Naming whiteness key to humanising white people

Flowers and messages are placed outside Lakemba mosque in Sydney days after the mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, that killed 50 Muslim worshippers.
Flowers and messages are placed outside Lakemba mosque in Sydney days after the mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, that killed 50 Muslim worshippers.
Image: PETER PARKS/ AFP

I recently asked if South Africans are one of the most famous examples of human rights atrocities in the world.

Surprisingly, or maybe not, the response was to rank historical human rights atrocities and pontificate about the severity of each.

The aim was, of course, to diminish the horror of colonialism and apartheid.

There is a great discomfort, expressed in violent denialism, with the naming of white inhumanity - the fruit of white supremacy.

The denial and dismissal of black pain and suffering is a masterclass in glib inhumanity a la Steve Hofmeyer, further bolstered by sentiments like "It's OK to be white". It is, in fact not, and the reasons are simple.

Whiteness and its power relies on its constitutive other, blackness, to survive. It was not until Europeans who at the time, as James Baldwin reminds us, were merely German, Italian, British, French, Portuguese and others, encountered Africans, (Native) Americans, Indians, Maoris and Indigenous Australians and defined them as black, that they became white.

This historical event, which repeated itself wherever Europeans went, has replicated severe harm for those it defined. The way in which whiteness came to exist was through the construction of a lesser black for whom a destiny of genocide was decided.

Whiteness charges itself with the honour of structuring and ordering society in ways that ensures blackness is out of sight or silently in service. This is evident in the legacy of apartheid spatial planning and US ghettoes and Native American reserves.

Last week, a young white supremacist Australian massacred and injured close to 100 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand. He took it upon himself to restructure that community and restore it to a whiter version of itself through the act of white supremacy.

Internalising whiteness as a way of being and thinking is a radicalisation starts at home. When whiteness remains unnamed and unidentified, as it often is, the action of the default white person is highly likely to be the genocidal repertoire of white supremacy.

The goal is always to remind us that blackness requires discipline for it is always out of place. It is doomed to displacement or annihilation.

With this gruesome history, one can see why it is not okay to be white, but this does not mean being a white person is not okay. It is not about having white skin. It is about what that skin has come to represent and what it is enabled to do. These are choices.

It is not good enough for white people to raise colour-blind children because colour blindness is oppression blindness. It is not good enough for white people to understand themselves as just humans, because they are the beneficiaries of systems that profit from the racialisation of others.

For as long as whiteness remains unnamed, white supremacist acts will be seen as isolated incidents, when, in fact, they have been a norm for close to 500 years.

The reproduction of unnamed whiteness at dinner tables, road trips, church meetings, weddings, funerals, business meetings and neighbourhood watch groups of white society is the gateway to white supremacy.

The production of unconscious white people, who are comfortably ignorant to the contract with white supremacy they've been co-opted into remains the biggest threat to our global society.

Unnamed whiteness enables dangerously unconscious bonds between white people, which cohere around white supremacy in ways that normalise historical and current realities of black genocide and dispossession.

Naming whiteness, not as a state of being, but a legacy historical injustice is key to humanising white people many of whom remain at a loss.

Khan is a PhD critical diversity studies candidate

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