain blind to your societal standing, calling me out as being ashamed of my whiteness or desperate for black acceptance. I am none of these things. Furthermore, you will ask, who the hell am I to suggest such a challenge?! To that, I quote ‘Whiteness scholar’ Robin DiAngelo: “white people can hear me in a way they can’t hear people of colour. They listen. So by god, I’m going to use my voice to challenge racism.”
By all means, if you find this list too outrageous, too condescending, too liberal, then find your own way of challenging your mindset. Do whatever works for you. It will be hard work, yes, and it will take an inordinate amount of time. It might never be completed. But, what cannot be denied, as shown by a number of recent comment sections, Facebook posts, and daily encounters, is that this mindset of valuing white over black exists. Our apathy regarding such a fact can no longer be accepted.
A race is made up of individual people. White South Africans are made up of individual people. If, as suggested by DiAngelo, whites are only capable of genuinely listening to other whites, then we will be able to alter the mindset of the individual next to us. Our child, our work colleague, our neighbour, our Facebook friend, our Twitter follower. Then, one day, maybe, we might start the process of ridding ourselves of this set of unthinking prejudices that continues to polarise our society. We might, eventually, be able to re-establish our humanity through the emancipation of our mind and spirit.
Finally, it must be acknowledged that this change, this transformation, is not something to fear. Our country will not collapse and burn under the efforts of true decolonisation. It will, instead, rise to new heights, the likes of which have not yet been seen on this continent. Debate such as this only serves to empower a society. We are not to shamefully hang our heads and hide away in our houses because we are white. We are not to sit back and do nothing. We are, instead, to celebrate the fact that we are able to have these conversations, and that we have a chance to rectify the gross injustices of the past.
If you truly engage with this concept of personal transformation, if you truly listen to the nuances implicit in this debate, if you are truly able to recognise and acknowledge the points on the list above and actively engage with other white people to that end, then I believe we, as white South Africans, can transform our mindset to believe the following:
As a white person, I believe that black skin is worth as much as white skin.
As a white person, I believe that black skin holds as much dignity as white skin.
As a white person, I have an important and defining role in transforming South Africa.
I have taken inspiration from a number of texts or videos in the writing of this article, all of which I believe are worth reading/watching in the attempt to understand how we can support the process of transforming South Africa: