NEWS & ANALYSIS

Why whites shy away from race debates

Ernst Roets says members of this racial minority are damned if they do or they don't participate

Why whites don’t talk about whiteness

The previous Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan famously said that tolerance, intercultural dialogue and respect for diversity were more essential than ever in a world where people were becoming more and more closely interconnected.

There is a growing concern about the observation that many white people, particularly Afrikaners, prefer not to participate in public discussions about race. About a month ago, I participated on a panel discussion about racism at the University of the Free State (UFS). There were about four white people in the room, of whom two were panellists. As I have witnessed several times before, whites were lambasted for their absence at these discussions.

This is not to say that white people do not talk about their views. The topic is frequently discussed around braais and at social gatherings, but not at public events where the actual battle of ideas takes place.

Racism is obviously a matter that is important to all of us. The reality is that many white people refrain from participating in discussions on race because such discussions are often so one-sided that it leaves no room for constructive engagement.

For example, after I spoke at the UFS discussion (which I was invited to do), I was told to “shut up and listen”, while the mere fact that a white person had been invited to talk in front of black people was aggressively questioned.

There is an abundance of research to support the notion that racism is not South Africa’s biggest problem, but rather a symptom of other bigger problems. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk about race, however. There are several reasons why many white people refrain from such discussions. I will mention five:

1. “Blacks can’t be racist”

Black race merchants argue that black people are the only people who have ever been oppressed and that, as a result, it is impossible for any black person to be racist. The idea that black people are incapable of racism “just like Jews are incapable of anti-Semitism” seems to gain ground among so-called progressive commentators. The claim is glaringly bankrupt of philosophical thought and can easily be refuted. My concern, however, is that the same people who make these claims appear to be too scared to have their views scrutinized, and therefore simply respond to any criticism with intensified accusations of racism.

2. Single narrative, double standards

About a month ago, a black student council member at the University of Pretoria publicly expressed his urge to murder white people. This didn’t cause much of an outcry, as the mainstream media and social commentators were instead focused on lambasting Pretoria Girls High for its “racist policy” on hairstyles. Judging from the level of public outcry that we have seen, telling girls that they cannot have afros is exponentially worse than encouraging the murder of white people. The only narrative that seems to be acceptable at discussions on race is one in which black people are victims and white people are offenders.

3. Codeword Justice

“Justice” has become the buzzword of the decade. Virtually every single demand that has something to do with race is framed as being in the interest of justice, whether it is expropriating land owned by white people, vandalizing statues, hero-worshipping Adolf Hitler, shutting down universities or simply assaulting white students. Of course we all believe in justice. What has happened, however, is that a noble term has been hi-jacked to justify anti-white racism and in some cases even crime.

4. Black pain, white guilt

During a recent TV debate on racism, one girl from the Fallist movement almost burst into tears when someone mentioned the name of Nelson Mandela. “Don’t mention that name,” she argued. “It makes me suffocate. I can’t breathe.” She was trying to explain how Mandela had been a sell-out for being too kind to white people. The argument is that no white person can ever understand black pain, and any criticism to anything that black racialists claim is seen as a denial of their pain. There is of course no such thing as white pain and speaking of it is immediately denounced as racist, or so the argument goes. This is destructive to dialogue, off course.

5. Silver bullets

Identifying South Africa’s problems is fairly easy. The difficulty lies in finding solutions. Let’s take the crisis of poverty and unemployment. If we are truly honest, we would have to admit that there is nothing that we can do today to make this problem disappear sustainably within a year. The only solution is in education and training – making sure that people are equipped to enter the labour market and to participate in the economy.

In my experience, the discourse at discussions about race usually steers away from sustainable solutions to a discussion about silver bullets and quick fixes. There is no silver bullet that will solve these issues, and proposed silver bullets (such as “expropriation without compensation”) would only exacerbate these problems.

In the light of the current student unrests and renewed calls for “radical change”, constructive dialogue is now more important than ever. The only way to achieve this would be to engage in frank and honest discussions, where we actually listen to each other with the intent of testing our own preconceived ideas and finding sustainable solutions.

Ernst Roets is deputy CEO of AfriForum. He can be followed on Twitter at @ernstroets. 

A version of this article first appeared in City Press.