Only White People Can Be Racist? Don’t Be Absurd

As the culture war rages unabated, a war of attrition draining the mental and emotional energy of all decent sensible people with internet connections and social media accounts, we are seeing a doubling down of the most vicious and socially destructive forms of identity politics. Race, gender, sexual orientation; valid topics of discussion, to be sure, but the positions of identitarians on all sides of the political spectrum make reasonable conversation impossible by making every form of identity a zero-sum game: intersectionality on one side, bigotry on the other, no matter what the complexities of one’s views.

One of the most common and consequential forms of this reductionism, and one particularly relevant for my own country is a reformulation of the word “racism” as an exclusively white phenomenon. It is all too common to hear sentences like “only white people can be racist” or “a black person can never be racist”. It would be less of a concern if this was merely a fringe notion, but increasingly the mainstream left seems to have embraced it. I have heard otherwise seemingly reasonable people argue vociferously for it, not realising or not caring what a dangerous premise it sets, or in some cases actively relishing it. But this rhetorical artefact has become merely a pseudo-intellectual get-out clause for rampant racism. And no, I don’t believe in “reverse racism” (a silly notion by definition), it’s all just racism.

The central argument here is that racism requires a position of perceived or actual superiority in order to be called racism. Hatred is not a sufficient condition without it operating in some kind of ideological or socio-political structure. One could employ this argument in the case of an oppressed person resenting their oppressor, as was the position of black people under Apartheid. However, while an economic imbalance still exists, this is not the basis of the majority of racial rhetoric spouted by identitarian groups such as Fees Must Fall and elements of Black Lives Matter. Discussion of the economic divide that still exists to a great extent along racial lines is quite distinct from the direction the discussion around “whiteness” seems to have taken. White people are loathsome in their very essence, the “ness” of their being white, regardless of their beliefs or the part they played, if any, in the oppression of non-whites. Listen to Fallist activist Mcebo Dlamini’s rant about white people being “all the same” and “full of hate”. Or read Fees Must Fall’s official statement on the anti-Zuma marches, refusing to make common cause with the “lazy, incompetent, time-wasting” whites of South Africa. There is clearly a broad-brush superiority/inferiority dynamic at play here. Do your own research on this if you don’t believe me. This is not rational resistance of an oppressor by the oppressed; it is an excuse for rampant hate against an entire ethnicity. It also denies that white people can even be South Africans, they are “settlers” or “colonists”, a temporary infestation that will be dealt with in due course, regardless of whether your family (like mine) have been in this country for over 200 years.

A war of attrition draining the mental and emotional energy of all decent sensible people with internet connections.

If we are to go along with the aforementioned definition of racism this very much fits the bill, because this ideological structure places white people in a position of a priori moral inferiority of character and ineligibility for membership of a nation. They are tainted, regardless of who they are as an individual. There is your ideological structure if you need one.

This definition also fails to recognise the rather flexible polarity of racial superiority. Many of the most heinously vile racist ideologies have stemmed from the shame and humiliation of a position of inferiority. The Hutus hated the Tutsis as they were selected by the colonial authorities as the superior tribe and the Nazi anti-Semitic ideology was based in narratives of victimhood and manipulation following Germany’s defeat in the First World War. Superiority and inferiority are more often than not two sides of the same coin. There is no rigid top and bottom dynamic to race and never has been (that pesky “ness” tries to get around this fact).

But even if you do not agree that this fits within the increasingly nebulous definition of “racism”, it is still irrelevant. Fine, even if we agree to never again use the word “racism” outside of an instance of white on non-white discrimination, it would change almost nothing about the points I have just made beyond the terminology. Call it what you like, “race hatred”, “profiling”, “discrimination on the grounds of heritage”, take your pick. Whatever you decide to call it, it is still evil.

And before the inevitable sneers of “white tears” or “white fragility” seep in from the swamp of social media I should make it clear that I am not interested in claiming victimhood status. I don’t want anyone’s pity. I do not aspire to be a victim. Victimhood is often foisted upon people without their consent, this process occurs again and again in human history, but it is only aspired to by people who want to create other victims, to be a perpetrator.

What I do care about is outcomes, good and bad. Extreme racial polarisation and otherising of entire populations has never and will never have positive results for a nation.

I am not a settler. I am not a colonist. I am a South African. And I am not going anywhere.

Robin has a background in the UK, South Africa, and the Middle-East. A keen follower of international current affairs, he holds a Masters degree in Global and Comparative Politics. He is a contributing editor to On Netflix Now. Follow him on Twitter @Robin_GJ