Can We Unlearn Racism?
What South Africa Teaches Us About Whiteness
Jacob R. Boersema



White without Whiteness

“NO ONE IS BORN hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”1 In the summer of 2017, former president Barack Obama responded to the racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, with a series of tweets quoting former South African president Nelson Mandela. Obama’s tweets became some of the most “liked” tweets of all time.2 At a time of crisis in the United States, when White supremacists marched through the streets of the American South, the former president turned to South Africa for the promise of change.3

Mandela believed that racism was something you could unlearn. In the final paragraphs of his autobiography, he writes, “The oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed.”4 He defines the racist—“a man who takes away another man’s freedom”—as “a prisoner of hatred; he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness.” When he became president, Mandela saw it as his mission to liberate both the oppressed and the oppressor. This work was not finished, he concluded. “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.”

During my fieldwork in South Africa, White South Africans repeatedly referenced the idea that racism was something you could unlearn. When I visited a school in Cape Town, a young, White Afrikaans-speaking girl told me that people always asked her if she had “transformed” yet. A boy in her class told me that as a White South African, you are always seen as a racist, but that he said, “Wake up, smell the coffee! The old South Africa: that was racism—the Verwoerd years, apartheid. In the new South Africa, if you are not going to change, you will not survive.” Older White people also told me about unlearning racism. I spoke with a middle-aged White man who worked at Eskom, the South African electricity company. He assured me that he was no longer a racist. “I have learned my lesson.” It seemed then that White South Africans believed they could change and unlearn racism.

The longer I listened to the stories of White South Africans, the more the idea captivated me: Can we unlearn racism? If so, how does it work? And where is it happening? To answer these questions, I tell two stories in this book.

The first story is about unlearning racism as a social and cultural process happening in present-day South Africa. I wrote this book because, while many people believe we can unlearn racism, few have asked how it actually works. As a sociologist, I was inspired by autobiographical accounts of individuals gaining insights into their own racism as well as sociological studies about racism as an ideology, but I wanted to bridge the gap between these genres. Our individual challenges to unlearning racism are deeply shaped by economic and social forces; thus, our individual ability to unlearn racism differs from person to person, organization to organization, and setting to setting. Additionally, White South Africans need to forge a new cultural narrative about who they are and who they are not. This chapter opens with an exploration of the way South Africans imagined unlearning racism as a collective challenge, a uniquely South African idea they saw neither limited to “coming to terms with the past” nor solved by embracing the ideal of nonracialism. Rather, White South Africans saw unlearning racism as a goal of reconfiguring Whiteness away from an ideology of White superiority and privilege and toward something else: to be White without Whiteness.

Whiteness presents us with an alternative way to think about racism and the challenge to unlearn it. The second story I tell in this book starts in the second half of this chapter with an analysis of the social logic of unlearning racism by redefining Whiteness. However, I found that Whiteness is no substitute for racism as a concept, because racism has always had an anti-Black and pro-White component; Whiteness only reveals one half of racism. I consider the way Afrikaner nationalism historically created Whiteness and examine how Whiteness develops beyond White nationalism today.

In the midst of this story, it’s important to ask: Why has academia hardly explored unlearning racism? American academics historically have been skeptical of the idea of unlearning racism, and their skepticism has been confirmed by the recent rise of White nationalism in the United States. On the contrary, South African scholars were perhaps too optimistic, skipping over unlearning racism to unlearning race completely. The exception has been Whiteness scholars, who hoped that by making Whiteness visible—the historical construction of it and the way it continues to confer privilege on people who identify as White—White South Africans would do away with it.

However, I demonstrate that racists often reinvent racism by misappropriating antiracist strategies. And indeed, South Africa’s White minority now uses a new racism that I call White identity politics. White identity politics is the process of adopting the language of marginalized communities originally intended to promote multiculturalism and minority rights, and then reimagining identity politics and group rights for the benefit of White people. These campaigns seek to normalize White South Africans as “just another group” among the many minorities in South Africa to mask their privileges. This conclusion to the second story allows us to see the future of Whiteness beyond White nationalism and to confront the question of how to truly unlearn racism now that Whiteness is being normalized.

South Africa teaches us that Whiteness is a flexible and durable ideology that is not easily undone by exposing its workings. The country demonstrates the limits of the antiracist strategy built on the idea that making Whiteness visible—marking it—leads to abolishing it. One reason for this is because Whiteness has always been entangled with how White people think and feel about their nation, ethnicity, culture, language, and most important, themselves. Thus, White people normalize it rather than disentangling it. Abolishing Whiteness cannot happen before White people disentangle their Whiteness from these other constructs and ideas about themselves. Does the rise of a new racism in South Africa mean that White South Africans are not unlearning racism, or even that we cannot unlearn racism? Such a conclusion would be too rash. My aim by interweaving the two stories in this book is to do justice to White South Africans’ individual efforts to unlearn racism while not losing sight of the bigger sociological picture of how racial hierarchies are being reproduced. Perhaps my focus on the social logic teaches us more about why people cannot unlearn racism rather than about how they can. While this message may be frustrating, it must be counted as progress too.


1. Barack Obama, Twitter, August 12, 2017, 8:06 p.m., BarackObama/status/896523232098078720.

2. It attracted more than 3.3 million likes and 1.3 million retweets.

3. It wasn’t the first time that Obama had turned to South Africa as an alternate model of race relations. At Mandela’s memorial in 2013, Obama drew a parallel between the United States and Mandela’s country and argued, “South Africa shows us we can change.” Five years later, at a lecture that marked Mandela’s one hundredth birthday, Obama said that the movement he had led had come to signify something beyond South Africa: “the possibility of a moral transformation in the conduct of human affairs.” See Barack Obama, “Speech at Nelson Mandela’s memorial” (speech, Johannesburg [SA], December 10, 2013), CNN, politics/mandela-obama-remarks/index.html; and also Barack Obama, “The Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture” (speech, Johannesburg [SA], July 17, 2018), National Public Radio, 2018/07/17/629862434/transcript-obamas-speech-at-the-2018-nelson-mandela-annual-lecture.

4. Mandela 1995, 512.