#WhiteHistoryMonth: Thank God, you were born white
Katarina Hedrén | March 31st, 2014


On one of the last days of AIAC’s first #WhiteHistoryMonth, I found myself getting increasingly annoyed in the queue to board the last flight from Murtala Mohmammed International Airport, Lagos to Johannesburg. Behind me stood two South Africans, who were giggling and entertaining each other in a way that had they been ten, or in their teens, an accompanying adult would have asked them to take it down a notch.

Theirs was a performance, intended for everyone’s ears, by two men drunk on supremacy. As they observed young Nigerian men being pulled to the side by a uniformed official for their passports and visas to be scrutinized, the pair laughed, joked and praised both the equipment and the efficiency of the Nigerian border control.

I too was impressed, but not amused, by how consistently this man checked his compatriots’ and other black paying customers’ documentation for almost exactly twice as long as their white co-passengers’. The two men behind me, on the other hand, seemed so pleased and proud to be untouchable, you’d think they had become white the day before and still couldn’t believe their luck.

On my way to the next checkpoint at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg the morning after, I walked past another man who caught my attention. He was rocking a T-shirt that I had, prior to that moment, only seen worn by white men as (according to my understanding) a post-racial gimmick designed to deflect accusations and confirm the privilege to joke about themselves in a controlled and safe manner (“I’m aware of my whiteness, end of discussion.”).

I wish I had taken a photo of this thirty-something black man who had the word “Mlungu” (“white person” in Zulu) written across his chest.

In the early 1990s, when racism (both the violent kind and the one disguised as truth), just like today, was rife in Sweden, I once saw a man in Stockholm wearing a T-shirt with the message “Thank God I was born white”. Under any other circumstances, the sight would have made me sick. When worn by this black man, however, the T-shirt became wonderfully subversive and liberating.

Without adding one word to those printed on their T-shirts, the man at the Haymarket Square in Stockholm and his younger brother in Johannesburg, pinned down and mocked the privilege and pretentiousness of the T-shirt designers and the intended buyers, be they bona fide racists or cool dudes acknowledging whiteness. A condition they comfortably carry on their chest, in a gesture that isn’t necessarily an invitation to discuss the accompanying unearned privilege. (Image-google the T-shirt texts and the word “T-shirt” if you have doubts about the target groups.)

By appropriating symbols of whiteness for other purposes than aspiration, these two men, together with the two South Africans and the Nigerian airport official, reminded me that, apart from the violence perpetrated by a minority of the beneficiaries, there’s not much to fear and everything to be angry about when it comes to white supremacy. Just by wearing their T-shirts, they also reminded me that ultimately white supremacy is nothing but a devastating scam and a joke.

There’s a fine and sometimes blurry line between sincere self-reflection on whiteness and self-satisfied introspection. A couple of years ago T-shirts with the text “I benefited from apartheid” caused heated discussions between South Africans. Some saw in them a genuine effort by young white South Africans to come to terms with the country’s legacy and its long-lasting effects. Others thought the whole exercise insincere and meaningless.

Part of the problem with T-shirts intended to stimulate critical thinking about whiteness is the exclusivity, which mirrors the essence of the racism the designers ultimately (I suppose) aim to combat. T-shirts that only make sense on white bodies easily become whites-only anti-racist projects similar to the 1980s campaign “Hands off my pal”, which made racism an offence against white Europeans whose best friends were black.

Another problem is the imbalance that enables a white man to wear a Mlungu T-shirt without losing his dignity, but not really a black person to wear a T-shirt with the text “Darkie” with the same ease. Whiteness is associated with transgressions like chauvinism and subordination of others. Though unsympathetic, these are ultimately characteristics associated with power. Blackness, on the other hand, tends to be associated with connotations of weakness. These are the same dynamics that make American comedian Louis C.K.‘s self-deprecating anti-racist comedy powerful, and Dave Chappelle’s ditto a lethal weapon when some laugh at his black caricatures instead of the ludicrousness of racism, as intended. This is not to say that Louis C.K. is to blame (and certainly not that Chappelle is less sophisticated), but to point out white privilege where it’s easy to miss it.

To be white is partly to be damned if you acknowledge your whiteness and damned if you don’t. It’s tough, but perhaps as much a part of the white burden as the better economy, the benefit of the doubt and (as eloquently written about by Sisonke Msimang) the freedom of disassociation with Oscar Pistorius or other compromised card-carrying members of one’s own race.

* Image: Rhodes Memorial in Cape Town, Wiki Commons.

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Swedish South Africa-based film programmer, freelance-writer and author of the blog In the Words of Katarina. You can follow her on Twitter: @KatarinaHedren

9 thoughts on “#WhiteHistoryMonth: Thank God, you were born white

  1. mmmm, yeah, so, then what? Is this a self-reflexive, introspective exploration of your own privilege as a white person in South Africa today? Seriously, sometimes speaking because one has a voice does not make what they speak useful. I don’t know how better to say this is not a critique of whiteness in the least. Sounds more like a watered down, what-can-we-do kind of rant. Then can one really expect whiteness to provide scathing and rigorous critiques of itself, no?

      • Is whiteness skin colour alone? Is it something that can be appropriated in ways of thinking and forms of being, maybe like blackness is used to encompass marginality, whiteness is used to encompass various forms of privilege? I don’t know, blackness is not a unilinear, homogenous thing, or is it? So she is black she speaks “for” blackness, hehehe, I don’t know Sean! What is mixed race then? Black/white/other?

    • Chamunorwa’s inquiries are quite valid, and they echo the same questions I ask myself, and everyone here. What defines race? What defines whiteness, or blackness? I find it interesting that blackness isn’t but in relation to whiteness, and in that, it echoes feminism’s relationship to masculinity/manhood.

      One of the fascinating things about Africa is a country is that duality of Africa (assumed black) vs the “possibility” of being fully African yet non-black. There is a bit of a pause, I sense, when the author of a post on AFIAC that is racially themed is white, or at least non-black, and I find that the subject of those posts are rarely ever black. Can a white African criticize a Black African? Can one be African and non-black, and speak legitimately about Africa?
      Which trumps the other? Does one’s Africanity rank higher than one’s blackness, than one’s whiteness? Am I more African by being black African than one who is white and African?
      We know what is negritude, but what is African?

  2. Though I understand the impulse behind many of the posts on this site, that is, to make use of one’s voice and speak out against perceived discrimination, abuse of superiority and assigned inferiority, too often, on this site, I feel uncomfortable about the obvious overreaction, the Pavlovian tendency to salivate and react at the perceived sound of any bell.

    Racism and its corollaries is like misogyny and hers, or discrimination and his, in that the person who feels targeted may be justified in feeling so, but because what she is reacting to is so personal, it requires an insight into the mind of he/she whom she fingers, and this tends to lead to conclusions that can legitimately be seen as paranoiac.

    It is necessary, in order to make its case, that feminism demonizes malehood; and it is just as necessary, unfortunately, in order to make its case, that racism denounces whiteness, both being the defining trait of the “oppressor”.

    But, the problem in this logic is the same apparent in the designating American Blacks as more violent, or less intellectual, or less reliable…etc. Both logics require generalizing individuals and speaking of the whole as speaking of the one.

    I am therefore uncomfortable with the idea of Whiteness, as I am, slightly less, with the idea of Blackness, or the idea of “malehood”. I am uncomfortable with the expression of whiteness as symbol of racial oppression, based on the perceived expression of white privilege through the simple and effective right of one to express either simple economic privilege, or extroverted and deeply personal stupidity.

    Obviously, as a black, African male, I know when things are what they seem. The legacy of societal colonization and cultural occupation has made it so we are all psychics when race is concerned. I am however sensitive to the plight of whiteness that is not power, that is not dominance, that isn’t oppression or participatory in it. Sure, all men should be feminist; all Jews Palestinians, all Whites should be black freedom fighters, for no group ever found self-determination without the support of members of the enemy group; but the alternative is no crime, and one may express their individuality, whether racial, or gender-based, or religious without it being taken as directed towards any other group.

    In that light, I suggest we find another word, perhaps, one that would be more discerning than whiteness to describe the members of the group who flaunt the privilege of the group without making the whole group the expression of the problem.

    The author may be right in her assessment of the behavior she witnessed, perhaps she did indeed see smoke and fire, but too often we react to smoke as expression of ongoing, raging fire rather than the smoke before the fire, or smoke after the fire, or simply smoke, no fire; or even not even smoke at all, perhaps just fog.

  3. Thank you Katarina. Just a small comment on the word Mlungu.(black man wearing the t-shirt) My experience with the word Mlungu I find is that it has just like the N word or K word, been re-appropriated among South African black people (men in particular) to illustrate seniority like the word “boss,”. So I think ultimately class (upper -middle) and privilege ( money) are what seems to drive people’s perspectives more and more though admittedly both things white people ( not exclusively) in the the majority still enjoy – depending on where in the world you are, I have been called “Mlungu” often by fellow black men because I was perceived to be “privileged” or belonging to a privileged class or simply as someone who had more cash on hand than they did. Though i found the use of the word at first uncomfortable, as I am clearly not white, I had to understand it from the other persons’ perspective – his way of understanding himself and I. I do not wish to correct something that is clearly obvious to both of us – I am not white. And his use of the word in reference to my person ultimately has nothing to do with me and everything to do with them and where they are in their world. By the same token I had a jacket with the word “darkie” embroided along with an Afro-comb which I was quite proud to wear. Which is equally stating the obvious. I am what you would call a “darkie” just as much as a white person wearing a t shirt with an “Mlungu” word printed on his t shirt is an “Mlungu”. It’s the person reading those words on the t-shirt who then adds meaning or interprets the words from their particular perspectives and that too has nothing to do with the person wearing it. At least that is how I see it.

    • “… the word Mlungu I find is that it has just like the N word or K word, been re-appropriated among South African black people”
      – that’s news to me and sounds highly unlikely.

      • Hey Sean, between the lines is actually correct…Mlungu Wam has been appropriated in that way, and would be directed at one who is either able to offer employment or cash for whatever services that may be required, regardless of their race. Mlungu means salvation. Black employers are now called “Umlungu wam.” Obviously this is a lot of food for thought, over and above Katarina’s article. It says a lot about who we are and how we perceive ourselves.

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