05 October 2011

Whiteness just isn't what it used to be - book review

Whiteness Just Isn't What It Used to BeWhiteness Just Isn't What It Used to Be": White Identity in a Changing South Africa (Suny Series, Interruptions: Border Testimony by Melissa E. Steyn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For most of my lifetime obsession with whiteness has dominated South African politics, society, economy and even the landscape. When I heard quite recently that there was an academic discipline called "Whiteness Studies" my immediate reaction was negative. Some of my blogging friends assured me that they had found it useful, and this was one of the books they recommended, and since it was based on stories told by people I found it in the library and began reading it.

Melissa Steyn collected stories from 59 white people in South Africa and divided the narratives into different categories, and commented on the various approaches. This book is the result.

The first chapter is a kind of potted history of "Whiteness Studies" and the various view its practitioners have taken to the phenomenon of "whiteness" in a global sense. In part it deals with the fairly well-known phenomenon of Western modernity, where Westerners (mainly from Western Europe and North America) thought that their society was central and normative, and others quaint and peculiar and exotic. So, for example, Western anthropologists confined their studies to non-Western cultures (and often did so in the service of colonial rulers). The proponents of Whiteness Studies call this kind of cultural chauvinism "whiteness". But even after reading Steyn's book, I am not convinced of the adequacy of the description, and I find that Steyn herself falls into the same cultural chauvinist trap by not disclosing where she is coming from, and pretending to be "objective", even when she is aware of the dangers of that approach.

The main manifestation of this in the book is that, while the bulk of the book is devoted to the the analysis of people's responses to Steyn's questionnaire, the questions that elicited those responses are not revealed to the reader. If this forms the bulk of the book, then surely the questions themselves could have been put in an appendix. Apart from anything else, that might give readera a chance to try to answer the questions too, and try to analyse their own responses.

In addition, while Steyn collected 59 narratives, these narrators are not really allowed to tell their own story. Steyn is the only narrator, setting the scene, telling the story, and pulling a quotation, sometimes as short as a single sentence, to illustrate the point in her story. So I get the impression of a stage magician, displaying tricks to an audience, with the quotations from the stories being pulled out like a rabbit from a hat or a coin from the sleeve at the appropriate moment, with only Steyn really knowing what is going on behind the scenes.

For instance, there is this:

Such is the fear of being perceived to be aligned with what is morally reproachable that even to talk about "race" could implicate one in racism. The topic is a no-no:

"Whites can never know how blacks were affected by Apartheid. [computer analyst] "

At first sight, this seems to be a complete non-sequitur. It certainly doesn't seem to be an instance of race being a "no--no", because it mentions race ("whites", "blacks") and the relations between them ("Apartheid"). Either Steyn is misrepresenting the narrator, or she is interpreting it in the light of its context, which she has failed to quote, and this is withheld from the reader.

Taken on its own, the sentence can be interpreted in a variety of ways, of which the most likely (it seems to me), is that since, because of Apartheid, whites were separated from blacks, they could not know how blacks were affected by apartheid because they were kept isolated, and whites could not see what was happening, and their was little comparable in their experience. For instance, if a black man died in town, his wife and children, if they were allowed to live in the town at all, would be endorsed out to a "homeland" because they became surplus to the labour requirements of white society. Much of this was invisible to most whites, and so they did not know and could not know the extent to which this took place, nor what it was like do be endorsed out and forced to go and live in a rural area where you knew no one.

Maybe the context shows that the narrator meant something different, but Steyn does not show us the context.

Similarly, Steyn castigates those she regards as adopting a liberal "colourblind" approach, saying that they are "in denial", yet when, in another section of the book, she cites an example of that approach, she praises it.

The Apartheid system tried to make me think about "white" in a certain way and about "black" in another way. I strive to define my own reality and I try to avoid being hamstrung by other people's projections. [lecturer]

Steyn says "Whatever whiteness may have meant in the past, this narrative perks up in tone when it considers what may develop now that whiteness has lost its power to dominate."

Yet elsewhere she says that to claim that whiteness has lost its power to dominate is to be in denial. The difference, if any, isd hidden behind the stage magician's black cloth that she pulls away to reveal the rabbit in the hat.

One of the narratives, however, I could identify with:

I have discovered that, despite apartheid, I have more in common with black South Africans than with other whites, be they British, Dutch, French or American... When I first went overseas in 1986 I thought because of my colonial British background I would find Britain home. Instead I became increasingly aware that I was not British, and that I was African. This is how I came to see myself as a white African. [lecturer]

I wrote something very similar in a blog post at What is African? Race and identity | Khanya long before I had ever heard of "whiteness studies".

Steyn summarises the argument of the Introduction in her conclusion
In the Introduction, whiteness has been theorized as the racial norm, the invisible center that deflects attention from itself by racializing the margins, and constructing them as the problem. Whiteness then believes in its own homogeneous neutrality. Whites are then described [in the Introduction - STH] as generally unaware of their own racialization, unconscious of their privilege, or of how their implicit assumptions of white entitlement are a consequence of certain historical relations, not something essential about whiteness itself.

I'd go along with that, especially where North America is concerned (and Steyn wrote the book while living in North America). South Africa, however, is somewhat different. Whiteness was anything but unconscious.

But it appears that Steyn was also suffering from the same disease.

On page 26, writing of English-speaking South Africans' attitudes towards poor rural Afrikaners, she writes, "Like ethnic working class whites and partially racialized groups in America, Afrikaners had to 'fight' for the status of first class citizens."

"Ethnic working class" what are they? Just as "whiteness" is invisible to the dominant white group in America, so is ethnicity. "Ethnic" whites are the "other", the "them". And Steyn uses that terminology without batting an eyelid, withouit scare quotes, without even the almost obligatory [sic] used in some academic writing when politically incorrect language comes up. But Steyn is not quoting, she is using the terminology herself, thus identifying with those who believe they have no ethnicity, and manifesting "ethnic blindness".

Perhaps I might have read this book differently if I had read it before engaging in a discussion on whiteness studies with some others (see Whiteness, whiteliness and White Studies | Khanya).

And one of the biggest problems I have with this book is that it seems to be saying that even if we have deconstructed whiteness, and dumped it, we must now reconstruct it in order to deconstruct it again, like Sisyphus. It's a bit like a child being told by its mother, "You must have a bath tonight, whether you need it or not." And the proponents of whiteness studies seem to be saying "You must have an identity crisis, whether you need one or not."

One thing I will say, though. I didn't find it boring. It was a page-turner.

View all my reviews


Roger Saner said...

Interesting review! Well done for reading it: seems I may have to get my hands on a copy to see if I agree with your review. You have raised some good questions about the book and the research within it.

I'll see if I can find out more about the kinds of questions Melissa asked her respondents: I have a feeling this book was based on her Ph. D.

Cobus said...

This is from another article shy wrote:

“The particular historical and political configuration in South Africa has meant that whites have never experienced their whiteness and the advantage it afforded them as invisible—one of the key components in the way whiteness is theorized in the metropolitan heart of whiteness.” (Steyn 2005, 122)

Steve Hayes said...

I think it is quite an interesting read, but a bit frustrating because of the lack of transparancy.

I also think that, like you (as I pointed out in the Christianity and Society forum), Melissa Steyn mistakes pseudo-liberal pseudo-colourblindness for the real thing, and it is a serious mistake.

Steve Hayes said...


Yes, and that is one of the reasons why I found Tim Wise's article inapplicable to South Africa.

Cobus said...

Oh Steve, and where does this bring us? Wise is not "inapplicable" to SA context, we need to read him contextually relevant. Where does it lead us if every voice writing for there specific context is considered inapplicable to any other context? If Wise says anything other than that whiteness should be studies in the peculiar way it was formed in a specific context, although read against the backdrop of an international process of racialisation, then I'll seriously question his authority on the subject, since you'll find this in any good introduction to whiteness.

However, what we might want to consider is how white South Africans are being formed after 1994 by the global white rhetoric. We didn't create the language of "reversed racism" (which even teenagers in our communities now use), we simply took it over from the American scene where it was used for a long time before us. So we might want to remain sensitive to other strategies being copied as well.

Whiteness in South Africa was not visible under Apartheid. But if the FW de Klerk foundation insist that we should stop all talk about race, and simultaneously insist that their idea that we should have "Afrikaans only" universities has nothing to do with race, then I start wondering whether we are copying ideas about invisible whiteness into our own context.

The form of invisible whiteness which I observe within the South African context is one where the history is being ignored, and the myth is created that race has nothing to do with the economic position of white people, it is simply because they have been working so hard.

Maybe I'm wrong (and I'm sure I can trust on you being there to point out the mistakes we make, which I'll appreciate), but I do have this hunch.

Cobus said...

sorry, take out the first "relevant".

Clarissa said...

"it seems to be saying that even if we have deconstructed whiteness, and dumped it, we must now reconstruct it in order to deconstruct it again"

-That's how any collective identity works. A collective identity is an imagined community (c), a myth. In order to keep it in place, you have to reiterate it endlessely. You can't just put it in place once and expect it not to fall apart almost immediately.

Steve Hayes said...


"The form of invisible whiteness which I observe within the South African context is one where the history is being ignored, and the myth is created that race has nothing to do with the economic position of white people, it is simply because they have been working so hard."

That is anything but invisible.

It is concious and visible racism based on a conscious and visible white identity.


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