August 15, 2020

Media and Citizenship

Mellon Project Focus Area

Whitewash backwash

Ferial Haffajee

Whitewash backwash: a response to the “unbearable boringness of the whiteness debate”

By Anthea Garman

The first conference on whiteness as a research topic was held at the University of Johannesburg in March and while most of its participants were academics with interests in the subject who will probably only publish in academic journals, it has entered the public light of day with a column written by City Press editor Ferial Haffajee in which she proclaimed that as a result of her hour or so at the conference that she has gone from being bored with the discussion of whiteness to being “viscerally opposed” to the time and money it takes up.

It was a bit of a shock for the researchers present to hear Haffajee express herself in these uncompromising terms. She was followed as a key note speaker by Prof Sarah Nuttall, the new director of the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser), who was also critical of the conference’s aims and intentions, but for slightly different reasons.

The charges levelled against the conference and the research presented there went along these lines:

  • It was an almost all-white conference with mostly white academics talking on topics about white people, their identities, attitudes, living arrangements, political accommodations, etc.
  • It was an academic conference so the topics were not on current high-news political issues as defined by journalists (Ferial Haffajee mentioned rape, violence, Marikana, etc as issues not on the programme).
  • Haffajee felt that non-racialism as an ideal of the South African political transition and a very important goal had been abandoned not only by the ANC and the politicians but also by researchers, to continue to talk about white and black, she argued, was to continue to race the future. Non-racialism as an ideal should be part of the research agenda.
  • Sarah Nuttall felt that whiteness studies was not intellectually at the cutting edge of research. It was the “wrong kind of conversation” to be having now, she said. She felt that perpetuating the discussion of difference was a South African preoccupation not in evidence in the wider global academy and that the starting point for such discussions should be the “historical, political context of entanglement” – referring to her work which argues that South African history should be seen from a different vantage – not the idea separation which has driven most projects to this point. Nuttall said the important questions to be addressing now were about re-articulating a way of being human, multi-species humanity, our impact as geological agents. The attitudes and behaviours of young South Africans who are possibly living identities outside/beside race needed to be considered.

Then literary theorist Louise Bethlehem, who was also on the panel, and the person on the organising group who suggested the name “Whitewash” for the conference, added her voice to the critique. She asked everyone to be much more critical about their research, to understand the elasticity and historicity of whiteness, that a political and ethical emphasis needed to be put on such work, and that it was more important to analyse “symptoms rather than performances”.

Ferial Haffajee
Ferial Haffajee

First in response to Ferial Haffajee, Editor of City Press:
It’s clear that Haffajee is taking her personal experiences of pushy, whiny, privileged whites who resent the change in social situation (she spoke of these encounters at the conference), as well as her reading of what appears in the media (a lot of it vitriolic and anything but listening and conciliatory in response to various whiteness-related flare-ups and ‘debates’) to cast the work of research as navel-gazing and recentering white people. She also claims this induces victimhood, not just in white people, but in certain black people who react to this attitude with a victimhood of their own. This is not a healthy situation and is to be taken note of, but I think it’s not fair to muddle all these experiences and readings together and make such a claim. There is a difference between what goes on in research communities, the raucous debate in the media and the way many white people still behave.

There’s an important intention behind the purpose of such research which must be taken into account. I sat through the entire conference and have also read a lot of research on whiteness subjects. My take on it is that the researchers are trying to unpick and understand how this particular form of racialised privilege operates and dominates our world. Very often the intention is a critical, radical and transformatory one: if we can see clearly the workings of this complex human behaviour, we can start to figure out different configurations of relation. For example, it makes a difference to know that in small towns in the Eastern Cape, teenagers from Afrikaans families who are at integrated public schools are forming relationships to fellow South Africans from other race groups in ways that strongly challenge their parents attitudes and beliefs (Charl Alberts’ research being done at Fort Hare). This careful ethnographic work should not have to be apologised for.

It’s important to point out that much of the research I know of which strays into “whiteness studies” does so because privilege as an issue has to be tackled. Anthropologists, political theorists, media theorists, sociologists, art historians, philosophers who are deeply interested in power and oppression, do this work because it’s a means to an end, and for many of us it has become crucial to understand this issue really well in order to do our other work better (in my case a focus on media and citizenship).

As to the ‘debate’ in the media, Haffajee finds it unbearably boring. I don’t: I’m fascinated by the way commentators (Eusebius McKaiser, Gillian Schutte), public figures, academics (like Samantha Vice who got pulled into public ), artists (Leonard Shapiro and Roger Young of the I Benefitted from Apartheid T-shirts), satirists , etc return to the issue of race and make appeals for white people to alter their attitudes and behaviours. I wrote a paper on it for the conference in which I ask if these eruptions of out-loud talk every now and again should be thought of as “acts of citizenship” (the term used by theorist Engin Isin); expressions of concern that white racism continues to bedevil and unsettle our democracy unless faced; a reaching out to recalcitrant white South Africans to act like fellow citizens with reflection and responsibility. If you read not just what hits you in the eye but below the surface and keep on asking the question why about what is provoking these conversations, then some very interesting insight unfolds.

Sam Vice (right hand side)
Sam Vice (right hand side)

In response to Sarah Nuttall, Director of Wiser
“Entanglement”, Nuttall’s challenge to researchers to think South African history and politics differently, is a concept that is also espoused by Mark Sanders (“complicity”) and Leon de Kock (“the seam”) – and there may be other thinkers I’m not aware of also working in this vein. All three researchers mean slightly different things (and that’s why I like to use these ideas in conversation with each other). But they all talk about unhinging our minds from the tropes of the apartheid past which continue to sediment difference, race, differentiation, separation, segregation and to make theory from a position where we recognise our complicated bondedness in this place.

This is a significant and important challenge to the way we think and should not be ignored. But how we get from this acknowledgement and straight into a post-racial or non-racial future, I just don’t know at this point (I’ve read Paul Gilroy’s Beyond Race and I’m still a little perplexed given our knotty, fractious present). It might be that careful work among today’s young South Africans of all races and classes will show us how the future is unfolding, but it won’t come with overly critical pronouncements that certain types of research are just uninteresting and not intellectually challenging.

Louise Bethlehem, one of the organisers and Sarah Nuttall, Director of WISER
Louise Bethlehem, one of the organisers and Sarah Nuttall, Director of WISER

Further to Louise Bethlehem
While the conference was initiated and primarily organised by Leora Farber Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Research Centre into Visual Identities in Art and Design, Bethlehem helped draft the intention for holding the conference. The name Whitewash, she said in response to Haffajee and Nuttall’s criticisms, was intended to signal the fact that whiteness as an identity and social and political position has “elasticity” (Robyn Wiegman’s term see her 1999 article which is very worth reading).

In other words regardless of the shifts in power, whiteness has bounce-back capacity and we have seen this in South Africa if we look. In other words, the researchers present all needed to be conscious and aware of the recentering nature of privilege, particularly in academic spaces. The name Whitewash was a careful wordplay signalling this danger and announcing that the researchers present were willing to walk into complex territory.

On the second day of the conference time was set aside by the conference organisers for the participants to respond and think about the challenges that had been posed by Haffajee and Nuttall on the first day. Although neither was present, it was an important moment to reflect. I think the single most important issue for me to come out of this conversation was that in South African today, the race conversation (even when it’s about whiteness) still has to be held with significant black interlocutors.

As my research shows (in responses to the debate going on in the media), there are black commentators who feel that whites should just get on with it and sort themselves out without further involving black people as sounding boards; there are black people who want to join the debate  and there are those who feel the debate is utterly useless.

So choosing who to talk to is tricky. But the perception of what is going on within these conversations is as important as what is actually unearthed and discussed and a room full of mostly white people still signals an attitude from the past which is no longer acceptable.

So in conclusion
I came out of the conference bothered in particular that a more fruitful conversation could not have been had with Ferial Haffajee. It concerns me that the world of academia has made so little headway in persuading an editor of a large Sunday paper that this work is valuable, and that the work itself is so invisible beyond academia that it’s possible to assume what is done here is the same as all the conversations and interactions held in public. It concerns me too that the editor of one of the largest newspapers in our country and a person who has stature and platform is not prepared to engage further with researchers (although it’s heartening to see Christi van der Westhuizen’s response to Haffajee in City Press.

Christi van der Westhuizen from the University of the Free State and Charl Alberts (in front of her) from Fort Hare.
Christi van der Westhuizen from the University of the Free State and Charl Alberts (in front of her) from Fort Hare.

I’m also convinced that whiteness at this point and time in South Africa should not (despite the scholars and commentators who evoke Biko to tell white people to just get on with it by themselves) be left only to white people to work out.

There was some (but not much) of that academic sniffiness at the conference about cutting-edge and pedestrian work, and in contrast, I want, while I’m working in this territory, to keep on reading across disciplines and methods. I find it bracing to hear Samantha Vice, the philosopher who focuses her work on care of the self, remind me that we are “not just white and privileged, we are also moral agents and fellow citizens” and I want to hear sociologist Melissa Steyn (who unashamedly does this work and calls herself a whiteness scholar because she believes in its value) carefully parse white people’s words as they speak about living through transition.

I also want in my own work to figure out why confession and introspection is so often inadequate, why the personal realisation so seldom translates into the political and consequential and how, as Sonia Kruks says, privilege often cannot be undone but can be mobilised and used.

Melissa Steyn from Wits' new Centre for Diversity Studies
Melissa Steyn from Wits’ new Centre for Diversity Studies


Kruks, Sonia. 2005. “Simone de Beauvoir and the Politics of Privilege.” Hypatia 20(1): 178-205.

Wiegman, Robyn. 1999. “Whiteness Studies and the Paradox of Particularity.” Boundary 2 26(3): 115-150.