Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Denying the Wages of Whiteness

by Richard Pithouse, SACSIS & The Daily News

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.