Shame, blame and race in South Africa

Debate rages after a writer implores white South Africans to be politically silent

Jay Janner/Zuma/Keystone Press

White people should “just shut up and listen.” That’s the idea behind white South African writer Gillian Schutte’s recent opinion piece, “Dear White People,” which is being hotly debated in South Africa. In it, she advises white South Africans to “wake up and smell Africa with a fresh white nose,” reflect on what it means to be “born into unearned privilege” and stop “telling everyone who is not white how to behave, what to think and when to say what.” Schutte’s post, published online by South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper, is rekindling the so-called “whiteness” debate in the country—that is, how to be ethical and white in post-apartheid South Africa.

Schutte’s controversial opinion that whites must be quiet is rooted in a theory promoted by a group of mostly white South African academics known as the “anti-racists,” who say the best way to deal with white privilege—sometimes called “whiteliness”—is to be politically silent.

The debate began in 2010, when Samantha Vice, a philosophy professor at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, encouraged a white retreat from South African politics. “Our thoughts are heavy with whitely assumptions,” she wrote, “and so they would be morally risky, at best, to utter publicly in as racially charged a space as South Africa.” Vice says it is “morally appropriate [for South African whites] to accept and live with shame.” Her paper, rewritten in a newspaper column by a fellow academic, went viral.

“Sam got some vociferous responses,” says Ward Jones, an associate professor of philosophy at Rhodes University, “but I think most have been sympathetic to the shame issue.” Whites are “morally unlucky,” explains Jones—“you’re unlucky in that you are part of a group that has committed great wrongs.”

Other academics began holding seminars with themes like “Shame for being white: sorting through the reasons” and “The unbearable whiteness of some beings.” Lucy Allais, a philosophy professor at Wits University in Johannesburg, wrote that if a person belongs to a group that did “something atrocious, a certain kind of strident self-righteous tone in moral criticism should be avoided.”

Critics say the theories are vacuous. “This activism by white liberals generally functions to reproduce racism,” says Andile Mngxitama, a black consciousness activist who believes whites talking to whites is futile. Others dismiss the premise of white privilege. The FW de Klerk Foundation, a non-profit organization in the name of the last Afrikaner president, wrote a response to Vice’s article arguing “a substantial proportion of whites cannot be described as being ‘privileged’ at all.”

Still, Jones says the whiteness debate will continue. “South Africa has been made by white people, and the place needs to be remade by black people,” he says. “You ask yourself, ‘What are you doing for this place?’ Especially as a white person.”




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Shame, blame and race in South Africa

  1. Oh my God!! This article sounds it comes from the realms of a left leaning liberal from this country. Watch the precipitous slope of decline of S.Africa if this type of policy is implemented. It is similar to white mans guilt in regards to the First Nation’s issue in here in Canada. People look north from S.Africa to the rest of the continent of Africa and what do we see in regards to the running of Governments?? I rest my case.

    • Black South Africans need to get over themselves and apartheid.Just ask a young South African with all possibilities available what they think,and Oprahs school is a sham.Maybe such high moral beings as Canadians should get a taste of their own medicine and let the 2%of natives run the whole show.Canada under Pearson and Trudeau were all jumped up to support the new black nations like Uganda,Zimbabwe,Malawi,Angola,Mozambique,Tanzania,Sierra Leone,hell,Egypt.After all,isnt everyone else just parvenue?Canada should just shut up,for a change.Is it even possible?I know,more Timmies!

  2. If africans avoid to miscigenation even by ia, is because they fells themselves like another specie, in Brazil pale blond german married a mulatoe and born an race here that is not race more, is brazilian, imagine if we mix Africa + (all races of the world) = bottom end, Africa becomes world and end, africans are afraid to sees their children, and sees that they are more white (miscigenation) and a globalizated race, they are afraid to say: son, daughter now you are part of world, you do not have to live more only in African culture, i fell that africans are much afraid about their children be globalizated in race, and so Africa becomes world, as Syria today is lots of races, Saudi Arabia is lots of races, and IA today is so avanced that you can choose the race, so there is nothing to loose at all, nothing but the fear to do not live in a pure african culture: the only pure culture in the entire globe (absolutely none country outside black Africa today is pure race, absolutely none, i am trusting to you all)

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