Struggling to openly name race and racism from a privileged white perspective is a symptom of the convergence of many fears and often conflicting feelings. There is the horror at acknowledging what people have done who we share something with, even for those who refuse to self-identify as whites. The more personal guilt and shame for our own participation in various ways in this system, from moments when we acted upon our prejudices and communed with others in racism, to the general invisibility that other people’s pains have had for so long in our eyes.
But deep inside there is a more fundamental, almost uncontrollable fear of karma. That what white people did, the atrocities we continue to support and benefit from, will come back to haunt us. That the discriminated and the oppressed will exact revenge on us. That’s why many reactions from privileged whites are of aggressive self-defence. We feel our very existence is in danger, because we know what we’ve done, and can’t imagine that people we’ve done it to will be anything less than brutal in response.
If we listen carefully to what people are saying around us, we would quickly realise that our fears are unfounded. There is a growing space for humanity emerging out of the cracks of a system of domination in crisis, where people of all walks of life are coming together in solidarity.
That space cannot be built on superficial colour-blinded gender-neutral ideologies that gloss over individual and collective differences and discriminations, histories and experiences. It cannot be built by denying the claims of those who push us to reflect on multiple forms of oppression and our complicity in them. It dissolves in the instant we want to write out our personal life and positionality, erasing with it not only the humanity of others we have for too long exoticised and devalued, but the very possibility of our own humanity.
The recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa are a major cause for concern. They are part of a complex landscape where past and present grievances, injustices and structural inequalities are forcefully emerging from decades of neglect and justificationist techniques to preserve the status quo. More than anything, we need unity and solidarity across all groups and communities, in a delicate moment when histories, identities, memories and feelings can be easily mobilised for destructive and self-destructive purposes. We need to reflect deeply about causes and concerns of all involved, and avoid using these events in any way to justify narrow political and identitarian concerns. Now more than ever, we need to recognise each other’s humanity, no matter what is being said and done by whom and for what purposes.
But let’s not fool ourselves. The entrenched inequalities and injustices these attacks hint at – which of course are much more complex and deeper than a simplistic scapegoating of one group can ever allow for – need to be addressed, if we want to truly find resolution and move towards a brighter future. As things stand, the path I am seeing is one where structural inequalities which favour certain class and racial groups at the expense of the vast majority of Black South Africans will continue to be glossed over. What is emerging is an undeclared but very palpable state policy of controlled fear and intimidation that feeds xenophobic sentiments, keeps foreigners ‘in check’, while leaving the structures of the economy fundamentally untouched. The attacks are coinciding with the rise of a wider movement calling for transformation, reaching traditionally middle-class institutions like universities. This is another sign that there are deeper structural issues that need to be addressed. This movement, which links people from all kinds of backgrounds and class positions, might in fact contain the seeds for a positive and negotiated transformation that addresses issues of poverty, underdevelopment and discrimination in all sectors of society. For those of us who continue to be embedded in the enclaves of privilege that South Africa offers to some – elite universities certainly feature in this – there lies the responsibility of contributing in whatever way we can to this process. This is a moment of crisis, no doubt, but also an opportunity to be part of a new deal that pushes further with the agenda of equality, redistribution and non-racialism that has always been at the centre of the liberation project, in South Africa and the rest of the continent.