The dangerous myth of white male exceptionalism
Save the rhino?
In the mid-1980s in apartheid South Africa two social trends made a strange convergence.
On the one hand it was clear that, for all the bluster and violence of the apartheid regime, the future of the “white” state was uncertain, at best.
The other trend was the growing concern of many aware people that the environment was being seriously threatened by human greed and rapacity.
Fascinating symptoms of these two trends were, as so often happens, the bumper stickers that sprouted.
The first, and most popular, was the “Save the Rhino” bumper sticker. It was seen all over, wherever the trendy set gathered. It was prolific on the backs of fashionable 4X4s doing their best to destroy the environment. School children were encouraged to take up the cause of the rhino.
At around the same time another, rather more sinister, bumper sticker began to appear, usually on the back of the pickups that in South Africa are called “bakkies”.
This sticker said, “Never mind the rhino, what about the white ou?” Now the Afrikaans word “ou” (pronounced to rhyme with rhino) means roughly, “guy”.
The insecurity, the existential angst , revealed in the second bumper sticker, is understandable in the context. For more than 400 years the “white ou” had reigned pretty much as the “baas” (boss) of Southern Africa, the undisputed (except for a few mad missionaries who were stupid or uninformed enough to question this rule) head honcho of a predominantly rural society. Blacks were there only on sufferance, and allowed to do menial tasks in the service of the white man. This despite the fact that they were here first, but that tends to be another heated topic of discussion.
Blacks were fine if they kept to their places and did not disturb the quiet peace of the white man, or appear to threaten the hallowed purity of white women.
World War II and the ranting of one Adolf Hitler about the “Aryan race” and his subsequent murder of some 6 million Jews, along with millions of gypsies and gays, brought about a revulsion against racism on the part of civilised people all over the world. Prejudice came to be regarded no longer as “natural” but as an evil, something to be avoided and, if possible, overcome.
At the same time in South Africa a group of people, some of whom openly and proudly supported Hitler's racial madness, came to power in the whites only elections of 1948 and began to entrench in draconian legislation the prejudices and mad racial theories that had been prevalent in the country for the previous 400 years. This went directly against the post-war trend and began to attract the attention of the newly-formed United Nations Organisation just as it started its work.
Due to the efforts of many (including many whites) the racist apartheid regime was not allowed to pursue its racist ways in peace.
But the apartheid government loudly proclaimed its sovereignty and intention to carry on with its madness. It proclaimed that all those who opposed its policies were communists and weak-kneed socialists. It even managed to persuade some leaders of the very countries that had fought so valiantly against the Nazi menace, that South Africa was their best ally in Africa against the communist juggernaut. Leaders such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were taken in by the very sophisticated propaganda of the white supremacist state.
But by the mid- to late-1980s it was clear to anyone who cared to look that the days of white supremacy were coming to an end. And this caused many to fear the future. This was something that the apartheid proponents had said would never happen – the “white ou” would stay in a position of power over others forever, according to the propaganda.
And the “white ou” started to react with defensiveness and hate.
White exceptionalism in the 21st Century
The “white ou's” rage against the inevitability of change has taken on new ways in the new century. There are many websites devoted to showing that “apartheid was not that bad,” that blacks are incompetent, unintelligent and corrupt. That the “white ou” is threatened as never before by affirmative action, feminism and anything else that can be likened to the communism of the “good old days”.
This is the playing of a zero-sum game: any advance of any other “ethnic” group must be at the expense of the “white ou.” Any advance of women is a threat to the masculinity of the “white ou.”
Now suddenly the “white ou” is being blamed, totally unfairly, of course, for all sorts of social ills like the vast discrepancy between white and black wealth, the testosterone-fuelled wars that plague our nations. This in spite of all the wonderful things the “white ou” has done for society!
The argument goes that white men are being “emasculated” by feminism and “multiculturalism”, that somehow the achievements of white men are being ignored, that slavery, like apartheid, was “not that bad”.
The argument goes that everything, or almost everything, that represents progress in the modern world, was brought about by white men, and that therefore there is something special, exceptional, about being a white male.
So when a black man
dates a white woman, it is an attack on the masculinity of the white
male, a threat to the alleged purity of the race, some kind of conspiracy to destroy the white race, etc. When in fact
it is just two people being attracted to each other.(And somehow it's not that bad if a white man dates or marries a black woman?)
Happens every day.
So when a black man reaches a level of leadership in any sphere, especially the Presidency of the United States, it must be because he or she has a secret agenda to undermine the greatness of the white male. He or she must have cheated or lied to get to that position, because, of course, blacks don't have the intelligence to do it on merit.
And so it goes.
Why is this a problem?
White exceptionalism is a problem, as is any form of exceptionalism. It is firstly based on lies
That whites are in some way superior to other groups. There is no group, especially no ethnic group, which is in any way “better” than another group.
That Western Culture and the contributions of white males are somehow exceptional. People in all cultures and of all “races” have made contributions to society.
That "race" is a somehow defining characteristic of humans. The concept of “race” itself, which is the basis of this kind of exceptionalism, is a false concept with no basis in reality.
- That slavery and apartheid were "not that bad" - they were "that" bad, and worse. In fact whites cannot, except with a great effort of the imagination and will, even begin to know how bad they really were. The implication that these things were "not that bad" is an insult to the memories of those who suffered and died under them.
Secondly, exceptionalism promotes exclusivity and, because of its racist underpinnings, seeks to promote one race above another as a basis of society. This permanently disadvantages the “ethnic group” so excluded, a situation that can lead to violence and ultimately to the demise of the society.
Professor Malegapuru Makgoba of the University of kwaZulu-Natal has written (in the Mail and Guardian newspaper in 2005):
"Racism, a socially constructed phenomenon with no biological basis, is a complex system of symbols and meanings that continues to modify over time as a consequence of both societal structural changes and political struggles. A segment of white males continues to deny the collective body of African experiences and instead wants to monopolise and to dictate the definition and appropriate meaning to racism."
White male exceptionalism promotes the lie that the “white ou” is an endangered species. The fact is the “white ou” is a lot less endangered than the rhino. (I find it a rather delicious irony that it is the "black" rhino, Diceros bicornis, not the "white" one, Ceratotherium simum, which is more endangered!)
The fact is that change, including cultural change, is difficult and threatening. It can place those affected by it into a dependent position, which, for the once-supreme “white ou” is very difficult to handle. But it need not be so. We can grow up, we can accept others, we can let go of our privileged position and be part of a wonderful new world that I think is struggling to come into being. Perhaps I am seeing things through rose coloured spectacles, don't know.
What I do know is that continuing on the path of white male exceptionalism is a recipe for disaster, because it is a stance that will lead to the extinction of the white male – and perhaps, not a moment too soon, if that is the way white males insist on going. Because that kind of exceptionalism has led to too much death and destruction already – we don't need any more Hitlers, Stalins, Pol Pots. We don't need another Rwanda genocide, we don't need another 9/11, we don't need any more “ethnic cleansing”. And we certainly don't need a return to slavery or apartheid.
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2011
More by this Author
The world seems crazy and dangerous sometimes. How can a person respond creatively and positively in the face of change and the inevitability of death? Some thoughts about empathy and responsibility in the context of...
The link between sex and racism is explored, using the story of Sarah Baartman as a case study
- EDITOR'S CHOICE52
Empathy is an attitude and more than that, it is a skill that can be used to deepen all kinds of relationships - at work and at home.