A key concern for any project concerned with whiteness has to be that it might turn into representing, or contain residual elements of, a white-ist mentality, in yet one more time positioning white people as at the centre. The privilege of whiteness is not knowing that it is privileged nor even that it exists as anything other than the way things are. Whiteness has to be disaggregated and decentred because its ‘centre of the universe’ cosmology is a fiction all too often made painful ‘fact’. But at the same time, subjecting whiteness to analytical attention by examining how it becomes superordinate in different times and places and mixes of persons risks returning it to central position.

Critically examining whiteness should include the social practices whereby some, but not other, people are treated in ways that render them subordinate, ‘outsiders within’, by removing full humanity from them. It should include critical interrogation of within-group dynamics and complexities as well as its out-group behaviours and practices.  And it should include the representational practices that re-create the cosmology of whites at the centre and ‘Others’ everyone else. That is, white-ism can hopefully be kept at bay by focusing on the dynamics by which established and outsider groups, selves and others, inclusions and exclusions, and patterns of super- and subordination are configured and change over time.

The idea of ‘the racialising process’ has been the main way that the Whites Writing Whiteness project has conceived these dynamics, along with ideas about established and outsider groups and how their configurations change, taken from Elias. Rather than ‘applying’ preconceived theory, these ideas have been iteratively arrived at in the South African context by interrogating the remaining traces from the 1770s on in the shape of flows of letters and related writings, recognising the complexities involved as well as the overarching trajectory of an increased racialising process, and changing Elias’s ideas where needed. And this racialising process has not stopped in the new dispensation in South Africa post-1994 but rather increased, raising questions about the relationship between categorisation, regulation, racialisation and also genderisation, for categorising people in terms of race and gender (by which is usually meant sex) has become almost axiomatic to the conduct of social life.

These things have been taking shape in the South African context for a very long time. Here since the arrival of European stock there has always been a black majority and a small white minority – but where the power dynamics between these have reversed twice, from black rule to white supremacy, and from white supremacy to black majority governance.

Ashley Jardina’s White Identity Politics considers various of these matters in the contemporary USA. While recognising the existence of prejudice and degrees of hostility, it is particularly concerned with a white majority whose conduct is organised, less around out-group attitudes, much more around a growing sense of in-group identity and in particular an ingrained assumption of white privilege and reactions to perceived threats to it. The population demographics of the USA have massively changed in the period since World War II, and “Amidst these changes, many whites have described themselves as outnumbered, disadvantage, and even oppressed… for a number of whites, these monumental social and political trends… have signalled a challenge to the absoluteness of whites’ dominance. These threats, both real and perceived, have… brought to the fore, for many whites, a sense of commonality, attachment and solidarity with the racial group… As a result, this racial solidarity now plays a central role in the way many whites orient themselves to the political and social world” (3-4). And for her these in-attitudes and behaviours are not treated as synonymous with prejudice, but as a strong identification with their own group, its privilege, and the perceived need for this to be defended by whites acting together around a sense of in-group solidarity. Rather than prejudice, resentment and animus towards black people, then, Jardina’s approach is concerned with the racial identity of whites, with white racial solidarity in defence of resources and privilege having become a now significant social and political force in contemporary American society.

How does this shape up compared with South Africa? An important point in considering this has already been mentioned, that here whites have always been a small minority, a very small minority at the beginning of the white presence, then a slightly larger one, and now a very small minority again. What then comes more sharply into sight is that within-group sentiments and relational practices have always been important as a means of extending or confirming or guaranteeing the continuation of the taken for granted perception of supremacy and the experience of privilege in all aspects of life. This is not to say that open hostility or violence or terror have not been present in the South African context, for they most certainly have. But it is to recognise that more ordinarily relationships across colour lines (WEB Du Bois’s term) have been conducted in a way that embodies (literally) and maintains racial privilege while at the same time confirming superordinate and subordinate statuses as somehow natural and part of the order of things.

However, has this changed in the post-1994 context, what changes might there have been over the last two decades? It’s interesting here to contemplate comments by the late Neville Alexander about the increase of black-on-black Othering, established and outsider groups and patterns of super- and subordination, in relation to migrant groups and ideas held by some people about ‘real South Africans’ whose legitimate claim on scarce resources is being damaged. Yes there is terror, yes there is violence, towards whatever variety of migrant groups are visible in particular areas; but more prevalent is an ordinary ingrained within-group identity and solidarity. And the same processes and patterns can be observed in the white population too. For some and perhaps a majority, an early euphoria about the peacefulness of political change has given way to small festering resentments that there are changes to a way of life still not really seen in terms of privilege, but as being less than it was before, and a renewed sense of being beleaguered.

Neville Alexander (2013) Thoughts on the New South Africa. Cape Town: Jacana.
Ashley Jardina (2019) White Identity Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Last updated: 18 October 2019