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.