A work of art created by South African artist Dean Hutton, titled “F—k White People,” has become one of the most controversial creative expressions in the country’s recent post-Apartheid history.
Hutton, who self-identifies as someone who is non-binary genderqueer, has been traveling the world with their — preferred pronouns: they/them/their — “F—k White People” exhibit with the intention of destabilizing “whiteness.”
And boy, did it destabilize.
White Fragility is a term coined by Dr. Robin DiAngelo, a globally revered expert on Whiteness Studies. Dr. DiAngelo defines White Fragility as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves… such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.”
This is important when considering the backlash to Dean Hutton’s “F—k White People.”
In describing their installation, Hutton wrote, “If you are white, you are probably feeling some type of way right now. White people have been having a lot of feelings lately about ‘reverse racism’ as if it’s a thing.”
Hutton tackles controversial topics such as white privilege and systemic violence perpetuated by institutional racism.
Naturally, the work has been received with a mixture of awe, acknowledgment, and anger, with anger being a particularly profound reaction that unintentionally accentuates the purpose of the piece.
The Freedom Front Plus, a predominantly Afrikaans political party, denounced Hutton’s installation as “offensive” and “irresponsible” while calling for the gallery to remove the artwork.
A spokesperson for the party, Dr. Pieter Groenewald, stated that “in times where race relations are extremely sensitive” the artwork would be “experienced by many people as inflammatory.” Which, as a self-reflective protest piece, is surely part of the artwork’s purpose.
In January this year, members of the Cape Party – known for romanticizing a fanciful idea that the Western Cape region should secede from South Africa – stormed into the Iziko National Gallery and vandalized Hutton’s “F—k White People” display.
Ironically, the Cape Party pasted over the artwork with a sign that read “Love Thy Neighbour.” Perhaps they should heed their own advice?
Nevertheless, the Cape Party decided to take the matter to court and filed a suit against Dean Hutton and the Iziko National Gallery for exhibiting the artwork. The offended Cape Party certainly weren’t expecting what happened next.
On Tuesday, July 4, presiding Judge Daniel Thulare ruled that Hutton’s “F—k White People” display is not a form of hate speech, nor is it racist.
Of course, white people seethed and sighed and slammed the South African judicial system. The same legal system they’d previously lauded for ruling against the sitting President Jacob Zuma in the infamous Nkandla corruption case.
Judge Thulare went on to describe the reflexively aggressive responses from white people as a “pity-me-I’m-a-victim attitude,” which could result in the suppression of views protected under Section 16 of the South African Bill of Rights.
In his judgment, Thulare wrote, “If there is one thing that the work has achieved, through this complaint and others to which my attention has been drawn if this matter, is to draw South Africans to a moment of self-reflection, if we are serious about building one nation, one collective with the same values and agreed principles.”
So why is it that white people become so enraged when we see a sign that reads, “F—k White People”? Most of us are perfectly aware of the brutal colonial injustices perpetrated against black people over the span of many centuries. Never mind the fact that the colonial legacy continues to oppress its millions of casualties to this day.
If you had been a descendant of the victims, still having to deal with the lingering reverberations of the cruelty your ancestors suffered, wouldn’t you also want to say “f—k you” to the beneficiaries of said legacy? I would.
Instead of critical self-reflection, we deflect, blame, criticize, and deny. Denial of complicity in a racist system, denial of the Black lived experience, denial that we are beneficiaries of a system that was built to favor us, etcetera. Total denial. Mostly in a hostile way.
In the polymathic mind of Noam Chomsky – one of the world’s most cherished mental giants – lurks a timely wisdom that serves as a clarion call to whites around the world to seek the justice so absent from our colonial past.
Chomsky refers to modern whites’ inability to discuss our brutally inhumane history as “intentional ignorance,” choosing to discard any information that is inconvenient to know. Such as the reality that “our wealth and privilege was created in no small part by the centuries of torture and degradation” from which we still benefit, while black folks remain the victims.
Reni Eddo-Lodge, a British journalist and activist, famously wrote an article — and recently published a book — clarifying why she would no longer be talking to white people about race. Eddo-Lodge says she’s “written before about this white denial being the ubiquitous politics of race that operates on its inherent invisibility.”
Eddo-Lodge adds, “So I can’t talk to white people about race anymore because of the consequent denials, awkward cartwheels and mental acrobatics that they display when this is brought to their attention. Who really wants to be alerted to a structural system that benefits them at the expense of others?”
Why are white people so defensive, so afraid of talking about our whiteness, and how it affects blackness? Being white is to me a fact as much as it’s a fact that the sky is blue in the day and starry-black at night.
Skin is what makes us uncomfortable? Of course not. The truth lies much deeper, under the skin.
There’s a misleading perception amongst whites that racists are bad people, and of course, nobody wants to be a bad person. We want to be good people, and it is assumed that good people aren’t racists.
This is what’s called the Good/Bad Binary, according to Dr. Robin DiAngelo, who writes, “Although racism does, of course, occur in individual acts, these acts are part of a larger system that we all participate in. The focus on individual incidences prevents the analysis that is necessary to challenge this larger system. The good/bad binary is the fundamental misunderstanding driving white defensiveness about being connected to racism.”
White folks lack the “cognitive skills” to engage effectively and meaningfully when white racial stability is obstructed in any way.
Examples of obstructions that usually disturb white racial equilibrium include suggesting that a white person’s viewpoint is racist regardless of the intention behind it, black folk talking directly about their racial perspectives, black folk choosing not to protect the feelings of white people in a racial debate, black folk not being willing to answer questions about racism, a fellow white person not showing solidarity with white racial norms, etcetera.
So you’re a patriot. You work hard, pay taxes, create jobs, offer opportunities, support charities. You’re a good person who gets along with most people you meet. Being typically charming and jovial, you’re sweet.
Colleagues love your jokes, even the black junior assistant who works downstairs. As cliched as it sounds, your best friends literally are black. They come over for dinner at least once a month. You tell them that Colin Kaepernick is your favorite football player, and Maya Angelou is your spirit guide.
You couldn’t possibly be racist, right?
The fact that white folks are still the greatest beneficiaries of a racist system that is skewed in our favor means that we are complicit in the racism. We are, therefore, all racist — each one of us — no matter how gracious or pious you may be.
An elegant definition of institutional racism is “the collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their color, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes, and behavior which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”
Here I defer once more to Reni Eddo-Lodge. She maintains that “it is not just about personal prejudice, but the collective effects of bias. It is the kind of racism that has the power to drastically affect people’s life chances.”
Alright, I hear you. You’re saying I shouldn’t lump all white people into the same category because we’re not all the same.
As Dr. DiAngelo incisively points out that “whites often respond defensively when linked to other whites as a group or ‘accused’ of collectively benefiting from racism, because as individuals, each white person is ‘different’ from any other white person and expects to be seen as such.”
Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung invented the German term “Kollektivschuld,” which he used to describe the feelings of German citizens after the atrocities committed in their name during World War II. According to Jung, collective guilt was “for psychologists a fact, and it will be one of the most important tasks of therapy to bring the Germans to recognize this guilt.”
Recognizing our continued complicity in the colonial project does not mean you should “apologize for being white” and fly into a defensive rage about never having “owned a slave.” Nope. It means becoming part of the solution — the sacrifice.
In other words, we will have to relinquish our white privilege. And the land.
No matter where you live, or how much money you have stuffed into your piggy bank, you cannot escape the social privileges bestowed on you by virtue of being white.
It’s important for us to be cognizant of the fact that black people, as a whole, have been incredibly patient with us. Their capacity for forgiveness is unparalleled. It’s time we respected that and show appreciation by doing the work required to dismantle whiteness.
Seek out the knowledge. There exists an abundance of books and online literature, including empirical research, which illuminates the intersections where whiteness and racism meet blackness.
In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ seminal work, Between the World and Me, he wrote, “I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.”
You’re a patriot. You work hard. You’re a good person. Now take the journey. The road is erudite, the road is shrewd, and you stand to gain a world of wisdom.
Judge Daniel Thulare describes Dean Hutton’s “F—k White People” as a demand that “what we must strive for is the complete dismantling of the systems of power that keep white people racist.”
And while Hutton is acutely aware that white people might reflexively turn to anger or feel hurt by their artwork, they encourage all of us white folk to “learn to f–k the white in you, too.”
[Featured Image by Bowie/Shutterstock]