Questions for white liberals

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Image description: Black woman with Africa earring

Image description: Black woman with earring in shape of Africa, eyes covered by graffiti paint. Part of series Ain't it awesome to be black by Courtney Lowry. Under CC license.

 

Over the last few weeks, once again, racist violence across the globe has been made visible across multiple dimensions of everyday life. Higher mortality rates of Black[1] people because of the COVID-19 pandemic, caused by structural violence and racial capitalism that limits access to decent housing, adequate healthcare, access to nourishing nutrition, safe working conditions and all the ways in which settler-colonial states deny care for Black people within their borders. Violence against Black people by militarised police forces in the United States of America and South Africa, where I am based. The death of George Floyd in the United States has again resulted in a resurgence in public consciousness of the Black Lives Matter Movement. For those of us who cannot escape the way in which racism is enfolded in everyday life, we know this heightened awareness of race is episodic. Even as racism is not. Racism as structure continues to perpetuate inequality and violence against Black people.

In higher education in South Africa, a controversy rages once more about an academic’s work that reproduces racialising discourse. Online, across continents and demographics, within most of the groups on higher education that I belong to, questions about racism and intellectual labour are circulating. There are many recommendations of books and readings that are being shared by Black people in the hope that white colleagues, interlocutors and allies would educate themselves about racism.

When some of the protests in the United States resulted in the destruction and theft of property, Black people across social media were at pains to explain Black anger and pain. To restate, the pedagogy of race that Black scholars and intellectuals were engaging in, was primarily directed at white people. Every time there is a protest whether it is here, in South Africa or in the United States or in the United Kingdom or wherever inequality rages, it is usually the disenfranchised who explain themselves. We saw this during anti-apartheid protests, the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movement and again and again in the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

The perpetrators of racist violence, physical or intellectual, are rarely called to account for themselves. Even as protests are intended as pleas to make them stop killing and maiming Black people. White allies rarely explain why particular racist actions might have occurred. White liberal intellectuals, in particular, frequently learn anti-racist discourse and mimic it back at us with very little trenchant thought given to their experiences of whiteness. Noting how much emotional and intellectual labour was taking place, explaining Black responses to racist violence, I posted the following questions on my Facebook timeline.


 

If we were to take a look at your scholarship, the cumulative work you have invested yourself in, in this deeply racist, sexist, (capitalist, ableist, xenophobic and on and on) country we live in, would you be proud? Have you become a better person? Would we be able to see it, the moment when who you were and who you were hoping to be parted ways?

Have all those late nights and long days produced work that made the world a little better, a little brighter, sparked the tiniest of revolutions that declare that there are people here? Human beings with all their complications who deserve worlds in which they can thrive. Not survive, not subsist but thrive. 

Have all those late nights and long days produced work that made the world a little better, a little brighter, sparked the tiniest of revolutions that declare that there are people here?

In worlds that are just. Worlds that when you say I see you, I hear you, it doesn't feel like charity or a favour or a thing that you hope the right people have seen you do. With those people who gave you a frisson when they were at your dinner table cos you were just so damn progressive. 

Did you ever wonder if they saw that sometimes you smiled in that way that marvelled that they might have a smidgeon more cosmopolitanism than you could have imagined for them? Or not enough owning of the world that was always supposed to be yours to inherit in that different time that we have all somehow magically transcended?  

Are the things you write, the things you sayare these the things you do?

What did you do with all that stuff that told you, you were better? What work did you do on those days those responses came that you hoped no-one would notice? Those days you felt ashamed, when you remembered, after that first flush of vitriol when they dared to get so damn uppity? When every part of you screamed who do they think they are? What work did you do in the quiet where no-one could see you? Did you have someone to tell, to confess your transgression, your regression to your apartheid self? 

Did you have someone to tell, to confess your transgression, your regression to your apartheid self? 

What does it mean when you see your parents in you, when does it happen? The way they speak to ‘the help’, or when you teach your children to cross the street when a dark face appears? How have you mourned your parents, who they were when the world was theirs? How do you feel when that world where inequality is so normal is at your dinner table and at the braai and none of your dark-skinned friends are there to take exception and that person who is all the things that is worst about the past, says the things almost everyone believed? What do you do? 

What do you do when you go to a room of supposedly learned people when they are being crass and careless with the lives of black people? What do you feel? 

How are you shattered and shattered and shattered by who you were, when a racist world demanded no less and then brought together in fragments in this world where all you were has been revealed to be made of violence? The food you eat, the clothes you wear, the house you live in, the people you use so cheaply, the labour you do is so so tightly woven with the violence done to black people that you can't even see it. It is the very air we breathe. 

How do you understand what it means to be good? When calling a grown man and woman, girl and boy was the background to your childhood; where a swift klap was okay if they got out of line? What does it mean to be a good person in a world where it is okay to live in a mansion and use up the bodies of black people so you can laze about while calling them lazy if they miss a speck of dust? What does it mean to be good in a world where you can use black people's bodies until they break in the mines, in your homes, in the factories, on the farms and pay them so little that their children were almost certain to cry from want at least once? 

What does it mean to be a good person in a world where it is okay to live in a mansion and use up the bodies of black people so you can laze about while calling them lazy if they miss a speck of dust?

And then work to break the minds of their children in your classrooms, transmuting your shame into theirs? 

How does it feel to eat the profit, travel the world with the profit, off the weight you placed on black bodies, black psyches, black spirits? To love those stories and films and all those little pleasures that had us on our knees? To caress the furniture made with labour you stole from our ancestors? To photograph and photograph and call beautiful the houses built by human beings who were harried with whips and slurs and starved and bought and sold? 

What does goodness mean when you remember? Do you remember?

Do you miss the part of you that would have been tender to the world if you could taste that violence? Do you miss those parts of you that you must have switched off so the violence does not choke you and sour every mouthful of food, scrape your flesh when your fine fine clothes caress it?

Why, when I watch a show with a white man ordering nameless black men to do heavy heavy labour, saying to the woman he wants to impress, how good it is to build things with his own hands, I feel as if up is down when no-one stops to ask what does building mean when his gesturing hands are empty, and there is no dirt or sweat on his body? What made him a person who builds and others mere instruments of his building? What do you see, what do you feel when you watch a man such as this? 

Or when a woman with manicured nails talks of how she cares for her home, how house proud she is while a dark-skinned woman with roughened hands picks up and scrubs and tightens her body at the first hint of a sharp rebuke?

Or when people in respectable offices sign away the meagre shelters people need to survive. What do you understand of goodness? 

Do you love them, the parents and grandparents who create(d) living nightmares for other human beings or do you shrug your shoulders because your legacy is too heavy to bear?

How? How did you shrug off this history that lies so heavily in my body, trips up my tongue, confuses me and consumes me? How? How has being raised and living in a racist country, a racist world left you untouched? Why are the racists always elsewhere? In Ferguson and Minneapolis or Pretoria or somewhere, anywhere that is never here where you are. 

What did you do with yourself? What conversations did you have with the people you loved most about the new people they were to become in the post-apartheid? Did being equal with blacks terrify you? Does it still? 

What did you let go and what do you still struggle with? What kinds of unlearning did you need to do? Why have I not read so many of these stories, seen so many of these marvellous changes of how you shed your skin that I do not need to wonder about these things? 

I think about these things all the time. How someone can grow up in a racist country and not imagine that they have racist behaviours.  And the ways in which anti-black racism is so enfolded in our everyday lives and what kind of work it might take to actually change. 

I don’t know how so many white people can imagine that they have magically transcended apartheid. I certainly have not witnessed the end of whiteness. And yet, and yet there is this magic absolution white people, particularly white liberals have given themselves without the necessity for doing much, if any, of the reparative work, any of the unpacking of whiteness that makes us reel over and over. There are days when the violence of whiteness is so heavy, the injustice of the paternalism, the stupidity of the logic, the cruelty of the world it makes possible, that feeling it all is unbearable.

There are days when the violence of whiteness is so heavy, the injustice of the paternalism, the stupidity of the logic, the cruelty of the world it makes possible, that feeling it all is unbearable.

From Washington to Cape Town to London to Sao Paulo, racism thrives. And black death, black denigration, black heartache ensues. And somehow there are enough white people who believe they are history’s victims when they are called to account, that racism as structure continues to thrive. 

How many times must this happen before white people take accountability? For the racist speech they allow to flourish, the racist acts they do not denounce, the racist communities they continue to uphold, the racist rules they continue to impose, and on and on. How many deaths, and how many times must people be sent reading lists and explanations. Why are black people required to explain themselves? Explain their anger. Explain their response?

As if white people did not burn down whole cities for a piece of coal or the oil that chokes us all. As if white people have not cut off feet and arms and stolen land and whipped and whipped and wrote laws that stole people from themselves and from love and broke bodies to preside over empty tracts of land and shot children in the face with rubber bullets and snatched children from their mothers’ bellies and breasts, and taught so many lies so few of them can even recognise the truth and did unspeakable things to the women who cleaned their homes and whom they made live in their yards and burned down villages to ensure they were looked at properly and dragged people behind bakkies and pissed in their food and laughed and laughed and put a knee on a man’s neck which their children treated as a game and the list would never end were I to write for a thousand years. Not today, you say? Where do you live, I ask?

If we have to explain why then you are part of the problem. And if we do, and if we believe you that you did not know, that you do not understand how racist discourse works, how many research studies by people who cannot even understand why their research is morally reprehensible? What do they know of knowledge if they are so utterly blind to how worlds were broken to give them the right to opine about those worlds they can barely comprehend and yet would shape and shape just to feel the power of their words?

What do they know of knowledge if they are so utterly blind to how worlds were broken to give them the right to opine about those worlds they can barely comprehend and yet would shape and shape just to feel the power of their words?

The last few weeks have been unbearably painful. Watching black people explain black behaviour and yet, there are so few explanations from white allies. Watching white people defend the indefensible with nothing but bluster decrying their victimhood and silencing from a pulpit most of us would never even be invited onto. Why are we constantly having to reflect on our feelings, our responses, our experiences? Over and over, there is black explication and yet, so little white reflection (and yes, I know that's a binary and blah blah blah, that abstract dithering about crap takes you away from feeling. Stop it and begin to deal so we can all stop the world from burning!).

So little accountability for the world we live in, the mess we are having to deal with. Your mess! Your parents’ mess! Your grandparents’ mess! If we do not get to escape our histories, why do you? How do we change, if we are not willing to accept that we are all part of this world, that history lives in us. 

Your mess! Your parents’ mess! Your grandparents’ mess! If we do not get to escape our histories, why do you?

P.S. It has taken me days to post this because I don’t want to deal with soothing white sensibilities and becoming complicit in self-congratulation or deal with condemnation and whataboutism. And more than anything, that reluctance has shown me just how much epistemic power whiteness retains, how much self-censorship is required from black people. Now if you spout crap or make me deal with your feelings, I will just ignore you the way you have ignored the violence done to black people for centuries. Rather take that energy and go mop up the racist nonsense we have to fight, done by people who do not think black people are their equals and peers.

 

Footnotes: 

[1]Please note, following Steve Biko, I am using a Black Consciousness definition of Blackness which incorporates all people who were racialised as inferior and oppressed during apartheid.

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