Tuesday, February 23, 2010

White liberals: An explanation

What does an annoying white liberal do when they’re angry? Write a strongly-worded letter. And then suggest you need counselling.

If it wasn’t so hilariously ironic it would be patronising.

I know what you’re thinking. Here she goes again -- bashing the white man. Believe me, I’d really rather not be writing this particular column. I wanted to discuss Julius Malema’s jet-setting lifestyle, Jacob Zuma’s proposed "debate on morality" or any number of topics that have captured my attention of late.

But after the gargantuan response to my last column, Stuff white liberals say and do, I feel it’s time to sit down and clear the air. Columnist to critics; offender to offendees; and Indian girl to rabidly angry white folk.

Firstly and most importantly: I wasn't talking about all white people. I wasn't even talking about all white liberals. Both these groups have made, and continue to make, an amazing contribution to our country. I was talking about a very specific and caricatured group I dubbed "annoying white liberals" who exhibit certain tendencies. If you feel I was talking about you, that's really your own decision.

Of the 189 comments that besieged the column this was my favourite; "Most of the backlash is because the SA Whites are so disappointed in their co-opted pliant, placating “I’m white but for my black-skin” sycophantic articles that this particular author usually churns out furthering the SA white racist agenda ... How could you ... Indian girl ... we allowed you to sit next to us at the table and we would have asked one of our not-so-good-looking cousins to ask you out, if only you had stayed the course longer ... lol ... Bad little South African Indian girl ... lol." Zi Karon on February 16 2010.

HOW funny is that??

But a fellow opinionista -- a black man if you must know -- whose pieces usually also tend to find favour with a liberal audience acknowledged a grain of truth in Zi Karon’s ranting.

"I've often come across that attitude (especially in Cape Town) amongst my wit-oke friends: we'll let you in, if you promise to "behave". And change your accent."
It's something that struck me hard in the overwrought reaction to what was essentially a light-hearted column communicating what I believed to be critical truths. There was the feeling among a few white friends that I had betrayed them somehow. I was encouraged and feted in my role as columnist when I took on the big baddies of corruption and inept black governments. But the minute the pen was turned on them I was taking the whole thing too far.

One angry reader skipped past the comment section, the invitation to email me and any other forms of engagement with this bad little South African Indian girl and wrote a letter straight to the editor. After accusing me of hate speech he insinuated that I needed to quiet down.

“This is clearly material for private therapy, not public journalism,” he declared, after assuring us that he would quit reading our publication.

I found myself relieved that this was the only form of power he had. I couldn't help but think of previous attempts to silence dissenting voice -- especially those of minorities or women. I could have been stoned at the city gates, declared a witch or simply forcefully committed to an asylum.

Thankfully, the average white man doesn't wield that sort of power anymore. He has to put up with listening to my opinions. As I have to swallow my pride and deal with criticisms and reactions to my own work. Because -- and this is the important bit -- that's how a free society works. If you don't like what I'm saying go right ahead and click the little x in the top right hand corner of this window. This is a column. You don't have to agree with it.

I wrote the original piece after years of studying race theory, observing race relations in South Africa and negotiating my own path of forgiveness and healing. It is the study of my life, if you will.
Because I sincerely believe that we are sitting on a ticking bomb of racial discontent in this country that isn't going to just go away if we pretend hard enough.
It can be seen in the comment thread of any online article in SA and the tenor of debate on race around any dinner table. Shutting me up won't stop that.

Are there other groups and powers to blame? Of course. My column was taking on just one aspect of the tangled web of race relations in this country. If you'd read my column The Indian cringe list, you'd see that it followed a very similar format: I also targeted a specific, and caricatured group within the race. Somehow there wasn't the same backlash. People actually congratulated me on being able to laugh at myself and my race. I was also cheered on when I took on the black management forum and the type of black person who brands any critic a racist.

But God forbid I bring that to bear on just one aspect of whiteness. I tried to crystallise some of the theories I've studied on whiteness in a humorous way in the previous column, particularly the invisibility of whiteness. Therein lies its power, we are told, for the white person can speak on behalf of humanity while us "others" are allowed to speak only on behalf of our race groups.
I never fully believed that theory until now. Because it was as plain as day in the reaction of some white people. Like the emperor caught naked, they turned around in rabid fury that I dare point out their whiteness. This despite -- and I have experienced this many, many times -- how often white South African will needlessly point out others' race and differences. It is this reaction -- and hypocrisy -- that I did not expect.

The fact is there exists a casual racism, or exaggerated racial awareness, that is systemic to predominantly white social groups. Ask any person of colour within. My article was not some bitter outpourings of my soul, but an attempt to enlighten certain white people to the casual hurt they can unthinkingly inflict -- and to reach out to people of colour who have suffered and not understood why.

Studying those theories of race brought me and my classmates so much understanding and freedom. I wanted to share this knowledge with others in my situation and help them. I've seen this happen in many one-on-one conversations with people of colour. If this made you uncomfortable as a white person, I'm sorry, but really, your comfort was not the point. And going for therapy and dealing with my "issues" quietly means I am robbing others of an opportunity to learn and grow together. Because this isn't my issue or my healing. It's ours.

When I criticise Jacob Zuma and interrogate his actions no one asks why I'm picking on him. It's obvious: he is the president and has power. People in power must be scrutinised. This argument holds true for white people in this country, who wield significant economic and social power. (As an aside, it holds true for me too, as a social commentator.)

Am I a white-hater? Come now -- of course not.

I absolutely adore the idiosyncrasies, tenacity and strengths that make up every single cultural group of this hard done by, but beautiful land. If I tease a certain tiny subsection of a racial group it is as one would an annoying kid sibling who really has to lose a trying habit or two. It was done in good will and the rage and defensiveness that met the column by some people suggests that I had underestimated the sheer potency of white guilt. And clearly this is something that needs more talking about -- not less.

"I'm tired of the endless race debates in our country," bleated several anguished white friends. You wouldn't say the same thing about global warming. Just because you're tired of talking about something doesn't mean we should stop -- until a solution has been reached.


by Verashni Pillay (Mail & Guardian)

2 Opinion(s):

Anonymous said...

I'll tell you one thing, young Indian women are as lazy as Hindu cows. Have you noticed how much sick leave they take? Arrogant, too. They screw up big time and get all huffy if you say something about it. If you're looking for racism, I would say Indians are the most racist and laziest people in the universe.

Anonymous said...

White liberals are traitors to the white race, and should be lynched and/or necklaced!