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


Contents and Abstracts
1 White without Whiteness
chapter abstract

Unlearning racism is a South African idea. Chapter 1 outlines how the risks, possibilities, and limits of this idea will be analyzed. Instead of viewing unlearning racism as an individual challenge, it is defined as a social process which it is essential to analyze in terms of Whiteness. More than a racial identity, Whiteness is an ideology that has historically given White people a stake in racism. Scholars have focused too much on unlearning race and too little on unlearning racism. South Africa allows us to analyze the future of Whiteness beyond White nationalism; its history shows how Whiteness has been made and remade. After apartheid, White South Africans started to use White identity politics to defend their outsized racial interests, claiming to be a normal group—similar to everyone else—in order to deflect obligations to confront their continuing privilege and dominance.

2 Coming to Terms with Whiteness
chapter abstract

Chapter 2 begins with the Truth and Reconciliation Committee and a discussion of its mixed record addressing racism, including the return of race as a topic of intense public debate in South Africa at the turn of the twenty-first century. The notions of public and "counterpublic" spheres are introduced to explain how racism and Whiteness are debated differently in South Africa's public sphere and the Afrikaans-speaking media: in the public sphere, the ANC government stigmatizes the White minority for its racism, who in response discount its persistent relevance; in the counterpublic sphere, the end of White nationalism has made White men in particular visible, which they manage by presenting an injured White masculinity. Rather than coming to terms with Whiteness, White men decry their visibility and argue over who is to be held accountable for the past and their current predicament.

3 Elites and White Identity Politics
chapter abstract

South Africa's political transition to democracy never resulted in a transition to economic redistribution and racial equality. Chapter 3 shows how the White business elite, through public repentance and cooperation with a small Black and Coloured elite, reclaimed legitimacy and protected their privileges after apartheid, even in the face of President Mbeki's Black Economic Empowerment policies. Highlighting the role of culture and race in the sociology of elites, I point to the White elite's revisionist storytelling about the past as an essential tool for bringing together the interests of White and Black elites and Whitewashing their White supremacist history. The White elite may have unlearned the racism of the past and portray themselves as the multicultural elite of the future, but they have consolidated their White interests.

4 Populism and White Minoritization
chapter abstract

Unlearning racism must be reimagined in a context where White populists use the language of multiculturalism and minority rights to practice White identity politics. Chapter 4 analyzes the politics of the Solidarity Movement, who represent the White working class and practice White populism. I identify "White minoritization" as a new political strategy for masking White racial interests by refashioning the White population as a minority that is vulnerable, threatened, and entitled to protection. White minoritization reconfigures racism from its explicit expression in White nationalism to its defensive formulation in White identity politics.

5 White Embodiment and the Working Class
chapter abstract

Emotions deeply shape the process of unlearning racism. Chapter 5 analyzes why White working class men use such dramatic terms to talk about their feelings and place in society. White nationalism promoted ideals about what it meant to be a real White man that were hard to achieve for White working-class men. But racial integration after apartheid has made this group a White minority at work, where they are forced to unlearn racism. This is a challenge because Whiteness is embodied. White working-class men carry their experiences with them, which make unlearning painful and difficult; to them, Whiteness has become a liability. No longer being able to live up to White masculine ideals, they are also unable to let Whiteness go. White identity politics resonates because it speaks to the tough position they feel themselves in.

6 Whiteness at Home
chapter abstract

Unlearning racism is different at home than it is at work. Chapter 6 compares South Africa's White upper-class and lower-middle-class experiences of Whiteness at home. The South African city has changed after apartheid: White elites in gated communities use a new aesthetic politics to anchor their Whiteness. Implausibly, they imagine their community to represent the best of the apartheid past, for its safety and homeliness, and the multicultural future of South Africa, for its diversity and order, at the same time. The White lower-middle class, who live in traditional neighborhoods, see the South African city as a Black city but continue to define their home as a place of freedom and self-expression. Home to them offers relief from the emotional stress of having to unlearn racism at work.

7 Unlearning Racism at School
chapter abstract

South Africa's White youth do not magically unlearn racism because they are a new generation, but neither do they blindly reproduce what they learn from teachers and parents. Chapter 7 compares White students at two schools—one with a White upper-class student body and another with a lower-middle-class student body—to examine the socialization of racism. Unlearning racism involves much more than raising awareness about racial inequality and White privilege, and White identity change is a necessary but not sufficient condition for unlearning racism.

8 Learning from South Africa
chapter abstract

South Africa has always been a bellwether for race relationships in the world. Chapter 8 goes beyond this country in order to make sense of what White identity politics might mean for unlearning racism in other countries. Raising the question as to whether we can unlearn racism has exposed why it is so difficult in the first place: racism continues to take different forms. It reinvents itself by co-opting and misappropriating antiracist strategies. The global triumph of identity politics has made Whiteness visible in liberal democracies, but it has also made White identity politics possible. As the new racism, it has become the successor of color-blind racism in the United States and Europe. The choice to confront Whiteness has long been framed as somewhere between the abolishing of Whiteness and the reforming of White identity, but in the face of White identity politics, neither provides an easy solution.