Well before Gillian Schutte’s letter to white people calling on them to reflect on their whiteness, its invisibility and centrality in the reproduction and edification of white power, the very experience of blackness has been characterised by this same demand. Yet, as is wont to be the case, it would be Schutte’s, a white woman, that would elicit such an incredibly huge response.
In my reflections on this bizarre yet unsurprising outcome, I began discussing what it was about Schutte’s letter that gave it the currency to rile up so many whites, rouse so much applause and spark such a wide, albeit largely parochial, dialogue about whiteness and white racism. Central to the analysis, I propose, is the fact of Schutte’s whiteness.
It would be disingenuous of us to deny that the very fact of engagement with Schutte’s letter was not uninfluenced by her positionality as a white person, that the hostility she met was because of her betrayal of whiteness, or that the applause was linked to her white exceptionalism. She was heard and even listened to because she is white and, as a result, was regarded as either a white traitor or an exceptional white who, hallelujah, got “it”. Whatever the case, her white skin necessarily privileged her voice over and drowned out that of blacks.
And this, perhaps, is whence Nkopo and Mngxitama depart when they argue that there is no unlearning whiteness. Where it once asserted its rightness with the ugly face of white racist might, whiteness now sought to rescue and distract us from itself by drawing attention to itself through the seductive and more appealing guise of a comrade at arms. Despite the ostensible change of tongue in the way that whites and whiteness presented, with the emergence of an active white anti-racism, this apparent rescue succeeded in elevating and keeping our eyes firmly fixed on the new whiteness. The right whiteness. A beneficent whiteness which should be lauded for seeking to undo itself. Yet always, still, a privileged whiteness.
The co-option of the anti-racism movement has become a new and central feature in the whiteness machine’s efforts to keep itself intact. Presenting a more sophisticated version of “some of my best friends are black,” participation in the anti-racism movement is often invoked to muzzle the critique of the often unconscious but patent privileging of whiteness, even in these spaces. It is used to conveniently quash any real discussion on whites’ violent reticence to accede when called on to divest themselves completely of the spoils of their unearned privilege. It is even used to prop up claims of “reverse racism” and the “new essentialism” in a bid to silence any critical interrogation of the totality of white power.
It would be a gross understatement to say that whiteness, which is not simply a skin tone, but a project concerned with the systematic entrenchment and reproduction of its supremacy, has been a singularly devastating force in the structural and material oppression of all the peoples of the world, not least of which, even its imagined beneficiaries. And, for this reason, it had become clear in my mind and, I believe, that of any serious anti-racist that the end of white domination and its structural potency necessarily requires the complete and utter annihilation of whiteness.
There was no rescuing whiteness. After all, how could it undo itself when it relied on its privileged position to do so? Where the preservation of the anti-racist’s privilege, being white, was held up as integral to their success in realising its demise? It had become patently clear that whiteness was not interested in becoming undone, but sought to preserve, refashion and still validate itself by demanding to set the conditions for its own demise.
And it was here, faced with this harsh realisation, that I found myself caught in and consumed by a distressing tension. With the white anti-racist doing itself serving only to elevate and validate whiteness, what was it, then, that whites could do? Since whiteness could not be rescued, what, then, should happen with whites, all of whom necessarily embodied and could not escape it?
Was the solution the white nihilism signified in Malcolm X’s injunction that whites do nothing to successfully participate in the demise of white supremacy and white racism? Could it be that whites should come together in closed spaces to reflect on and talk to one another about how to deal with their whiteness and find ways to vanquish white racism among their own quietly, so as to avoid the continued reification of their exceptional whiteness? Or did the answer lie in Maya Angelou’s proposition that whites unreservedly hand over their power, all of its symbols and its spoils to blacks, “then follow [them] with faith to kingdom come?”
Without rescuing whiteness, what can whites do?