Thursday, February 24, 2011

on (English) white liberals

Near the beginning of last year, a Mail and Guardian journalist named Verashni Pillay wrote a column called "The Indian Cringe List". Many people wrote in to say how much they enjoyed the column and its comedy with a pointed purpose, many of them white people. Then, just a few weeks later, she wrote a column called "Stuff White Liberals Say and Do". The same people who congratulated her on writing about Indian people turned around and wrote what borders on hate speech because she had dared to criticise the great white. I didn't have a blog back then, so maybe I would have written this in support a lot earlier. As with my moon cup blog, I suppose it is better late than never.

Even the words "white liberal" make me twitch a little with distaste, even as I admit that I am one. I wear African print skirts and I went on a march or two about human rights and Zimbabwe. I continue to try (unsuccessfully) to learn Zulu and I am writing my thesis on South African literature. So far so liberal, but these harmless pursuits are not what makes my skin crawl about being associated with (English) white liberals.

Firstly, the white liberals I'm talking about are (English) precisely because we are liberal towards everyone except Afrikaners. And Christians. And everyone who can't speak English "properly". And orthodox Muslims ('cause all Muslims treat women really badly). And "Twilight" readers. And black people who call us racist (we're not racist! We have lots of black friends) or black people who take "our" jobs. And people who associate us with fake white liberals who are just hiding under a veneer of liberality. And "stupid" people, which is pretty much everyone except me and my coterie of friends. But apart from that we are, like, totally accepting.

Let's start with first things first: Afrikaners (also known as "Dutchmen" or "Rock Spiders"). We all had to learn Afrikaans at school (most of us learnt it badly) but we don't really care because it's just Afrikaans. There are much more important languages to know, like English and Zulu and...all those other African languages (but English is still the most important because it is an "international" language). Afrikaans people legislated Apartheid so they are automatically more responsible for all racism. All English people just watched helplessly as atrocities were carried out and were not complicit at all. Even worse, Afrikaans music is kitsch, and Afrikaans people are probably not so smart because they say things like "jean pant" and "I'm going to frow you wif a stone".

Ditto black people with black accents. Trevor Noah has already covered this topic really well in his show, Daywalker. Nevertheless, it must be said that if our black learners or our black leaders mispronounce words (in their second, third, fourth or fifth languages) they also must be stupid and incapable of learning what they are taught or leading our country (in which the number of native English speakers tie joint fifth out of eleven official languages). Obviously English is the language of business and politics in South Africa, so politicians and businessmen must learn to speak English properly (because there is definitely a proper English that all proper English people speak all over the world and it all sounds exactly the same). I mean, when French businessmen or politicians conduct business in English with French accents it isn't because they're stupid, they just have a different international language. So, French people with accents are smart, it's just that Zulu people or people who speak...all those other African languages who have one of their accents when they speak English aren't smart (? oh dear! Moving on...)

It's like Christians, you know? They all believe that evolution is a myth and that dinosaurs are a conspiracy to test faith (they didn't really exist). I mean, how stupid can they be? It's almost as bad as that Mormon woman churning out Vampire romances that aren't even about proper vampires, they glitter in the sunlight. I mean that's so gay (not that we're homophobic! It's just a word...)

And Muslims are almost as bad as Christians. I mean, at least they don't hound us to try and convert us, but we know they treat their women really badly and they have a tendency towards fanaticism and bombing buildings.

Don't even get us started on black people taking our jobs. It's so hard to get a job now, and they will probably just give it to some unqualified buffoon for window dressing. I mean, life is hard, hey (takes another sip of beer and takes out blackberry to check new messages. Pulls Diesel jacket a little closer).

But seriously: I know putting unqualified people in jobs is a problem: the millions of unspent money in the Government Health Department is proof of this. I would still nevertheless argue that it was easier for me to get a job in retail last year than it would have been for a black woman with a black accent. I may not have diesel jackets or a shmart cellphone, but my rounded English tones and non-threatening short, white body ensure that my life (certainly) is really not that hard. At the same time, I don't wish to trivialise people's problems. Many families - white and black and all the shades and cultures in between - are struggling in the recession.

What I am really talking about is - in part - my own personal journey of self-realisation. I have held many of the prejudices I write about and have been embarrassingly ignorant about the complexity and variety within cultures other than my own. One of my earliest memories (I must have been about five) is telling my mother how I knew black people were all dirty and all criminals. She quickly put my young mind straight, but it makes me realise that racist propaganda was being pumped into my ears somewhere: whether it was at my beloved pre-primary school or at the houses of friends. Maybe a peer or an adult had instilled this belief in me, but either way I rattled it off because it made me a part of a group to hold the same (misguided) beliefs.

Some English white people are past and beyond my level of investigation into the nature of my inherited prejudices. A (fortunate few) never held these beliefs. There are - however - still too many (English) white liberals who fall into the kind of reasoning I have detailed because their prejudice binds them together in an exclusionary group where they feel a sense of belonging and superiority over others. Perhaps I should say "our prejudice binds us together in an exclusionary group" because no doubt I will continue to find more slippery and subtle prejudices and superiority complexes residing in my own breast that I will need to root out.

What makes it so difficult to change these habits is perfectly put by Karen Armstrong: most people (and I'm not restricting this statement to English white liberals) would rather be "right" than compassionate. Admitting one is prejudiced means admitting that one is wrong, or at the very least clumsily judging others. Never mind getting a job, this is one of the really hard parts of life: to go through this painful process and come out the other side a little less superior. But then, the less superior you are, the less hard it will get. And that is something to look forward to.

1 comment:

  1. It seems that "white liberal" has become the ultimate negative stereotype.