This article is one of three based on a recent webinar jointly hosted by the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the Social Justice Agency. “White Privilege: A critical dialogue on racism and inequality in a time of COVID-19” took place on Thursday, 30 July. The event featured panellists Dr Robin DiAngelo, Dr Wilhelm Verwoerd and Dr Mandisa Haarhoff, and was moderated by Stanley Henkeman, the executive director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.
What would it mean to change the world? If policies, laws and various transformation initiatives have failed, what is required? According to Haarhoff, a lecturer in UCT’s Department of English Literature, what’s needed is an end to the world as we know it.
“We need to end the world itself. We need to end the world as we understand it. We need to end our ideas of the human,” said Haarhoff.
“We need to end the structures that support that: the church, the law … we need to change society. We need to change the very nature of the world as it exists right now.”
According to Haarhoff, this is necessary because the world is grounded in anti-blackness. The ideas of humanism, liberalism, universalism and even whiteness and white privilege do not exist outside black abjection – of black as an anomaly and as being outside the human.
“White privilege and whiteness come into existence by instituting an idea … grounded in anti-blackness,” explained Haarhoff.
“This manifests in the societies we build, the way we build the world. The political, economic, traditional [and] political scheme of the world is grounded in this idea of anti-blackness.”
Thus, to end whiteness – and therefore also anti-blackness – the world must end as it is now known.
“White privilege and whiteness come into existence by instituting an idea … grounded in anti-blackness.”
End of an era
An end of an era does not mean an end to oppression. To illustrate this, Haarhoff referenced the United States (US) and South Africa.
In the US, there was the abolition of slavery and then the fight for civil rights and the end to racial segregation. In South Africa, there was the end of colonialism, the formation of the Union of South Africa, apartheid, the interregnum period and then the post-apartheid era.
These are all marked as the end or beginning of an era and occured, said Haarhoff, without understanding that “the very world we live in, the very idea of universal man or universalism itself, or even ideas of freedom, are grounded on the idea of anti-blackness”.
This lack of understanding is evident in the “afterlives” of each era, she explained. In the US, the prison system is the afterlife of the abolition of slavery. The afterlife of racial segregation and the fight for civil rights includes current events, such as the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other named and unnamed black people. In post-1994 South Africa, there was the so-called Rainbow Nation, the first free and fair elections and the election of the first black president; there were indeed marked improvements.
“If we are not addressing that the very worlding in which we exist is grounded in anti-blackness, then we’re not doing anything.”
But, argued Haarhoff, the measure of what constitutes an end of an era, an end to oppression, or that change has occurred, is insufficient and flawed. The inclusion of black people in a society based on law or policy does not go far enough and will inevitably fail or be deemed to have failed.
“We could have all the laws in the world and we could shift all the policies in the world – if we are not addressing that the very worlding in which we exist is grounded in anti-blackness, then we’re not doing anything,” she said.
Haarhoff explained that inclusion is reduced to ticking boxes and there is discomfort and resistance from white people when confronted with the reality that racism is continuing; that anti-blackness is the default – simply refraining from using discriminatory language against black people, employing black people or befriending black people is not enough.
Instead, the world must go further, she said. And the COVID-19 pandemic provides us with the ideal opportunity to reimagine and rebuild.
The COVID-19 moment
The COVID-19 pandemic, as a moment, is of crucial importance.
“Not only does it throw into sharp relief the kind of oppressive state in which people have lived their lives and continue to live their lives; not only does it throw into sharp relief the afterlife of slavery, the afterlife of racism in South Africa, but the very fact of anti-blackness. It throws all of that into sharp relief,” said Haarhoff.
But the pandemic goes further. In forcing the world to a standstill, there is discomfort and the sharing of an experience that had previously been limited to oppressed people. The pandemic has, of course, limited many freedoms and, according to Haarhoff, those who are most agitated by not being able to exercise free will are those for whom this is different.
“For a lot of us, this is not different – this is normal. Our normal is now [suddenly] being shared by the white community in ways they’ve never had to share them before,” she said.
“So, you don’t want to put your mask on because you can’t have the government tell you what to do? Well, try being gay, try being black, try having a disability.”
Haarhoff proposed that rather than invest energy in challenging a limit on free will or, for instance, the need to wear masks, people should instead take the opportunity to think about the kind of world that can be created in the new era.
“What I’m trying to say is what this COVID moment is teaching us is that the world actually can stop and needs to stop. Instead of petitioning to return to the order of things as they were before, we need to begin to revive altogether what the system of the world needs to be moving forward,” she said.
This work of shifting the way the world is structured must include considering the purpose of institutions and ideas, such as schools and education, the law, the prison system and churches.
“Including black people into universal liberalism, universalism or humanism does not do the work of ending anti-blackness; [it] entails ending whiteness as it exists in the world.”
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