Here’s Why White People Cannot Demand Solidarity [Opinion]

Jerome Delay

So here’s the thing about white people in South Africa trying to organize protests: our mobilization efforts only emerge when our privilege is under threat. When white capital is on the line. It was the case with the white-led #ZumaMustFall protests, and it is repeating itself now in #BlackFriday and #BlackMonday.

Have you ever considered how appalling it sounds when white people try to gain support for their protests by saying “these are issues that affect us all”? It’s painfully revealing how little whites care for any problems that don’t affect them. Is that not the epitome of selfishness?

When white interests are on the line, we insult black people by bringing up “Ubuntu,” “unity,” and the old favorite caucasian proverb, “Don’t make this about race.” The question we have to ask ourselves – a difficult, painful self-reflection – is why we don’t call for “ubuntu,” “unity,” and “solidarity” when young black South Africans, who can’t afford an education, are fighting for a reduction or total elimination of higher education fees?

I’m going to tell you why saying “these are issues that affect us all” is so incredibly selfish within the context of post-1994 South Africa. A country where whites still occupy 70 percent of the private sector workforce and earn household incomes almost six times higher than the average black family. Sixty percent of the country’s economy rests in the hands of the white minority, and unemployment rates in the same demographic are between 4 and 7 percent.

I’m going highlight the fact that scapegoating the government for all of South Africa’s problems is a disturbingly juvenile and lazy argument. Regardless of what the government is doing, the responsibility to keep our side clean doesn’t become any less important.

In a country that has climbed out of one of the most oppressive regimes in human history to ascend to its first taste of freedom in over three centuries, there ought to be a far greater understanding of the actual burden of poverty. The debilitating weight of inequality. The fatigue of black South Africans fighting against an unjust system; swimming upstream against the relentless current of white supremacy and institutional racism.

We’ve never had to protest. We’ve never had to face up to the atrocities of Apartheid. We are completely illiterate on matters of race. And it’s a choice, because the literature is freely available online and in libraries. We prefer denial. It’s easy and helps us sleep at night.

Whites reflexively lash out at anyone who brings up the peculiarity of the rare white South African protest. Criticism is deemed to be divisive. But the truth is that our selective involvement in issues at the heart of black lives is what divides us. It is our inability – willful at that – to take an interest in Critical Race Theory and acknowledge they ways in which we unfairly benefit from systems constructed by our ancestors to favor us.

When black South Africans are out in the streets literally fighting for their lives, whites hover around on Facebook and Twitter spewing degrading drivel at people who have already been stripped of their dignity by the lingering policies of Apartheid. Did you ever consider how you would’ve felt if your reality since birth was rooted in the most abject poverty in the world?

Black South Africans protest against an incident of racism.
Black South Africans protesting outside the courthouse where two white South Africans accused of forcing a black man into a coffin and threatening to set him on fire appeared before a judge. [Image by Themba Hadebe/AP Images] Themba Hadebe

Instead of trying to understand the reasons why some black protesters are driven to the point of burning works of art, we assume they don’t care for art. When students are shutting down universities, blocking principal arterial roadways into cities, breaking windows, or strewing refuse on streets, we say they’re barbaric. When desperate people who don’t have flushing toilets end up flinging feces at colonial monuments and government edifices, we don’t take a moment to reflect on the fact that these people are invisible. If you were destitute, your plight erased and your humanity forgotten, wouldn’t you do also want to desecrate the structures that perpetuate your oppression?

Why is it that those who enjoy social privilege never take the time to imagine themselves in the shoes of a human being that has been spat on, ejected from society, and relegated to live on the ash-heaps on the outskirts of towns and cities?

Empathy is one of our most remarkable human assets. The ability to see the emotions of another person and commiserate with their pain. Some people are of the view that there’s no place for emotions in debate among humans. I say that’s a ridiculous notion.

Our very existence is a perpetual emotional experience. Sure, emotions can lead to unreasonable behavior and unproductive engagements. That’s not an excuse to exclude feelings from discussions, especially when the lived realities at the center of these debates are fraught with emotions. Ponder the words of Daniel H. Pink.

“Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.”

He’s right. Now ponder the words of Dr. Richard Crisp, one of the world’s leading experts on the psychology of social and cultural diversity. He believes that all the various tribes of humans are better off integrated than we are in isolated echo chambers where progress is bound to stagnate.

“…who we are, and what we think is defined by the diversity inherent in our social worlds …while we may have evolved to think about people categorically, we also possess the computational mechanics to bypass this system when it’s necessary to suppress, update or revise our stereotypes…Such a system offers an adaptive advantage, a cognitive capability…providing the building blocks for great feats of human civilization and technological innovation.”

For us to become truly integrated, white people can’t determine how and when that will happen. We can’t dictate the terms either.

What many white people don’t understand is that our existence (Whiteness) has been normalized for many centuries. We have been centered for so long we don’t know what it feels like to be marginalized because of our race. Robin DiAngelo notes that “this continuous centering of whiteness allows whites to view themselves as universal humans who can represent all of human experience.”

That’s why we’re so offended when black people show apathy for us when we call on them for support. Our assumption is that anybody we call on would want to join our cause because our cause is at the center of everything.

But we are not at the center of everything. Our paradigm is not the default model for all human beings. If you understand that, you’ve taken the first step towards learning about different realities and trying to step into unfamiliar shoes.

Steve Biko makes one of the most profound observations of a white person’s nature in his essay “Black Souls in White Skins?”

“The role of the white liberal in the black man’s history in South Africa is a curious one. (…) Nowhere is the arrogance of the liberal ideology demonstrated so well as in their insistence that the problems of the country can only be solved by a bilateral approach involving both black and white. (…) The integration they talk about is first of all artificial in that it is a response to conscious maneuver rather than to the dictates of the inner soul. (…) As a result the integration so achieved is a one-way course, with the whites doing all the talking and the blacks the listening… It is rather like expecting the slave to work together with the slave-master’s son to remove all the conditions leading to the former’s enslavement.”

Biko hits the nail on the head when he exposes the white liberal’s remarkable ability call on black people to unite with them when they need them. If the calls for solidarity were, as Biko says, born from the pure “dictates of the inner soul,” then we would’ve joined black people on the streets many years ago. Biko also astutely describes the path to real unity.

“One does not need to plan for or actively encourage real integration. Once the various groups within a given community have asserted themselves to the point that mutual respect has to be shown, then you have the ingredients for a true and meaningful integration. (…) Out of this mutual respect for each other and complete freedom of self-determination, there will obviously arise a genuine fusion of the lifestyles of the various groups. This is real integration.”

Anti-apartheid activist Stephen Bantu Biko is seen here in 1978.
Stephen Bantu Biko was one of South Africa’s greatest intellectuals who led the Black Consciousness movement aimed at asserting and celebrating black identity. He was murdered by the South African Police during Apartheid. [Image by AP Images] AP Images

To get to a place where race doesn’t dominate black-white discussions, we must be prepared to make painful and uncomfortable sacrifices to speak truth to power and show a genuine willingness to bring about meaningful redress and equality. In other words, we will have to relinquish comfort and face the discomfort of talking about race.

Dr. Peggy McIntosh is an American anti-racism activist who illustrated White Privilege by devising the Invisible Knapsack analogy.

Dr. McIntosh famously said, “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.”

It is a privilege that white people can choose to protest at our leisure, usually only marching to protect the very privilege that affords us this comfort in the first place. Here’s a mind-bender: It’s our privilege that grants us the time and space to choose not to see our privilege.

Next time there’s a protest organized by black people, join in. Show up with and put your body in the line of fire. Listen, support, don’t lead, face the teargas and maybe take a rubber bullet. And if showing up is not your thing, find other ways to support the cause. Write an article, share information, send money or food, challenge your white family and friends to examine their judgments.

Until we show up for everyone else, we can’t expect everyone else to show up for us. Neil Gaiman agrees.

“Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.”

[Featured Image by Jerome Delay/AP Images]