White people ‘must address their racism’ – author

White Afrikaans women were part of the oppressors and were also oppressed by men, but some ‘are trying to contribute to the country’s democracy’.

Author Professor Christi van der Westhuizen says white women in democratic South Africa are comfortable and in a position of white privilege.

“Also in the democratic era we see white people being even more comfortable than before, white wealth has increased,” Van der Westhuizen said in an interview with the SABC.

The professor, who is also a former journalist, was speaking about her book titled Sitting Pretty, which she said is about this subject and also about “the disciplines that women have to abide by in terms of how they carry themselves and how they present themselves, so literally women have to sit pretty”.

She added femininity and heterosexuality dictate that in order for women to be acknowledged, they have to carry themselves in a specific manner.

Van der Westhuizen said in the past white Afrikaans women were part of the oppressive race and were in turn oppressed because of their gender.

“There is a promise of freedom that comes with our constitutional democracy, so the question is, have these women actually embraced this promise of freedom? I think that the good news in my book is that it is quite a mixed picture. Even while some women may remain trapped in some of the ideas of apartheid, around racism and sexism, and so forth, other Afrikaner women are really challenging those ideas, and they are trying to do things differently, therefore, they are trying to contribute to our democracy in a positive way,” she said.

She said what needed to be examined now and was a challenge for all South Africans was whether they could unlearn the norms of racial, gender and sexual identities that were shaped by apartheid.

“When we say differently it starts in the family, the family is a social institution, it starts in the family challenging those ideas around gender and race and sexuality that we find in the family,” she said.

Van der Westhuizen said the book also drew on personal experiences and the years she was grew up during the 1980s on Johannesburg’s East Rand.

“It actually brought to me the horrors of apartheid and what it means, and it’s partly out of that position I’m today, as a white Afrikaans woman, that I’m trying to make sense of what are we as white people, and in particular white women, what can we do to advance our democracy and make this country a better place,” she said.

She said through her work she wants to combat racism and heteropatriarchy.

The professor said the frequent occurrence of incidents of racism in recent years concerned her and that racial polarisation had worsened in South Africa, with old habits fuelled by racism resurfacing.

“Particularly as white people, we have to challenge ourselves about our racism and we have to see how we can do things differently and it starts in those relationships with people, whether its in the family, whether its the workplace, whether its at the church, at school and so on,” she said.

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