White South Africa: Is our ‘normal’ unjust?


As a Bible study group, we are doing Generous Justice by Tim Keller. The first chapter makes the argument that justice is actively generous. It’s not just “not hurting my neighbor” –it’s actively providing for my neighbors needs. Therefore, we can be held accountable not just for the bad things we do, but for the good things we don’t do. It isn’t just a nice thing to help someone. It’s unjust not to help someone.

The conversation turned to a discussion of Keller’s American audience. In some ways, in an SA it seems that Keller overstates his case. It’s one thing to say, “Go out and find Jesus among the poor” when you’re in a middle class American bubble. It’s another thing to say in South Africa, where they poor are all around.

Or is it?

This reminded me of my research. My research falls into the category of whiteness studies, and one of the assumptions in American whiteness studies, is that whiteness is invisible, and gets a lot of its power from being invisible. It’s the unidentified norm that everything else is measured against. It’s like the feminist critique of language, that says terms like “man” should be replaced with more inclusive language like “people” and “humankind” (and gets met with backlash from those who say, “But that’s what everyone means when they say “man”…. yes, that’s the whole point we’re making here, people. There’s something wrong if our society/history has accepted that “man” means “everybody.”) In the same way, whiteness studies tries to turn the spotlight on whiteness, highlighting it as a particular position and in doing so, taking away some of it’s power.

The big critique of this in a South African context is: Whiteness here isn’t invisible. White people are the numerical minority. They’re the only country to thoroughly legislate racism. Apartheid made white the standard, but we knew we were doing it. And now that democracy has come, and we’re in the minority politically, we are still clinging to economic and cultural privilege–but we can’t claim we don’t see it, because we’re faced with our privilege all the time.

Or are we?

What fascinates me is how far we go to keep whiteness invisible. How far we go to cling to the power and privilege of whiteness, and insulate ourselves from the fact that we’re not normal. We don’t have apartheid, but we’re still crafting a world where white privilege is the norm.

For the most part, as white people, we eat, we live, we work in places where we are not in the minority. You could live in the suburb I live in, and 90% of the people driving past in cars would be white. 90% of the people shopping in the grocery store are white. When you see people of other races, usually they are serving you (filling up your car with petrol, weighing your fruit and veggies, checking you out at the till, walking along the road to fix a pot-hole or trim some grass). At church, 90% of the people are white just like me. Everyone speaks English. (Granted, in the city it is more diverse than the suburbs. But still…)

And if someone actually does happen to be a black person who is not in a position of service, then they’re forced to go through a process where we accept them as an honorary white. We say things like, “But you speak properly.” “You’re basically just white on the inside.” “You’re not like a Zulu black, you’re just as much into (name white cultural thing) as me.”

Anyone who is actually different, who actually might threaten our bubble of what’s normal is kept at bay. Never mind that 80% of our province speaks Zulu. None of us white people have to know it, because English is what’s “normal”.

We don’t think we’re privileged. We have friends who couldn’t find a place at university because of affirmative action. (Never mind they just immigrated somewhere else). We have friends who are victims of crime, and we feel targeted (never mind that this is in fact not the case—but of course, we only know people who are just like us, so of course we feel like we’re targets). I don’t want to undermine that we white people have real losses and fears, but comparatively speaking they are small compared to the rest of the country. According to the South African Reconciliation Barometer Survey report, of 2013, no white South Africans occupy the lowest four living standards measure (LSM) groups, and 73.3% of white South Africans are in the two highest LSM categories (Institute for Justice and Reconciliation [IJR], 2013, p15). However, when white people were asked to describe their financial situation, they said they were “just getting by” or “average” (as opposed to “well off” or “very poor”*). This shows just how far we’ve kept ourselves in our bubble, and kept our image of whiteness as the “norm” in tact. I’m not saying we consciously do this. I’m not saying we’re actively like, “Ha ha ha, we’re so superior, we want to exclude others!” We just do. I’m not saying that we consciously think that people of other races/languages/income levels are inferior. But I am saying that the way we live excludes those people from our lives.

So what?

I guess what I’m saying is that there are many places still in South Africa where white privilege is the unexamined norm. And so we might be doing more harm in our “normal” conversations, in our “normal” churchs, our “normal” jokes and our “normal” decisions than we realize. Because it’s so normal, we can’t see that it there’s injustice tied up in it.

And maybe we can take Keller’s words to the American church, and apply it directly in our own contexts. Because maybe in this regard we’re more similar to the American church than we like to think. I include myself in this critique. Maybe if we’re not actively loving our neighbours who are different: with different languages, races, incomes… then maybe we are being unjust.



PS: Yes, some of this is based on my experience in my specific town and so others may have completely different experiences, which I’d love to hear. In cities hopefully things are more diverse, but I’d still argue “whiteness” is the norm in those “diverse” settings. Also, some of these critiques can be made in certain contexts of any race/language group  in South Africa where they are the majority, for example, the assumption in KZN that you should speak isiZulu if you’re black comes from a position of Zulu privilege. So we all need to be aware of times/locations where we are privileged and how we can actively show justice to others. 

*As a side note, black people more readily said they were “well off” (even if they were in lower LSM categories than whites). Maybe because white people are more insulated, and so they are only comparing themselves to other whites and the super-rich, rather than the whole country.


#IfIWasWhite: Things I learned

The area that my masters in sociology falls under is “whiteness studies”. Basically, it means studying white people, and the construct of whiteness, and understanding white privilege, and looking at ways to “de-center” the story of whiteness. In most places, “white” is the norm by which everything else is measured (which I kind of understand in America, since white people are still the majority, but why that would be the case in places like Africa or Asia makes no sense except because of the history of colonization and globalization and Western media and all that stuff).

Anyway, one of the things that some whiteness scholars try to do is make whiteness “visible” to people to whom it’s invisible. If you ask white people to tell you about themselves, not very many of them mention their race as part of their identity, because it’s just the “norm”. Race is something other people have. And “white culture”? What’s that??! Some white Americans have a vauge sense that their ancestors were Irish or something, but really, they just see themselves as “normal Americans.” When you’re the majority, you set the norms, and you can’t see how you fit into these larger cultural norms you’ve created. (Okay, caveat– I know that everyone in the whole world is an individual, and people don’t actually fall into neat stereotypical cultural categories, and we cannot let our assumptions about people’s culture define how we interact with them. But on the other hand– sociologists study people in groups, and groups do have certain traits. Not everyone in the group fits every trait, but I think it’s okay to make generalizations as long as you realize that they are generalizations).

The problem, I think, has more to do with the fact that white people can make generalizations about other cultures, but can’t see that generalizations could be applied to their culture as well. Which is why, when I was on Twitter the other night, I freaked out because the number one trend was #IfIWasWhite. ( I tried to wake my husband up and be like– look at this amazing research opportunity unfolding before our very eyes!! But he was sleeping). It started as a hashtag about the Olympic guy Shaun White, but people saw the hashtag and immediately started posting things like this:

“#IfIWasWhite I’d yell at my mom and slam the door and nothing would happen bc she’d say I was going thru a phase.”

“#IfIWasWhite I’d drink $10 Starbucks drinks.”

Or some interesting ones about education:

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(guilty of the former, I must be white :D) 

Some of these were really funny and clever. (Go here to read some). But also… these tweets reveal something to us white folks who don’t know what our “culture” is– here’s how other races and cultures see us. We make stereotypes about other races “All Black people are so loud” — why not sit back, shut up, and see what other groups say about our group? Maybe it will actually reveal to us what things are “unique” about our group–what things we all do and think are normal that actually aren’t that normal?

There were also some really heartbreaking ones that revealed how a white-dominated system side-lines other races. Many systems in America (and South Africa) are  biased against other races (especially black people). There were lots of references to the unfair treatment that black people experience at the hands of the police.

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There were maybe 10 tweets similar to:

#IfIWasWhite, I wouldn’t have store clerks follow me around every time I went shopping, assuming I was going to steal something. 

Okay white people, ouch. Maybe you don’t think this applies to you, since you’re not a store-owner or a policeman, but what about this one:

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How many times have you told a “kind of racist” joke and said, “But my black friends know I’m just joking, they laugh and think it’s funny, too.” Um. No.

And then of course, some white people got on the bandwagon, and felt they needed to defend themselves, so took some shots back:

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Which made me SUPER irritated. I think the people who made the two comments above missed out on a chance to listen and learn. They resented that the other group was making stereotyped comments about them but assumed they knew the other group well enough to make comments back. Despite all the tweets that gave glimpses to the real hurt that other races experience because of systemic injustice, these white tweeters just assumed everyone was whining, that everything in the world is fair, that white people got to where they are today solely by their own hard work–and the list goes on.

The sociologist part of me wanted to do a content analysis of all these tweets, and figure out which ones fall into the “funny cultural stereotypes about whites” category (and then see what the different cultural traits are), how many fall into the “revealing prejudice in the system” category, how many fall into the “rankled white people retaliating” category, and how many fall into the “why is this a trend on twitter now??!” category. But. I didn’t. I wrote a blog post because I’m lazy and this is easier. But maybe someone else out there will do it.

But I hope at the very least, this twitter trend can help us white people think a little bit more  about what we define as normal, about how we stereotype others, and about how desperately we need to shut up and listen to people who are not white, and value their experiences and insights into the injustice around us, rather than getting defensive and shutting them out.