By Ayesha Fakie
Working in social justice especially in antiracism to form collective efforts to dismantle white oppression requires, many times, that we educate on the origins of white supremacy. While many know, especially in South Africa, a land infamous for Apartheid, that racism is a problem, the collective conscious, in our view, doesn’t really understand the depths of white supremacy and how it was used, intentionally, to shape the world around us today.
It requires that we relay the facts of how whiteness isn’t inherently superior no matter how some of us, even persons of colour, still without question accept this. It requires that we relay how by intentional design white supremacy was created to inferiorise other peoples, for the purpose of economic exploitation to enrich colonial empires. It requires us to relay the facts, documented by respected historians, sociologists, journalists, and many more, that white supremacy degraded and dehumanised black peoples and black bodies so that white people could live in comfort, could reap the wins off the blood and toil of black bodies, and even black deaths.
Most crucially, it requires us to relay, when we go deep into issues of anti-racism and white supremacy, that racism is less about ‘needing to understand each other’ and more about power and privilege. Moreover, white supremacy is a centuries old man-made invention that assigns power and privilege to white people and strips others of their agency, dignity, and esteem and self-power.
All of us are complicit in this system that defines our world in the same way all of us are complicit in the ways capitalism exploits peoples, lands and resources for our comfort. Some of us, by the boundaries of race created my racism, are more complicit in that we still benefit directly and materially through our privilege, and indeed white privilege. While this realisation is a breakthrough, what often happens next in anti-racist anti-white supremacist spaces is a sense of white guilt.
We get it, we really do. While I dislike the word woke, this breakthrough is like an awakening. White people are unflinchingly confronted with racism and white supremacy, and it must be horrible to experience, especially in South Africa where wealth was made for white people through the exploitation of black labour. Especially as we remain a country of black impoverishment and white wealth, even white affluence.
But white guilt doesn’t help anyone. At best it is an unproductive endeavour to express it to others, especially people of colour. At worst, it works only to once again centre whiteness and white feelings in discussions about tearing that scourge down. Expressing a sense of white guilt for what was done for whiteness, what is done for whiteness, to the people whiteness continues to oppress may be well intentioned (we hope) but it is yet another affront. In anti-racism discourse, we talk of microagressions. Expounding about your struggles with white guilt goes beyond that; if it’s not a macroagression it certainly reads as selfish hubris and an astounding lack of empathy, self-awareness and positionality. Remonstrating on white guilt is a doubling down of the power of whiteness and based on conversations with other people of colour (PoC), even on social media, shows it is something the oppressed have little patience for. Indeed, when we asked “As a POC, what are your thoughts on white guilt?” we got many responses, some laugh out loud funny, some reflecting the anger POC feel. One response really stood out, a kick in the gut:
We can’t know why white guilt experienced by white persons is a thing they feel they need to talk to Black and Brown people about. Is it penance? Seeking absolution? A confessional? We cannot guess; that’s for white society to deliberate on. We can say though that, even though you might not intend it, your expressions and centering white guilt leads POC to wonder if your anti-racism (in how it affects the majority of this country) is important but secondary to your feelings?
One of us has spoken before, in workshops and in the media, about acknowledging Indian privilege, such as it is. A recognition that identity, tone of my, type of hair, mother tongue English, the relative access had in higher education served to help accrue certain benefits even where I worked hard to achieve them. What would be unproductive is if I went around telling coloured and black people, especially women, about any ‘Indian guilt’ as that would only feed my own ego.
What I do, and what all of us with privilege must do, those who are white and experience guilt (but not to forget us POC who have accessed certain spaces and positions) is use whatever fuels us, whether guilt or justice or an inherent need for widely permeated dignity and equality is to actually do something to help dismantle exclusion and oppression.
We don’t know what this looks like or means for white people and white guilt, but it is certainly a conversation I believe, and our work shows, they, as the still dominant parts of SA society, should have. It is a conversation we welcome and can facilitate. Indeed, far too few white people come to spaces to address race and white supremacy to such an extent that participants often plaintively ask “where are the white South Africans?!”
Guilt on its own is a first step. We don’t even need guilt. But if guilt does form it is only productive in what we do with it. Because ““The poor do not ask us to feel guilty, for they can’t eat guilt. What they ask is that we act to address the causes of injustice so they can obtain food.”
Ayesha Fakie is the HOD for the Sustained Dialogues Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.