Questions for white liberals

Over the last few weeks, once again, racist violence across the globe has been made visible across multiple dimensions of everyday life. Higher mortality rates of Black people because of the COVID-19 pandemic, caused by structural violence and racial capitalism that limits access to decent housing, adequate healthcare, access to nourishing nutrition, safe working conditions and all the ways in which settler-colonial states deny care for Black people within their borders. Violence against Black people by militarised police forces in the United States of America and South Africa, where I am based. The death of George Floyd in the United States has again resulted in a resurgence in public consciousness of the Black Lives Matter Movement. For those of us who cannot escape the way in which racism is enfolded in everyday life, we know this heightened awareness of race is episodic. Even as racism is not. Racism as structure continues to perpetuate inequality and violence against Black people.

In higher education in South Africa, a controversy rages once more about an academic’s work that reproduces racialising discourse. Online, across continents and demographics, within most of the groups on higher education that I belong to, questions about racism and intellectual labour are circulating. There are many recommendations of books and readings that are being shared by Black people in the hope that white colleagues, interlocutors and allies would educate themselves about racism.

When some of the protests in the United States resulted in the destruction and theft of property, Black people across social media were at pains to explain Black anger and pain. To restate, the pedagogy of race that Black scholars and intellectuals were engaging in, was primarily directed at white people. Every time there is a protest whether it is here, in South Africa or in the United States or in the United Kingdom or wherever inequality rages, it is usually the disenfranchised who explain themselves. We saw this during anti-apartheid protests, the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movement and again and again in the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

The perpetrators of racist violence, physical or intellectual, are rarely are called to account for themselves. Even as protests are intended as pleas to make them stop killing and maiming Black people. White allies rarely explain why particular racist actions might have occurred. White liberal intellectuals, in particular, frequently learn anti-racist discourse and mimic it back at us with very little trenchant thought given to their experiences of whiteness. Noting how much emotional and intellectual labour was taking place, explaining Black responses to racist violence, I posted the following questions on my Facebook timeline.

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