I am reading a book, ‘The End of Anger: A New Generation’s Take on Race and Rage’*, by Ellis Cose. Over a decade ago, he’d written another book, also with an inordinately long title: ‘The Rage of a Privileged Class: Why Are Middle-Class Blacks Angry? Why Should America Care?’ This earlier book focused on a small segment of the African-American population: the middle class. Cose’s exposition here tackled the subtle and not-so-subtle prejudice faced by black professionals, and concluded that class does not protect from the racial prejudice that at the time seemed present in almost every aspect of American life. This, the limitation that the prejudice placed on the aspirations of American blacks, he said, gave rise to their anger.
In ‘The End of Anger’, as the title suggests, Cose’s take is that developments in American society — the most significant of which was the election of a black man to the country’s highest office — have begun to change the sentiment of this segment of the black population. Unlike decades before, Cose contends, middle-class black Americans are now more optimistic as the racial bigotry woven into the country’s social fabric fades. As a result, these Americans find that they are now part of a system that no longer limits their aspirations, so their anger wanes.
While I eye the book’s optimism with hopeful suspicion, I am keenly interested in the dynamic because in many ways, the story of South Africa post-apartheid has been foretold by United States’s journey, post-abolition and post-civil rights.
Many South Africans have cottoned on to the fact that race relations in the country aren’t as harmonious as sold by the promise of the Rainbow Nation. Unlike the U.S, we had a truth and reconciliation commission, where many of the atrocities committed during our period of legal racial segregation and prejudice were fessed up to. There, apologies were made and accepted. But just like the U.S, when it all ended, there was no instant correction of the economic and social imbalance the previous system had caused. In both countries, this left a population of privileged whites and disadvantaged blacks to deal with the ramifications.
“South Africa is a morally tangled place to live”, wrote Rhodes University philosopher Samantha Vice in her essay in the Journal of Social Philosophy. Her article was a personal and critical reflection on what it means to be white in South Africa — a question she believes white South Africans should seek to answer as a personal project. In her belief, if you look closely, you may perhaps see faint echoes of something not too dissimilar to the black consciousness movement’s challenge to black thought and identity.
A lot has been written** in reply to Vice’s essay, especially on the conclusion she reaches: that shame seems to be the appropriate response to the privilege whites continue to benefit from as a result of whiteliness and apartheid’s continuing effects, and that learning to live with the shame should be a private journey. Rather than adding to the replies, I note the significance of the call for white South Africans to ask themselves what it means to be white in South Africa — a question that perhaps whiteliness has never asked of them. Vice quoting Paul Taylor’s ‘Silence and Sympathy’: “Whiteliness tends to involve a commitment to the centrality of white people and their perspectives.” Core to this centrality is that whiteliness exists without ever asking questions of those who enjoy its advantages. Black thought and identity, on the other hand, has always posed questions for the black psyche, as the black consciousness movement in South Africa demonstrated.
Now I’m not saying that there are no white South Africans who have undertaken this journey and sought to question whiteliness as Vice has. I am saying that because whiteliness never asks this of them, only those who actively seek it will ever think to ask the question. And worse, those who do ask the question, because of how difficult it is to answer, often give up, settle for a superficial answer or stop short of answering the tougher aspects of this question. Vice again: “In South Africa, it is common to hear proud declarations from whites that they refuse to feel ashamed for being white.” Said in another way: I refuse to question the privilege being white in South African has conferred (and continues to confer) on me.
This is important. Cose, at the very beginning of ‘The End of Anger’, says on this new-found optimism of middle-class black America: “…the increasing maturity level of whites, whose attitudes have changed through the years — evolving, most notably, as they moved from parent to child — has freed a rising generation of African Americans and other people of colour to aspire to a future their parents could only dream about. Black hope and white growth, in other words, are closely related.”
While I am not sure whether white Americans have come to this growth and maturity Cose speaks of by answering what it means to be white in America, I am in agreement with linking black hope (and the end of black anger) to a change in white attitudes.
In his impassioned opinion piece in The Daily Maverick, ‘Should South Africa’s black people get over apartheid? Hell no!’, Sipho Hlongwane responds to that ol’ chestnut often wielded by the whites who’d say they refuse to feel ashamed for being white: Apartheid ended 17 years ago, so black people should just get over it. To this, Hlongwane replies: “Apartheid’s victims should remain angry as long as its effects are with us.”
17 years since its official end, apartheid’s effects remain with us, especially its economic effects, and black South Africans are angry about it. With whites — who continue to enjoy a position of economic privilege as a result of apartheid and whiteliness — on one side and blacks — the majority of whom continue to be poor as a result of apartheid’s effects — on the other, it’s easy to understand why the anger persists.
I speculate that the only way for the anger to end and for a non-racial South Africa to emerge is, on one side, for white South Africans to reflect, personally and critically, on whiteliness and what it means to be white in post-apartheid South Africa. Hopefully, without presenting it as a foregone conclusion, this will lead them to rejecting whiteliness. And on the other side, for black South Africans, who for the longest time were defined by the struggle for liberation, to redefine blackness and what it means to be black in post-apartheid South Africa. And again without presenting it as a foregone conclusion, hopefully the result of this will be the realisation that the past is important and relevant today, however, we are by no means its prisoners.
This, I believe, will ease the conversations that cause the most racial tension in South Africa today, allowing for solutions to be found to the country’s most pressing problems. This, I believe, will completely take away the impetus for the rise to prominence of what is being called black nationalism. The alternative to this frank and individual reflection, surely, is the natural result of anger: conflict.
* NYT review of ‘The End of Anger’
** Other replies to Vice’s article:
- Eusebius McKaiser: Confronting whiteness
- Pierre de Vos: On being white and ashamed
- Sipho Hlongwane: Should South Africa’s black people get over apartheid? Hell no!
- Dylan Edwards: Should Eusebius McKaiser be ashamed of his penis?
- Marianne Thamm: The White Thing To DO