Wednesday, May 11, 2011

What Poor White South Africans Can Teach Us About the White Conservative Soul in the Age of Obama

I see dead poor white people...

My grandmother would never give a homeless white man money. Why? Her logic was simple: Given all of the privileges of gender and skin color enjoyed by white men in America, he has no one to blame but himself for being on skid row. I am not as hard nosed on those matters as she. I have come to recognize how Capital is mobile and the myriad ways in which neo-liberalism has struck down so many in its scythe-like wake...across the colorline.

That qualifier now having been noted, I will freely admit that I have a hard time feeling any pity for the poor white folks of South Africa. As beneficiaries of Apartheid they must face their comeuppance for the arch of history is indeed long. Justice is not always easy. There is a tax to be paid and some redistribution to be done.

Race is America's national obsession (where to varying degrees the house that race built has given us all a role to play, such that on occasion we get to be amateur biologists, crude historians, lay social scientists and jackbooted philosophers on the big question of the color line). However, this dynamic is not unique to the United States. Racism and white supremacy were concurrent with the rise of modernity, colonialism, and Empire. Thus, these ideologies were also centuries long global projects that left horrible marks which the coloured peoples of the world are struggling to this day to repair and remedy.

Comparative race studies offers a number of powerful frameworks for making sense of White anxiety in the Age of Obama. Here, the voices of white South Africans in post-Apartheid South Africa offer a penetrating insight into the racial id of the White neo-John Birch New Right and the Tea Party GOP. While some of the pundit classes deploy the sophisticated (and often overused) language and frameworks of Critical Whiteness Studies and "white privilege" to explain the racial demagoguery of the Birthers, Deathers, Tea Party, and anti-Obama conspiranoids, there are more basic impulses motivating white racial resentment that often remain under-discussed.

Whiteness is always afraid of losing. Whiteness is invisible except when it is threatened. And ultimately whiteness is the luxury of never having to think about one's advantages except when they are in perceived as being imperiled....and then being justified in committing any deed (however unethical or immoral) to protect one's advanced placement in the marathon of life.

Unearned privileges are by definition taken for granted. There is a natural order of things that must not be upended for the psychic pain is too great. It is only through an internalization of this almost pathologically narcissistic way of comprehending social reality that White folks can even utter the language of "white oppression." When Beck talks about Obama hating white people, he signals to the sickness. When Buchanan talks about white men suffering under a 21st century Jim Crow in the Age of Obama he signals to the sickness. When Limbaugh, and the assorted cast-off waste water and human detritus that in total constitute contemporary Fox News Conservatism, talk about fictions of black superiority and white subordination--a world where Obama and his supporters will make whites shine black peoples' shoes--they are deep in the sickness.

There is a poetic irony at work here. In the United States, black and brown folk have never sought revenge against White people. The Black Freedom Struggle resulted in no mass killings of white people by African Americans and their allies. Individual acts of politically motivated violence and score settling were even more uncommon. Even when justice should have been meted out at the end of the barrel of a gun, the appeals for black freedom and liberation were inclusive and humanistic.

The goal of the Black Freedom Struggle was broad: this country's centuries long crusade for racial justice was in many ways an endeavor to save White America from the rotten core of its own bigotry.

In South Africa, black people and others suffered merciless violence at the hands of the White Afrikaners. After much struggle and hardship, they did not resort to pogroms or a culling of the heard as a means of working through their just rage against Whites. No, even in South Africa where the blood of liberation oftentimes flowed thick and deep in the streets, black South Africans are able to look at the white poor and have pity and empathy for them.

In both cases, White populists fear the universal laws of action and reaction. Historically, Whiteness offered so much ugliness that many White people fear an inevitable backlash--even while denying the historic and contemporary realities of white supremacy. This dynamic has always fascinated me because it is apparent that many White folks, and the Conservative White Soul in particular, fear getting their comeuppance for a set of ill deeds that they apparently do not want to admit even occurred. The twists and leaps of logic necessary to maintain one's sanity in the face of such madness truly boggles the mind.

Perhaps that is one of the gifts of the Black Soul and its Blues Sensibility to the world? In the face of white suffering we are able to empathize, sympathize, and share with those who may not do so with us. Is this a blessing? Is it a curse? I remain both unsure and uncertain.


DebC said...

"In the face of white suffering we are able to empathize, sympathize, and share with those who may not do so with us. Is this a blessing? Is it a curse? I remain both unsure and uncertain."

So am I brother, so am I...

Great post!

Abstentus said...

I loved that line about whiteness being always afraid of losing. That was a pearl of wisdom, and a truism. Hell, that's the unstated operating philosophy of Fox News, far as I see it.

Plane Ideas said...

It is because of my cultural dna I can help all even a white soul suffering from the ugliness of life..

I can those without arrogance, privledge and venegence extend my humanity BTW it is never a curse to be humane

chaunceydevega said...

@Deb. Thanks. We can be vexed and confused together.

@Abstensus. Fox should put that phrase on a placard over their office doors.

@Thrasher. Wisdom appreciated. But, at what cost is that generosity to us as a people?

Vesuvian Woman said...

I am a relatively new follower of this blog. This is the most well-written argument I've read in the last three months. It is strong, focused and, somehow, still emotinally ambivalant and hopeful thanks to the absence of self-righteousness. Bravo.

Have a great weekend!!!

fred c said...

The difference in South Africa was that the Whites were the transplants and the Blacks were on native soil. At the end of their struggle, after they'd won, the Blacks, God bless them, recognized that the "White Tribe" were now Africans too, they had been born in Africa, and they loved Africa. There are lessons for White America in this recognition of commonality and acceptance of diversity. You're right, though, Black America often seems to have gotten the message already.

Voluminously Yours said...

I love how they fail to mention that while the poor white people are no longer as well represented in the labor pool, they only constitute 9.2% of the total South African population. It only makes sense that (with all things equal) whites would only make up around 1/10th of those employed.

Anonymous said...

Like your grandmother, I refuse to give money to a homeless white person of either gender. My reason, however, is different than hers: The history of sharks tells me that it is my predator. The same goes for white people. If I help my predator when wounded, I am only saving it to harm me.

chaunceydevega said...

@Vesuvian. How kind. Thank you. I always try for the modest and humble in my efforts to keep it real and honest so to speak.

@Fred C. Check out some of the literature and videos on Truth and Reconciliation Committees in S. Africa and elsewhere. I do not know if I have that level of maturity and the capacity for forgiveness.

@Volum. Funny, how the fish never realizes it is swimming in water until you take it away.

@Cree. Damn you ethered and Genghis Khan'd those folks in one fell swoop. I hurt for them.

Samadhi said...

Yes, it's a curse.
I also agree with Cree and your grandmother for both reasons, I think your (& many other PoC's) sympathy for poor whites is seriously misplaced, when BILLIONS of PoC throughout the world are still suffering and dying because of white oppression. It is a clearly zero sum game, it's either us or them. There's now no doubts in my mind given the current wars of aggression and historical precedents, that Whites would not hesitate exterminating PoC if push comes to shove.