Friday, March 16, 2012

Whiteness in the U.S. and South Africa

The color of one’s skin, shape of one’s eye, and texture of one’s hair may vary across the globe, but these physical attributes have no meaning in and of themselves, simply what we assign to it. We decide which physical attributes are important, draw boundaries around them, organize people according these boundaries and then behave in a way which gives the categories meaning, thus creating races. The proof that race is a social construction can be found in the fluidity of the meaning we assign to these categories, changing them when it is in the best interest of those in power. Whites have maintained power in both the United States and South Africa since their inception through the creation of whiteness as a hegemonic power structure. In this post I will argue that whiteness in the U.S. and South Africa is similar in how it developed from slavery, has used extreme forms of segregation to maintain white superiority and in how it currently uses post-racial rhetoric to maintain the status quo.
The construction of race as we know it (as binary black and white) began with expansion of European colonialism (Winant, 2001). As Europeans arrived across the globe they brought with them Western ideals and a hunger for resources which provided the reasoning behind and the motive for deeming native peoples as different and inferior. Slavery provided a means to attaining natural resources and build colonies with minimal output from the colonizers. Slavery existed in various forms prior to the chattel slavery that came with the Atlantic slave trade; some groups took prisoners of war as slaves, while for others it took a form closer to indentured servitude (Winant, 2001:53). As Europeans began transporting slaves from Africa to the New World, slavery became racialized—chattel slavery was permanent and transgenerational (meaning that slaves bore slaves) and Africans became identified with slavery (Winant, 2001:54). The connection between color and freedom became a basis for white superiority myths.
Both the U.S. and South Africa used this white superiority myth to create societies in which whites dominated and exploited blacks (in addition to other racial groups such as Native Americans, Indians and Asians) (Duster, 2001, Winant, 2001). Due to the fluidity of race, it became necessary to create and maintain racial borders in order to uphold both the myth and the domination. In both countries various borders between whiteness and blackness have been established throughout its history to protect resources and power for whites, such as: creating racial definitions and classifications, the legislation of blackness through the one-drop rule, anti-miscegenation laws and the perpetuation of the racialized space established in slavery through Jim Crow and apartheid (Hale, 1998; Posel, 2001; Goodman, 2004).
The creation of racialized space in the U.S. began with slavery and the separation of white master and black slave. This separation was perpetuated in the post-slavery era as Jim Crow—a series of laws which enforced segregation, legislated the treatment of whites by blacks and instated poll taxes and literacy tests which effectively disenfranchised African Americans (Hale, 1998). Although Jim Crow existed largely in the American South, segregation was also maintained in the North. Large cities such as Chicago and Detroit contained massive black belts—crowded, congested areas which became ghettos. On a federal level the adoption of the racially based red-lining system by the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) and the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) set the groundwork for establishing a white suburb and a black inner-city as well as resource rich white schools and poor black schools.
Since the arrival of the Dutch in 1652, racialized space has existed in South Africa. When Jan Van Riebeeck arrived he did two things, planted a thorny impenetrable bush around himself to keep Africans away and requested slaves (Goodman, 2001). Afrikaners had one clear border between themselves and the arriving English immigrants, as well as native African tribes—language.  This is one of the reasons whiteness is fragmented in South Africa. Another was the English approach to slaves, Britain abolished slavery in 1833 (Goodman, 2001). Although Slavery was abolished, this did not mean that the English pushed for equal rights; both the English and Afrikaners establish laws and policies which “undermined the economic and political power of Africans (Goodman, 2004:137).”
In 1910 the Union of South Africa was formed and “founded on the premise that Africans would be denied voting rights in all but the Cape Colony… (Goodman, 2004:146).” Shortly after this both the Boars and the English worked to establish the 1911 Mine and Works act, which reserved higher paying skilled labor for whites, the 1913 Land Act, which restricted blacks to 7% of the land, and the 1923 Natives Act, which forced native blacks to carry passes and live in segregated spaces outside the cities (Goodman, 2004). When the National Party, a solely Afrikaner government, came to power in 1948 they quickly set about laying the foundation for apartheid—banning interracial marriage and sex, as well as mandating that every South African was to be categorized by race and segregated, in housing, public places and transportation (Posel, 2001; Goodman, 2004). Apartheid would find South Africa divided into racial “homelands” and would see over four million blacks removed from their homes and placed in congested reserves (Goodman, 2004). ). In 1990 the process of dismantling apartheid began, but it has left the country an extreme imbalance of power, as well as economic and cultural capital due to the increased access to wealth and education for whites (Duster, 2001).
One large difference in the whiteness in America and South Africa is in the divide which exists within South African whiteness. Although whiteness in the U.S. is not homogenous, it presents a much more unified front than the stratified language and country of origin based whiteness that exists in South Africa (Lewis, 2004; Salusbury & Foster, 2004; Steyn, 2004). Whiteness in the U.S. was originally Anglo-Saxon, but it grew to incorporate various white ethnics in response to a growing black population. Whiteness in South Africa originally referred to the Boers (Afrikaners), immigrants from Holland, but as the English (WESSAs) and other Europeans entered the continent and became the ruling elite they became incorporated into whiteness (Salsbury & Foster, 2004). Apartheid served to unify whiteness as a power structure in South Africa because of shared privilege.
In both the U.S. and South Africa post-racial rhetoric has been adopted in an attempt to maintain white privilege. Within the U.S rhetoric comes under the title of colorblindness, and in South Africa, nonracialism (Lewis, 2004; Dalmage 2011).  Whites in both countries claim that in their new post-Civil Rights and post-apartheid societies, people must be treated as individuals without any attention to race. While this may seem like a well-meaning and lofty goal, it serves the purpose of ignoring what served as affirmative action programs for whites and lead to the accumulation of generational wealth, cultural capital and unearned privilege for whites (Lewis, 2004; Dalmage 2011).
One way this is evident is in the propensity for whites in both countries to claim that current affirmative action programs (U.S.) and black employment equity (South Africa) are unjust because they give an “unfair advantage” to blacks based on race (Lewis, 2004). Both countries also seem to have taken a neoliberal approach; focusing on the individual (this is more evident within WESSA whiteness in South Africa) and individual responsibility rather than looking at structural causes for success and failure (Salusbury and Foster, 2004). This may lead to a larger investment in the discourse of meritocracy in South Africa, as meritocracy is already a dominant ideology in the U.S.
In the both U.S. and South Africa the imbalance of power associated with race is inextricably entwined in history, culture and legislation. Both have created and maintained racist legislation and policy that perpetuated the white superiority myth for the past four hundred years, denying blacks the ability to build economic, cultural and social capital, maintaining this racial power imbalance.  Both countries have created whiteness as a hegemonic power structure through the construction of a binary and stratified racial system, segregation through Jim Crow and apartheid and the use of post-racial rhetoric which continues to build privilege for whites while simultaneously denying privilege still exists. To truly build a post-racial society we must focus on extending privileges of whiteness to all people and making it what it should be—a basic human right.

Dalmage, Heather. 2011. Lecture Notes, Global Whiteness. January 2011-Februrary 2011.
Duster, Troy. 2001. “ The ‘Morphing’ Power of Whiteness.” Pp. 113-137 in The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness. Edited by Birgit Brander Rasmussen, et al. Durham, NC: Duke University Press
Goodman, David. 1999. Fault Lines: Journeys into the new South Africa. CA, Berkely: University of California Press.
Hale, Grace. 1998. Making Whiteness. NY. Vintage Books
Posel, Deborah. 2001. “Race as Common Sense: Racial Classification in Twentieth-Century South Africa.” African Studies Review. 44(2):87-113.
Salusbury, Tess  &  Don Foster. 2004. “Rewriting WESSA identity.” Pp.93-109. In Under Construction. Edited by N. Distiller. & M. Steyn. Sandton: Heinmann.
Steyn, Melissa. 2004. “Rewriting WESSA identity.” Pp.93-109. In Under Construction. Edited by N. Distiller. & M. Steyn. Sandton: Heinmann.
Unknown. 2010. The Scramble for Africa. Al Jazeera. Accessed Feb 1, 2011 <>
Winant, Howard. 2001. The World is a Ghetto: Race and Democracy Since World War II. New York: Basic Books. 

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