“Twenty-six years into democracy South Africans remain deeply troubled by race,” said Amanda Gouws of the Department of Political Science at Stellenbosch University. “Rarely, however, is gender added as one of the intersectional identities in our responses to issues of race in South Africa. White women are privileged because of their race, but also experience oppression because of their gender.”
Gouws and colleagues Azille Coetzee, post-doc fellow in the Department of Political Science and Louise du Toit of the Department of Philosophy frame their project in the following terms: “writing self-consciously as three White South African women, we grapple with the challenge of a productive response to Black Lives Matter (BLM) that will produce some form of solidarity, allyship or alliance with the BLM movement and its demands. BLM demands that we acknowledge that Black people stand at the receiving end of violence, dehumanisation and structural inequalities.”
Gouws described how her need to understand the role of White South African women in responding to these issues arose from hate mail she received from White readers after writing a column in Die Burger on BLM in the wake of the horrific death of George Floyd on 25 May.
She described how both BLM and the AllLivesMatter (ALM) reaction to it, although originating in the USA, resonated locally in very specific ways. She explained that BLM centres Blackness, evoking an anti-racism stance while ALM is positioned as a moral claim which doesn’t demand political action.
“The death of Collins Khosa on 10 April 2020 at the hands of members of the defence force enforcing COVID-19 lockdown regulations was belatedly linked with BLM, and the ALM slogan as a response to BLM was linked with White victims of farm murders,” she said.
“The racial polarisation between BLM and ALM in South Africa mainly centred around farm murders. This is a contentious, deeply emotive issue linked to land-dispossession. Seventy two per cent of privately owned farms in South Africa are still White owned and only 4% Black owned. Of the 1938 farm deaths between 1990 and 2017 – 87% were White and 12% Black.”
“The statistics on White farm deaths are clearly not insignificant,” she added, “but remain much lower than the national homicide rate.”
The question is whether the murders of White farmers are a genocide.
“South Africa was a unique settler colonial state,” she said, “because the White settlers remained a small minority with political and economic power, whereas in other colonies, such as the USA and Canada, the indigenous populations were largely eliminated. It was a land-centred project. ‘Natives’ were not acknowledged as agriculturalists, but portrayed as nomadic and rootless, because to acknowledge them as agriculturalists would mean acknowledging their permanence.
Some responses suggested for White women’s engagement include silence and non-engagement. These are, however, paralysing responses that will prevent solidarity and allyship.
Black peril and White virtue
The role of White women in all of this is complex and very much a product of the country’s complicated history. Coetzee gave an account of how White women were historically positioned within the colonial system, under apartheid and now in the post-colonial period.
“White women occupy a specific position in relation to violence against Black bodies,” she said. “In a hetero-patriarchal structure race and gender are mutually co-constructed.”
Colonial narratives depict the colonised as primitive, less than human, sexualised, promiscuous and violent while the colonisers and, particularly the women, are depicted as vulnerable and sexually pure.
“It was about Black peril and White virtue – a narrative constructed and perpetuated to justify and drive racial segregation and the oppression and control of Black people,” she continued. “The chaste White woman with the violent Black man at the gate acted as an image that legitimised White patriarchal control over White women, as well as violence against Black men. There was a specific focus on keeping White women and Black men apart, and protection of White women was ideologically linked to the survival of the White race.”
Coetzee described how this became further entrenched under the authoritarian apartheid regime which was profoundly concerned with sex and where some of the first laws passed were those concerning sex – the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act in 1949 and the Population Registration and Immorality Acts of 1950.
“Ironically, the overwhelming majority of transgressions of the sexual prohibition were committed by White men,” said Coetzee. “However, while White women who had sex with men of other races were viewed as racially disgraced, the same did not apply to White men. Accordingly, the White woman is only properly White for as long as she subjects herself to the White man. Her insubordination or waywardness undermines White supremacy in so far as it draws in to question the power, ’natural’ dominance and evolutionary superiority of the White man, and destabilises Whiteness itself as a racial identity constituted and marked by a sexually passive femininity in a hetero-patriarchal gender binary. According to this logic, the White woman who chooses a man of a different race could not have been White to begin with.”
“The positioning of White women was deeply ambivalent: on the one hand, they experienced pervasive patriarchal policing of their sexuality, especially in so far as White female sexuality was framed as an Achilles’ heel of White colonial interests. On the other hand, White women, including White feminists, have been deeply complicit in upholding a racist system in which we played a central role,” said Coetzee. “Although the political transition of 1994 led to a rupture of White identity, these tropes and structures of oppression are continuously renewed, often in a privatised neo-liberal guise that buys White privilege and perpetuates racial segregation, for example, through racist private security practices and neighbourhood watches in middle-class White neighbourhoods.”
“But,” she added, “as White women our obedience and silence have been instrumental in upholding racial categorising and hierarchies. We have been complicit in upholding a system that subjugates us. The passive White female also sustains or replicates violence against Black people.”
For White women negotiating these complexities it’s often seen as best to remain “blind and innocent, silent and invisible”.
“White women occupy an ambivalent, uneasy position but it’s also pivotal and strategic,” added Du Toit. “Looking back on this history, we can say with Sara Ahmed, ’Colonial encounters are both determining, and yet not fully determining, of [our] social and material existence’.”
She took Coetzee’s point further, to emphasise that oppressive systems such as White hetero-patriarchy have both an objective, structural side, and a subjective, personal side. The objective and subjective require and mutually reinforce each other.
“A racist system cannot survive if countless people do not repeatedly re-perform its logic on a personal and daily level,” she said. “This repetition of racist logic has both a conscious and an unconscious side. We are complicit in upholding racism through our speech and actions – how we look, speak, our body language. Moreover, what makes White people deeply uneasy, is the fact that the conscious and unconscious aspects of racism are not easily disentangled. Much of White people’s discomfort surrounding talk about race, and Whiteness in particular, has to do with this uneasy mix of the conscious and unconscious; somehow knowing that we do not know.”
So, how do we untangle this complex web?
Developing a critical perspective
Du Toit spoke of some of the tools available to try to reconsider White women’s options beyond silence, including the use of ‘safe spaces’ in which to develop shared insights from the lived experience of White women as it relates to the settler colonial project, as well as ‘contact zones’ or spaces of ‘cultural collision’ which can offer the opportunity of getting the ‘other’ to talk to us to understand “the impact of our lives on others and what our privilege means to those differently situated”. Drawing on the work of Mary Louise Pratt, she suggested that White women have things to learn and things to teach when it comes to White hetero-patriarchy’s mechanisms and impacts.
“Our project is largely an epistemological/knowledge project. We want to add to the larger debate on anti-racist action and solidarity from a White women’s perspective, and, for this, we must do research into the lived experiences of the whole spectrum of White women living in settler colonial conditions.”
For Du Toit, following feminist standpoint theory, the insights have to be actively forged. She said the project wants to shed more light on the unique privileges and penalties attached to White women’s unique position within the social system. They think it will be helpful moreover to excavate a White, female, anti-racist genealogy by researching the lives of White women who actively lived lives of anti-racist struggle, e.g. Ruth First and Olive Schreiner.
“But the White woman’s anti-racist struggle must also include the unconscious realm and we must think of how her fears and desires might be decolonised through aesthetic imaginaries, as part of an ongoing attempt to forge alliances and solidarities with Black women and men.”
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu