White fragility in post-apartheid democratic South Africa is a problem. It helps to avoid the topic of entrenched racism in the country. The book White fragility by Robin Diangelo (2018) addresses the anxiety of whites on conversations regarding racism. Although this book is written from an American point of view, it is pertinent in the South African context.White people who do not view themselves as racist tend to be more resistant to notions of priveledge and power based on their race. White fragility is therefore evident in their actions, behaviours, and feelings which promote racism.
What is White Fragility and why is important within the context of South Africa?
White fragility refers to feelings of discomfort a white person experiences when witnessing discussions around racial inequality and injustice.
Robin Diangelo coined the term ‘white fragility’ to describe the defensiveness that white people exhibit when their ideas about race and racism are challenged, particularly when they feel implicated in white supremacy. Although white fragility is not racism, it may contribute to racism by dismissing white domination and racial conditioning.
South Africa has been a nation of binaries. One of the most substantial has been the binary of black and white.In the historical South African context ‘black’ explains all black people of African origin as well as Colored, Indian and Asian people. The seminal and subliminal fact is the black/white, superior/inferior, male/female, good/bad, heterosexual/gay binaries shown in bigotry which breeds discrimination based upon one’s colour of the skin or an alignment– attitudinal or choice. The democratic post-apartheid era necessitates the reassessing of white identities in South Africa. One way in which some white South Africans are seeking to redefine themselves is by describing themselves as Africans. Nonetheless, claims by white South Africans that they, too, are Africans have been met with mixed reactions from black South Africans.
White liberals who view themselves as the ‘good white people’ often create obstacles and are consistently resistant (overtly and/or covertly ) towards any efforts to dismantle white fragility through anti-racist theology. This includes even in the most progressive institutions such as churches, universities, colleges etc. South Africa is only a 27-year-young democracy. It remains deeply polarised across racial lines. It is country yet to be free from economic and social Apartheid. More than half of South Africa’s population lives in poverty, with a high unemployment rate concentrated among black youth born in a ‘free and democratic’ nation. The covid-19 pandemic also exposed a lot of these inequalities.
According to the World Bank, income inequality has increased since 1994 in South Africa, rendering it one of the most unequal countries in the world. In the complex and violent history of a country like South Africa where most citizens are black, a lot of political compromises were made which in hindsight disadvantaged black people of the nation in efforts to move the country forward. More than twenty years later democratic South Africa is confronted with the ever-growing impatience to the current government in power by its citizens as well elements of anger and frustration bubbling beneath the surface that no longer require much to be triggered.
In recent past the nation has gone through a series of civil unrest. These include but are not limited to the Marikana massacre, Fees Must Fall campaign, July 2021 unrest in KwaZulu- Natal and Gauteng and the xenophobic violence on immigrants who are black, poor and from other African countries. Crime rates are high, government and institutional corruption has become the daily bread, gender dynamics continue to yield high rates of gender-based-violence.
Something is wrong, and everyone needs to pay attention.
The Elephant in the room is who holds the power in South Africa and to whom has it benifited and/or continues to benefit?
Currently 79% of the nation’s population who are black people own only 4% of agricultural land whilst white South Africans who are 9% of the population own 72% of agricultural land. A clear unequal distribution of power and resources which still favours white people. It would also seem that so far, any transformative actions taken in addressing the socio-economic-political and environmental imbalances needed to bridge these inequality gaps are yet to take strong root.
One of the challenges that makes it difficult to reduce the inequality gab in South Africa is its complex history. Added to this in modern post-colonial era, a subtle, yet powerful monster lurks in dark shadows, white fragility. It has the potential of entrenching systemic white supremacy and white normativity.
Many white people in South Africa live in a social and economic environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while, at the same time, lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress which leads to white fragility. Diangelo’s research suggests that several factors lead to white fragility.
These include segregation, universalism and individualism, entitlement to racial comfort, racial arrogance, racial belonging, psychic freedom, and white dominance. Due to segregated living, white people may perceive a ‘good school’ or a good neighbourhood as ‘white’ (Johnson & Shapiro 2003).
South Africans have fought for survival for centuries. Throughout, constant messages in history, media, and advertising – and from role models, teachers, and everyday conversations about good neighbourhoods and schools, reinforce white fragility. These notions promote the idea that white people are better and more important than black people. Although discussions about what makes a space ‘good’ are likely to be racially dependent, white people may deny these ideas. These beliefs make it challenging for people to cross over the walls of hostility, to co-habit while building one unified democratic country supporting the culture of civils rights.
How Can White South Africans Confront Their Fragility?
White people find it difficult to acknowledge their privilege and power they continue to enjoy amassed through physical, psychological, environmental violence brought on by their ancestors on Indigenous people. A violence so horrible it committed mass genocide in some parts of the world like Australia, America, Canada, and New Zealand and attempted to do the in same in South Africa.
The issue of South Africa still largely centres on ownership of land. The Dutch conquest of the Cape in 1652 was the genesis of genocide, slavery, indenture, and land dispossession. Its an exceptionally long systemic history of violence that a young democracy like South Africa is still reeling from the trauma and coming to grips with the consequences thereof.
It is important for white South African people to acknowledge what they got away with. And how they continue to enjoy the privileged status from a system that supported them favorably for centuries.
It is not a personal attack, it is the truth.
In psychology, genuine healing is believed to start when the perpetrator (s) acknowledges their violence to the survivor(s) they sought to destroy. It is the first step towards a long often tumultuous journey toward healing and forgiveness. History should thus never be forgotten lest we repeat the errors of our ancestors.
However, in contrast with African ubuntu (collective responsibility), the white worldview of individualism makes them respond defensively when linked to other white people as a group or ‘accused’ of collectively benefiting from racism, because, as individuals, each white person is ‘different’ from any other white person and expects to be seen as such. This narcissism is a general white inability to see black perspectives as significant, except in sporadic and impotent reflexes, which have little or no long-term effect.
White people who participate in dialogues around race and power are not always prepared for the push back. Consequently, they rely on their emotions to deflect real issues or to steer dialogues toward their comfort zones in order to feel ‘safe ‘ at times even claiming they are victimised by public race dialogue. Robin Diangelo calls this , ‘to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy’ Racial hierarchies tell white people that they are entitled to peace and deference.
This absence of understanding and experience contributes to white people’s lack of what Diangelo calls ‘racial stamina’. According to Diangelo , the author of White Fragility she points to the fact that white people are taught ‘to see their interests and perspectives as universal. They are also taught ‘to value the individual and to see themselves as individuals rather than as part of a racially socialized group.’
Individualism erases history and hides the ways in which wealth has been distributed and accumulated over generations to benefit white people today. It allows white people to view themselves as unique and original, outside of socialisation and unaffected by the relentless racial messages in the culture. Individualism also allows white people to distance themselves from the actions of their racial group and demand to be granted the benefit of the doubt as individuals in all cases.
Diangelo suggests that white people can develop racial stamina by having direct experiences with black people, by engaging in sometimes difficult dialogues with them. By developing racial stamina, Robin Diangelo in her book White Fragility indicates that white people can better address racism and strive to become anti-racist.
The other publication that is contributing to the discussion on white fragility is by Gloria Wekker (2016) titled White Virtue, although written from the Dutch perspective.
Hook (1992) proposes that:
“We need to apprehend those habituated symptoms of avoidance, aversion, disgust or discomfort – bodily reactions, bodily symptoms of racism – exactly those evasive structures of oppression that lie beneath discursive consciousness.”