By Sekoetlane Jacob Phamodi
Yesterday morning, on my breakfast online media trawl, I ran into Gillian Schutte’s latest epistle to white South Africa. “Dear white people,” it opens, “[I] implore you to wake up and smell Africa with a fresh white nose.” Intrigued by what Schutte might have say to whites following a year of powerful pieces calling out and critiquing whiteness and its oppressive and arrogant hegemony, I was compelled to read on.
True to form, she eruditely exposed some of the quintessential and all too habitual expressions of whiteness in South Africa unapologetically. Each paragraph spoke to and against so many of the enraging experiences I had suffered at the hands of whiteness and would continue to with every encounter. Each sentence so poignantly invoked an accumulated history of normalised structural and material degradation and violence, which have left me with so many deep-running nervous conditions.
But it wasn’t to me that Schutte was writing. It wasn’t from me that she required an honest appraisal, acknowledgement and abandonment of those oppressive and unseen beliefs and behaviours. After all, being white, what does Schutte know about my experience, being black, of being overdetermined from without? Of the quiet violence I must often stoicly endure with every moment I come into whiteness? Of my fatigue from the endless dance between whiteness as it didn’t see itself and black-ness as it was seen, all of the time trying to find a moment’s pause to see myself? All she could offer was to know and acknowledge that they are there. And, perhaps, do something that would result in them no longer being.
And yet, as I read her letter, I saw much of the same entreaties I had been making from the moment I was raced. And as I heard the responses, I laughed mirthlessly at the sameness and difference of our experience. The all too familiar responses intoned. And with the same inflammatory rage. Schutte was dividing a united nation (in which blacks still came to work here and then went back to live there). She was too damning of whites who had proved their commitment to embracing diversity (by going on regular jaunts to Mzoli’s and learning a little fanagalo). Just who did she think she was?
But there was something else in the texture of the response with which I was not familiar. What felt like blind rage for her blood-treachery, much of which was elegantly encased in polite misgivings about her tone. Of course, Schutte is right, but she just shouldn’t have said it like “that”. There was even the white outcry about her condescension over both blacks (really?) and whites about something which had been resolved 18 years ago with the casting of a ballot, and the production of a little beige book. Why, it was asked, when it was so hip and comfortable to be part of the post-racial white rainbow, was Schutte just begging to be black (too?)
Begging to be black? What, exactly, did that mean? That being white, Schutte had nothing to decry about the overwhelming and unbearable whiteness of being? Or that, being white, she lacked the chip-on-the-shoulder victim mentality so often inscribed on black subjectivities by white to speak out against whiteness with any authenticity? You see, unlike me, Schutte couldn’t be dismissed as yet another angry black who couldn’t “get over it”. No. She, at best, could only be dismissed as a confused white behaving like one.
I was both astonished and enraged by the typicality of it all. In one letter, Schutte had managed to elicit more response than what I had and could in a lifetime of feeling, speaking and pleading. She was seen. Her point heard. She caused an outcry. And just hurt white people’s feelings with her tone. She hurt white people’s feelings. Because this is what mattered? Their feelings? And here I stood. Unheard and unseen. Simply angry and delusional. Ungrateful, even. Most often ignored. And where I wasn’t, unwilling to move on “like the rest of us”.
But how could I when the texture of my experience was so different to “the rest of us”? When I was told what it was and wasn’t appropriate to feel, when, and exactly how to respond? When I didn’t enjoy the luxury of not having to change my oppressive behaviour until I was spoken nicely to? When my experiences of whiteness were silenced by invocations of Our Father in Qunu and his immutable cleric in whose names the wholesale erasure of generations of collective memory and absolution from past, present and continuing sins was demanded, or simply taken?
I laughed again, mirthlessly, trying to process what this all was and what it might mean. Here we both stood, in the same place, but worlds apart; worlds apart, yet in the same place. Both staring up at this indomitable beast. Anticipating the violence. And the silence. Fighting to be ourselves.
Sekoetlane Jacob Phamodi is a black feminist who trained as a lawyer and, later, accidentally fell into journalism. When he’s not working as a media activist, he can be found looking for justice in unusual places @MrPhamodi