Obsessed with whiteness

We were at the bottom of the stairs, about to board an aeroplane from Cape Town to Johannesburg many years ago, when I overheard a prominent lawyer who was close to power angrily remark about whites: “They are still in charge,” she said to her companion.

Knowing her outlook on the world, this was an unsurprising refrain. I do, however, remember feeling very sorry for her and thinking that if she was already angry with whites at 06:30, she was going to have a hell of a miserable day as she went on to encounter more of them in the hours ahead.

This week, my sympathies extended to the University of Cape Town (UCT) group that wanted to hold a blacks-only dinner and was prevented from doing so by university policy.

The “people of colour” dinner was organised by the Decolonial Winter School and whites were told to stay away. The organisers of the racially exclusionary event justified it by saying it would be “a space where black people can come together to communicate their experiences of the day without having to shelter white fragility”.

“There is safety in black-only spaces, resultant from the trauma and oppression of the past and present,” they said in a communiqué.

After the predictable storm that erupted around the event and the university’s ruling that “entrance to UCT events may not be restricted on the basis of race”, they complained that the controversy had detracted attention from the winter clinic. Well, what the heck did they expect when they came up with the pea-brained idea in the first place?

Ciaran Heywood, one of the organisers, said something that was meant to mean something but was actually a meaningless mingle-mash that sounded like a really bad translation on Google from Sanskrit to English.

“Part of the decolonial project is about recognising how colonialism centred whiteness in every aspect of life. The decentring of that and allowing unapologetic space for black people to openly and honestly reflect on their experiences should be a given. The outrage at the thought of not being included in everything demonstrates how some white people refuse to place others’ struggles beyond their discomfort,” was how Google translated Heywood.

Anyway, the reason for my sympathy is that there is this category of woke black people who suffer from this debilitating disease of obsession with whites. It’s so debilitating that they are unable to define themselves independently of white people. So, for instance, if a white person says that beetroot is red, they will say it is purple.

They spend so much time and energy seeking to negate whiteness that whiteness, ironically, becomes part of their identity. Rather than overcoming the ideology of white superiority, they entrench it by putting whiteness at the centre of their every argument and cause.

Imagine going to bed every night thinking about whites, probably dreaming about them, waking up in the morning with whites on your mind and going through the day being consumed by thoughts of them. Then repeating the same routine day after day. This lot, who consider themselves ideologically advanced and mentally liberated, are actually the most oppressed.

They claim that they derive their thinking and posture from militants such as Steve Biko, Malcom X, Robert Sobukwe and WEB Du Bois, but they fail to draw inspiration from the lives these leaders and intellectuals lived. The pioneers of black consciousness and Pan-Africanism were much clearer thinkers and more pragmatic activists. Theirs was to positively affirm and assert blackness, not be on the opposite side of whiteness, as the modern-day decolonial brigade have positioned themselves.

In one of his most famous utterances, Biko stated that “whites must be made to realise that they are only human, not superior. Same with blacks. They must be made to realise that they are also human, not inferior.”

This lot, however, see it differently. They want blacks to feel so inferior to whites that they fear to speak the truth in their presence. Why else would they want to talk in “safe spaces”, away from the ears of white members of the academic community and student body? Are they afraid of the “baas” hearing what they have to say? The alternative is that they feel themselves so intellectually inferior to whites that they believe they would be unable to hold their own in a discussion.

A lynch mob will probably descend on this lowly newspaperman with accusations of shallowness and Uncle Tomism. But it is really puerile that, in 2018, a university community can be debating about racially exclusionary gatherings. This is an argument that university leadership should be having with oafish organisations such as Solidarity and Black First Land First, and not people who deem themselves to be progressives.

Decolonising spaces is an integral part of South Africa’s ongoing transformation. A decolonisation movement that knows what it is about and is confident about its mission should have no fear of whites – it should be leading blacks and whites in the process. The project deserves thinking leadership and not crass sloganeering.

But I’m afraid the people who project themselves as decolonisers are just like the woman on the steps of the aeroplane – they are so mentally oppressed and so engrossed with the idea of whiteness that they are actually an impediment to decolonisation.