I Benefited From Apartheid


The Guardian’s subtitle captures the whole story: T-shirt by film-maker Roger Young polarises online commenters, with some praising gesture and others defending colonialism. [guard]

It seems pretty obvious – even though my ancestors came to the US after slavery and the civil war, they occupied land that had been cleared of its Lakota residents, and was given to them “for free.” I also benefited from a school system that was better, in the late 60’s/early 70’s than those that black kids had. And my parents had educational opportunities that those black kids’ parents generally never had, and better job opportunities, and thus they could save more money, buy a house, and use the equity in the house to finance their kids’ education and opportunity. Those are all simple facts; one might be able to point to a few exceptions but they’re exceptions; generally, being a white boy in the 70s in the US meant the world was your oyster.

Some of the comments on the original Tshirt inspired me to make my own, which I’ll wear in various places.

“I tell you who benefited from apartheid, it was blacks,” wrote Facebook user Margarita Barnard. “I wish blacks would give whites apartheid. And I will tell you why I say this. Whites came to a country where there was nothing, just some black tribes living in mud huts killing each other. No roads no infrastructure no South Africa even. Blacks were always dying from famines when there were droughts, from tsetse fly [sleeping sickness], from yellow fever, malaria, name it they died in droves.”

Rather obviously, not all white people took full advantage of the better educational opportunities that were available to them.

She probably doesn’t realize that one of the reasons why blacks were enslaved was because they were more resistant to malaria than were the white slavers and colonists – who were always dying from famines and dying in droves from malaria. When the colonists discovered that black slaves could work outside (in horrible conditions) and survive, that was what really kicked chattel slavery into overdrive in North America.

Monty Python lampooned her view in Life of Brian – basically, it’s the “what have to Romans done for us?” sketch, backwards.

Another objector, Francois DeWet, posted: “Get me a dictionary or something that shows me how black Africans could be taught in their own languages subjects like maths, science and biology. Simple, you cannot teach in a language that does not have the terminology to do so. We didn’t place restrictions on the development of their languages and simply had to find another way to give them a start in live. So, alternative mediums were introduced to accommodate the lack of terminology, and they went apeshit!!”

You can’t buy irony that concentrated in stores, anymore. I believe it’s used to synthesize methamphetamine, or something. The fellow is complaining about black Africans’ language skills? As an amateur writer, I’d offer anyone this advice: if you’re complaining about someone’s writing – don’t do it in writing; you are almost certain to summon a divine hubris-slap.

Alan Marsden wrote: “Is there a punchline to this joke? The fact that like all colonial powers we found a race entrenched in the iron age and lifted them out of it with technology, medicine and education does not count? … No, I don’t feel guilty. In fact I am well annoyed that what we built has gone to wrack and ruin in incapable hands (allegedly the fault of apartheid, even though most of Africa STILL live in the iron age, and apparently like it).”

You know what would really have made Alan Marsden complain? If, as soon as the colonial powers took their foot off of the African’s necks, they had suddenly turned around and triumphantly broken out technologically and surpassed Europe economically – like the Chinese are doing. That would really set him off, I bet. But, like the earlier commenter, he didn’t understand the long-term effects of colonialism: divide and conquer resulting in genocidal tribal wars, economic collapse when the powers pull out to fight their silly wars in Europe, leaving behind corrupt dictatorships. He probably doesn’t realize that a tremendous amount of the famine in Africa is a result of political instability knocking-on from the colonial system.

There were voices of sense:

“The comments have said the time for white guilt is over. I don’t think guilt is helpful but it’s really not what this is about. For me it’s an economic issue.”

Bingo.

Perhaps the way to ease white guilt would be for us to take our feet off the black people’s necks, stop allowing cops to shoot them, dismantle the corrupt and racist war on drugs, re-de-segregate schools, and re-establish the social safety nets that the current generation of white nationalists are so desperately trying to destroy.

This is what “I benefited from apartheid” means:

Comments

  1. komarov says

    Get me a dictionary or something that shows me how black Africans could be taught in their own languages subjects like maths, science and biology. Simple, you cannot teach in a language that does not have the terminology to do so.

    Is he really complaining that languages don’t always have words for concepts they have never had to deal with? (I suspect African languages were a lot more versatile than the quote makes it sound) And this after centuries of European scholars/philosophers either making names up or borrowing them from dead languages. I guess that means the ancient greeks and romans where the only sophisticated people ever, and everyone who came later was just a bunch of primitives. Actually, I’m worried some of these folks might agree with that. And then, in the same breath, they’d probably trace their own culture back there to re-affirm its greatness and superiority.

    “The fact that like all colonial powers we found a race entrenched in the iron age and lifted them out of it with technology, medicine and education does not count?

    So…

    … No, I don’t feel guilty. In fact I am well annoyed that what we built has gone to wrack and ruin in incapable hands (allegedly the fault of apartheid, even though most of Africa STILL live in the iron age, and apparently like it).”

    … the lessons didn’t take and therefore really do not count. That is the most favourable reading I can come up with and he’s still wrong. Besides, Europeans don’t seem qualified to be the great educators and civilisation builders anyway. Looking at history it’s almost as if they have no clue how to do it and just ambled along* into they lucked into something that worked. “Dark Ages” is the opposite of “Golden Age”, after all.

    *Having genocidal wars, dying in droves from disease and famine . It’s standard procedure on every continent.

  2. says

    I should have said something like “the time to apologize for racism is after you take your foot off your victim’s neck. We are still dealing with a lot of people who are doing everything they can to keep that foot there yet are saying ‘can’t we move on?'”

  3. jrkrideau says

    # 1 kmarov
    Is he really complaining that languages don’t always have words for concepts they have never had to deal with?

    Yes, I think so. It can happen with any language. As George W. Bush pointed out, the French do not have a word for “entrepreneur”.

  4. says

    I Benefited From Apartheid

    It would be more accurate to say “I keep on benefiting.”
    We keep on receiving inheritances (money, real estate) from our white parents. We buy cheap clothes manufactured in sweatshops. We eat cheap chocolate made from cocoa beans harvested by black children who earned very little money for their work.

  5. says

    Regarding languages.

    It can happen with any language. As George W. Bush pointed out, the French do not have a word for “entrepreneur”.

    Just like academic terms have been invented for European languages, they could be invented for any African language as well. In fact, new words are being constantly invented in every human language there is. The problem is that sometimes it takes time until a new word becomes widely known/used. For example, when writing about LGBTQ rights in Latvian, I had the problem that in Latvian there are no words for “queer”, “non-binary” or “genderfree”. And a German friend of mine once complained that German language has no word for “people of color”, which is why she used the English word when referring to herself. Of course all the missing words will be made up someday (when enough people realize that they need a word to express something, then some word gets made up), but it usually takes time and until then we are left to wonder how to express some things.

    And this after centuries of European scholars/philosophers either making names up or borrowing them from dead languages. I guess that means the ancient greeks and romans where the only sophisticated people ever, and everyone who came later was just a bunch of primitives.

    No, it’s not like Greeks or Romans had an advanced vocabulary or sophisticated language. It’s just that European scholars who came up with new terms liked using Greek or Latin words. For example, the word “cardiology” never existed in Ancient Greek. The word was coined in 19th century from Greek “kardiā” (meaning “heart”) and -logia (“study”). Ancient Greeks didn’t know anything about dinosaur fossils either even though “dinosaur” is derived from “deinos” (“terrible”) and “sauros” (“lizard”). And that’s another word from 19th century. As for Latin, since Vatican still uses the language, they have to constantly invent new words, they even published the “Lexicon recentis latinitatis”. And plenty of new Latin words are simply the same modern words we use daily with Latin endings stuck on them.

    “Get me a dictionary or something that shows me how black Africans could be taught in their own languages subjects like maths, science and biology. Simple, you cannot teach in a language that does not have the terminology to do so.”

    When a language lacks some terms, you just have to invent them.

    Saying that one language is superior to another is akin to saying that some human races are superior to others because they have, on average, bigger skulls. No linguist would say such bullshit nowadays, just like no modern scientist would support outdated eugenicist ideas. Over a century ago the idea that some human languages are better than others was really popular among linguists. Obviously each linguist believed that his own language was the best. It’s really amusing to read their books where they bash some languages. It’s amusing for me nowadays, but it was a real pain for their contemporaries. Back then all educated people really believed that some languages are inherently bad and that it is impossible to talk about science or write poetry in any of those “inferior” languages. In 1856 when Latvian poet Juris Alunāns translated a bunch of famous Latin, Greek, English, German, French poems in Latvian, his goal was to prove that it is actually possible to translate poetry in Latvian (thus further proving that it is also possible to write poetry in Latvian). Back then German speaking elites seriously believed that poetry in Latvian in inherently impossible (of course, for them Latvian folksongs didn’t count as “poetry”).

    Any human language can be used for talking about science, philosophy or whatever else. It’s not that hard to invent some new words. When it comes to poetry it gets a bit trickier. In some languages rhythm is determined by long and short syllables (like Ancient Greek), in other languages rhythm is determined by stresses or not stressed syllables (like English, German, Latvian). In some languages rhymes are easier to compose than in others. For all these reasons one language can be more or less suited for a specific type of poetry. For example, spondee, bacchius and antibacchius are inherently impossible in Latvian poetry, because you just cannot have two stressed syllables in a row. But again, those are differences; it is not possible to say that they render one language superior or inferior.

    It is possible to teach school kids in any language. The fact that every child is going to need a math textbook means that there will be plenty of demand for them, thus it is financially possible for publishers to write/translate textbooks (even for small languages). It only gets problematic once you have a small language and you get to university level education. Demand for books about narrow and very specific subjects is bound to be low, thus publishers aren’t going to translate them. If you sell only a few copies of a book, you cannot cover translation costs. It is impossible to get university education exclusively in Latvian for exactly this reason. This is also why in Latvia everybody knows at least two languages, and better educated people know at least three languages.

  6. says

    Ieva Skrebele@#5:
    It would be more accurate to say “I keep on benefiting.”

    Yes, but I wanted to reference the other guy’s controversial Tshirt, not start my own.

  7. says

    jrkrideau@#4:
    As George W. Bush pointed out, the French do not have a word for “entrepreneur”.

    I love that. It’s on the same order of “if English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me!”
    The French even have a word for Bush: “flâneur”

    (When I was a kid, I didn’t look up French words and tried to figure them out on my own. I interpreted that as a “person who likes to eat lots of flan.”)

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