There are two kinds of white South Africans: those who see race and those who are ‘colour-blind’. But it is those who don’t see race who are racist. This has never been more clear post-apartheid than now in the midst of the most extreme student protests yet under the #FeesMustFall banner.
I am a Wits student – a white Wits student. While the ‘colour-blind’ don’t catch the distinction, its implications are serious. I attended a prestigious private-school, affordable in part because my parents and those of my peers are among the beneficiaries of the apartheid economy. Well, not all of my peers. In our grade of 60 pupils, we had a single black classmate. We refined our English skills under home-language speakers and enjoyed regular upgrades to the computer lab. At the day’s end, most of us were transported via luxury sedan or SUV to a house on a hill. My classmates, most of whom are now my peers at Wits, do not see this as privilege.
Colour-blindness is not possible for black students.
The experience for the average black student is a bit different. Unlike our smooth trajectory from ‘feeder-school’ to top varsity, theirs is ridden with barriers: fees and admissions foremost, then language and culture. The apartheid economy has not been so good to them: to attend university, bursaries are often the only option; bursaries that are insufficient in number and size.
English and Afrikaans are the order of the day at well-recognised universities; course material remains overwhelmingly Euro-centric; buildings bear the names of colonialists and their portraits stand in stone and hang in the halls. The ground staff is black: black women clean the bathrooms and black men tend the gardens, with little job security or remuneration, often facing outsourced replacements at cheaper rates. Colour-blindness is to ignore this. Colour-blindness is not possible for black students.
At the height of #FeesMustFall action last year, I was busy sabotaging my friendships by trying to explain this to the colour-blind. My Facebook feed was filled with their sensationalist images of ‘violence’ and ‘vandalism’ in the form of dents suffered by said luxury vehicles. To the colour-blind, protests in the streets were a violation of our freedom of movement. Motorists who drove through, and occasionally over, black protesters, were motivated not by dehumanising racism but by our constitution.
But what about #FuckWhitePeople? Is that what happens when you ‘see’ race?
More productive than slacktivist me, the few white students who saw protests as more than simply ‘disrupting our right to an education’ formed a human chain between black protesters and police at the University of Cape Town. The rubber bullets and tear-gas ceased – our police are not colour-blind. Soon, students and workers, having faced white power-structures and university management, took a march thousands-strong to the Union Buildings, only to be met with lack of accountability by another elite: the national government.
But what about #FuckWhitePeople? Is that what happens when you ‘see’ race? It was a slogan emblazoned across the Wits campus, above the colonial names of buildings. It is worn on t-shirts, right in my eye-line. At first, I react with the genocide-fearing shock passed down to me through the whisperings of soccer-moms and corporate dads whose fingers point permanently towards Zimbabwe.
Then, I catch myself, and enjoy the responses. The colour-blind denounce reverse-racism; they call for the ‘monkey’ perpetrators to be taken to the supreme court, while also upholding that white people should resist this ‘race-baiting’ call because ‘we are better than them’. Others relentlessly quote Martin Luther King, or advocate the formation of a white army, or blame it on an elaborate destabilisation and economic colonisation conspiracy started by our common enemy, The Chinese.
The ‘colour-blind’ are not colour-blind; they are perfectly capable of discerning the racial nature of prejudice when it is directed towards them.
I can only laugh. While others despair at ‘renewed’ racial tensions, I am relieved that the colour-blind have revealed their true nature. Their outrage at the graffiti shows they perceive it as a personal attack. This is the genius of the graffiti: all those that identify themselves with their own cherished colour are finally held accountable. The ‘colour-blind’ are not colour-blind; they are perfectly capable of discerning the racial nature of prejudice when it is directed towards them.
Their reactions expose sensitivity to race, in most cases accompanied by racism. Their blind-spot is an ignorance of convenience, not tolerance. It is an abdication from the painstaking responsibilities and concessions we must learn to make as white South Africans. It saves them the identity crisis I and others are struggling with. It saves them from navigating the complex position of standing with black protesters while simultaneously standing aside.
Last week, black protesters peacefully disrupted a rugby match at the site of frequent racial scandals, the University of the Free State. In response, white players and crowd members knocked them to the ground and beat them. Of the 20 plus students who appeared in court, student leaders claim that many were arrested because they were black.
The next day, a group of upstart students began a ‘#ColourBlind Campaign’.