‘White Privilege’ is not up to the task

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Common as Muck

When Granddad Jack died I inherited two pairs of socks. A pair of woolly green hiking socks and a pair of long beige socks that he had bought when he had come to visit us in South Africa. The latter were part of the standard dress of the Boers – the Afrikaner farmers – usually twinned with khaki shorts, a khaki shirt and a comb tucked beside the knee. Granddad Jack had no need for a comb though. He had been bald since he was 21. When Granddad Smith died five years later, my mother reached into his cupboard and handed me his tweed flat cap – the typical accoutrement of a Yorkshire man – and a blue woolly jumper with the price tag still on. This was the sum of my inheritance.

“We’re common we are,” Granddad Jack once told me, as we sat across from each other in a pub in Bridlington, a seaside town in the north of England, eating fish and chips.

At the table next to us sat a working class family: mum, dad and two kids, dad’s arms thick with tattoos.

“We’re just like them, we are,” he said, tapping his fingers on the table. “There’s nowt wrong wi’ being common.”

It was an unsolicited thought. By then Granddad Jack had dementia and you never knew what would come out of this mouth. More often his stories were repeats, usually replayed within minutes of the last telling, but this he said to me only once and I remember it because it didn’t sit well.

The uncomfortable truth was that, unlike Jack, I had grown up in South Africa where, by virtue of my skin colour, I had been catapulted to the front of the queue. My dad worked in a beer bottle factory, my mum in a timber shop, and if I had grown up in England my thick northern accent and our working class status would have fixed me firmly in the lower rungs. But in 1980s South Africa, my skin trumped their jobs, and my white-girl accent and suburban life were a supposed zenith that everyone was marching towards. So when Jack said I was common I squirmed in my seat because it was both true and not true, and because I had begun to espouse politics that wanted it to be true for no one, while still hoping that I was a little bit special.

On the day Jack and I ate fish and chips I was on my way to Scotland to move in with a wrangly ex-foreign correspondent whom I had met through my work as a journalist, and whom I lusted after not just for his high cheekbones and pouty lips, but because he had been among the first reporters to interview Nelson Mandela after he left Robben Island. On that day in 1990 when the foreign press corps had given Mandela a standing ovation, I was at high school, close to a gold mine dump, in the east of Johannesburg, ignorant of the political wheels that had been gaining momentum and were about to turn the country of my childhood on its head. The stories my roving reporter told me later in the north of the world began to plug my teenage ignorance and make me realise how cut off I was, past and present, from the country I called home.

After a few years in Scotland, during which my ignorance blistered into a sense of personal shame, I became wracked with yearning for a country that was no longer there. The Welsh have a word that describes a melancholic longing for a place that never was, or that no longer exists. Hiraeth, they say. The Portuguese call it saudade. What was it that I was feeling? Nostalgia? A craving for a racist past?

Then fate intervened. In 2010, supported by Time magazine, I was awarded a journalism fellowship from the philanthropic Open Society Foundation to return South Africa and write about what democracy had brought to the rural Xhosa tribal lands where Mandela had grown up. I harboured a hope that it would patch the holes in my head and heart, but as the day for my departure grew nearer, a deep gurning in my belly that wouldn’t go away, no matter how much I tried to reason with it, forced me to confront that there was something else lurking, something darker and more shadowy – something that I had never wanted to admit to myself.

White liberal media would have us believe the world is divided into nasty racists and the never-been-racist. And unless one is a signed-up member of the KKK, most of us pat ourselves on the back and feel smug that the racist is somebody else, definitely not us. The truth is less simple.

I had not been taught to hate black men, but by the way our society was structured, I was taught to fear them. Black men were not permitted in the house. Black men must drink from separate cups. Black men could not ride inside the car. And although I had gone to a mixed race university during Mandela’s presidency, lived with black and Indian friends and was sure that I had shrugged off the mantle of social conditioning, the increase in violent crime in the post-apartheid era – more often, though not always, committed by black men – had hardened that fear, and my so-called liberal consciousness had pushed it underground.

The three-month reporter’s journey that began in Mandela’s homeland of the old Transkei became a five-year journey into the darkness in my own heart, into contemplation of the nature of racism, and why it has such a powerful hold over us, even when we wish it didn’t. I came to see that my ignorance was a product of fear, and my fear was a product of racial prejudice, and I came to understand how prejudice can have little to do with hate, and a lot to do with protectionism and the myth of white supremacy, and how that myth had cast a spell over me.

It is not easy to write about a Damascene conversion. It seems it is even harder to read about it. I documented this journey in a book, Lost Where We Belong: Trying to Escape Apartheid’s Shadows, which although has the backing of a respected London literary agent, has been turned down for publication by major publishing houses because, as one editor put it: “The book has a moral weight to it that is inescapable and very affecting…[though]… the very honest truth is that I think it would simply be very hard to persuade a large enough audience to engage with it, even though I’m sure that those who did so would find it very powerful.”

It might not be en vogue to be a racist, but nor is it profitable, fashionable or palatable to publicly undo these knots in your white self.

Which is where this story really begins.

The Wozobona Cultural Centre is on Phiela Street in Orlando East in Soweto. The main building is a takeaway shop that sells snacks and cold drinks. Out back is a shaded eating area and a pretend bedroom where tourists on a township tour can poke their head into a “real” township bedroom, without actually having to go into anyone’s real bedroom. It is owned by Mr and Mrs Dlamini, parents of Busi, an articulate feminist and racial justice activist who, having grown up in apartheid South Africa, not only has first-hand experience of racism, but has the enviable ability to lob phrases like “internalised oppression” and “cultural appropriation” at people’s heads and make them understand what they mean and why they are worth thinking about.

I had met Busi through Keke Motseke and Anisha Panchia, two women who had started a pop-up dialogue café called Consciousness Café. After my five years of solo soul searching, I too had had the idea of setting up an “apartheid café” in which South Africans could come together to heal emotional scars, and Keke and Anisha – black and Indian respectively – had welcomed me as the white face of the Consciousness Café.

We began collaborating in 2015 when dark clouds were visibly gathering over the Rainbow Nation. For the first 21 years of our democracy we had attempted to do as Tata Mandela instructed: forgive, smile, dance. We collectively pretended that we had not been scarred by the shadows of apartheid. We boasted and lamented that the Born Frees – those born after 1994 – were not even interested in politics. And then, in March 2015, just over a year after Mandela’s death, the youth woke up. With the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall student protests – protests that demanded the removal of colonial icons and that the government come good on its promise of free tertiary education – a new era was ushered in. It was like when a family patriarch dies and the quarrelling over inheritance can begin and the dark secrets finally come out.

In the case of South Africa, the family inheritance was land. Land that the 1913 Land Act had forbidden black people from owning, land that was taken during the urban Forced Removals that took place in the Fifties and Sixties, land that had been won in wars and bartered in shady deals with tribal chiefs. The black middle class may now outnumber the white, but for the majority of black South Africans – at least in economic terms – little has changed. Half of black households earn an average of R35,000 per annum (£2000), skilled mine workers are still underpaid relative to the value of the commodities they are extracting from the earth, and university education is still a high-price tag that most black families can ill afford. In the eyes of the students, the black majority government has not done enough to end the structural racism that favours foreign capital and continues to make second-class citizens of black South Africans.

The dark family secret, thus, was anger. A fury was brewing in the belly of the country. A rage that the Rainbow Nation had not permitted to be expressed.

Busi and I had spent the entire journey to Soweto from the leafy suburbs – where Busi and I were both living – arguing about whether dressing up in Bollywood costume for a fancy dress party was, or was not, cultural appropriation.

Busi argued that for a white person to dress in a sari was to unfairly appropriate a culture that does not belong to you. I argued that since Bollywood is a cultural export and one of the biggest moneymaking industries in the world, it is for sale, and for a fan of this film genre to dress up in a sari and celebrate the craziness of Bollywood, is cultural appreciation, not appropriation.

Eventually Busi conceded, though she would not budge with Johnny Clegg, the white South African singer-songwriter who speaks fluent Zulu and has made all his music (and money) collaborating with black musicians.

According to Busi, Clegg’s unforgiveable mistake was the way he centred himself in the band.

“But he was the lead singer,” I argued. “It’s the nature of the frontman to be centred.”

Busi wasn’t having it. Clegg had done what the white man always does; steal your thing, make it their own, take it out into the world, and make themselves rich and famous.

I conceded that I understood where she was coming from, though I thought Clegg had also done something else that Busi did not value – he had built a bridge to black culture at a time when all the other bridges were burning and we were banned from engaging with each other at all. During the claustrophobic all-whiteness of 1980s South Africa, Clegg had been one of the few doorways into a multicultural, colourful Africa that had intrigued me from a distance. Clegg showed us we could be more than good little racists and that our country could be different to the one that stifled us with fear and prejudice.

It was Busi’s idea to hold a Consciousness Café in Soweto. Much of the public discourse around the post-apartheid, still-apartheid South Africa had been taking place in the liberal media and at the universities. Busi wanted to take that conversation to the township where she grew up, hoping to attract a less middle-class crowd to the discussion. She agreed to co-facilitate with Keke, while Anisha and I would be participants. As the room filled up, we soon realised that aside from the Rasta man, the rest of those gathered – four whites, one Indian, one mixed-race American and fourteen black faces – were firmly middle-class. There was even a Zulu princess.

Every Consciousness Café begins with the participants suggesting and voting on a topic. That afternoon the chosen topic was: “Why is there no space for black anger?”

The family secret.

To kick off a dialogue, participants are asked to flip the topic on its head and dream of a world where that topic isn’t a problem. The group were asked to imagine a South African where that anger wasn’t necessary.

People became immediately angry.

“Why am I not allowed to be angry about what white people did to my parents? Why must I forgive and forget when no one has even apologised?”

“I’m sick of my history being framed by the white man’s story,” said a historian. “Our history is framed by the wars of the white man. His attempt to conquer our country and how we lost. We need to reclaim the stories of the past outside of the white man’s memory, so we can reclaim our dignity.”

A young black woman who works for a German company operating in South Africa was soon close to tears.

“I will never make it to management in that company because they only employ German managers, and when I think that my grandmother had to wash white women’s panties and I still can’t make it to the top in my own country, it makes me want to burn it down. If I can’t have it, then why should someone else?”

The dialogue had begun.

Fifteen minutes in, I asked if I could say something. Busi nodded.

“Isn’t it that it’s difficult to find a space to channel black anger because the anger is towards a system that no longer “officially” exists? Usually when we express anger we express it towards someone who has treated us unfairly. But in this post-apartheid society, black people are no longer officially excluded, so how do you direct the anger? You can possibly direct it at a racist boss, but that’s probably not wise for your career, and because your boss is the system, he probably won’t hear it, so the anger has no place to go.”

And to explain what I meant, I tried to give my own example of how I had noticed how difficult it is to express frustration to someone who doesn’t want to hear it.

Ever since the student protests, a new narrative of “white privilege” had emerged. Black intellectuals had been writing articles in the liberal press and on Facebook forums demanding that white people “own their privilege”.

It was a new definition of privilege that included ‘not being automatically thought of as a thief/corrupt when you drive a luxury car’ and ‘not being paid less based on the colour of your skin’.

Prior to this, my definition of privilege had been private schools, yachts, overseas holidays, horse riding lessons and weekly trips to buy new clothes, none of which I – or many others – had experienced during our apartheid childhoods.

The white population of South Africa is a mishmash of religious and economic migrants, including Huguenots who fled Catholic ire, Jews who fled pogroms, Brits who fled the implosion of heavy industry in the north (my family), Lebanese and Cypriots who fled war, Czechs who fled the collapse of the Soviet Union and Portuguese who had fled the poorest country in Europe.

Over the past months I had noticed that whenever a white person tries to explain this through their lens, they get shot down. I wanted to make the point that we live in a country of multiple, complex truths that struggle to be heard, but my point drowned in a sea of anger. Around the room, eyes narrowed.

“How dare you talk about not being privileged!” a young black woman exclaimed. “You know nothing about what it was like growing up black! Your father might not have had money at the end of the week, but if he had gone into the bank, the manager would have given him a loan because he was white and considered good for it. But my black father could never get a loan, because he was black. And you might have been the first person in your family to go to university, and your dad might not have been easily able to afford it, but when he worked 16 hours a day to pay for it, it was because he had a job that paid enough to do that and when he was too tired to work those long shifts anymore and he remortgaged your house to pay for the rest, it’s because you had a house that could be remortgaged, while my father was not allowed to own a house or land.”

She was right. There was no way I could understand the indignity of growing up black in a country that skewed everything away from your favour. But from where I was standing, what she was talking about was oppression, not privilege. And if the intention of this new narrative was to get white South Africans to face up to the injustices of this land, then the word ‘privilege’ wasn’t up to the task. It was like being ordered to ‘count your blessings’. Okay, so now what?

But although I may have thought the word ‘oppression’ was the better descriptor, to be oppressed positions you as the victim and these middle-class black South Africans were done with being victims. They were taking back power and doing it the way humans do best: to deny the truth of someone else’s story. Edified and emboldened by the writings of Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko, the black voice had awoken and a new battle was beginning: the battle for the narrative.

Across the room, the historian crossed his legs, leaned forward, and jabbed his finger in the direction of my face.

“You’ve got some work to do,” he said.

My own eyes narrowed and I could hear my heart pumping in my ears.

There was only one other person who stuck his finger in my face and told me that my thoughts were not permitted: my oft drunk, fury-fuelled father.

The personal triggered the political and a deep rage boiled over.

I leant forward and jabbed my own finger into the space.

“How dare you presume from my skin colour that I haven’t been doing my work?” I sneered through gritted teeth. “That I haven’t been trying to undo the apartheid shit in me? You know nothing about me. Nothing.”

Busi interjected.

“Isn’t it interesting how when the black person shows anger, the white person starts to fear?” she said.

My anger went from simmer to nuclear.

Busi was supposed to be the facilitator, which meant she was supposed to be neutral. It was entirely legitimate for her to name a feeling she noticed in me, but it was her job to check that really was how I was feeling, and not label my feelings for me. She had also been triggered and was now turning on me.

“Afraid? No, no no,” I stammered. “I am not afraid. I am angry. I’m angry that you can’t hear me. You say you hate racism because it treated all black people the same, but you are doing exactly the same thing. You refuse to acknowledge the complexity of the white experience. All you see is my skin and it makes you deaf to my words.”

“I’m sorry,” said the historian.

I glanced at him and nodded an acceptance of his apology.

“I’m sorry I ever expected a white person to be any different,” he continued. “I am sorry I came here. I am sorry I put myself in the way of yet another conversation where a white person doesn’t get it and makes it all about themselves.”

I felt the blood drain out of my body.

My fury was gone, and in its place was hatred. Hatred of this moment. Hatred of being pinned to the wall. Hatred of not being heard because I am white. Hatred of this whole fucked-up, intractable country.

Over the years of trying to untangle the apartheid mess in me, again and again I had faced the most frustrating truth of all: our identities are not our own. Apartheid was like an old fashioned folk dance, everybody had a part, everybody knew their steps, and although new music was playing, few knew how to dance any other way. As a white person this means you were constantly cast in one of two roles:

  1. The powerful, capable white knight who is unrealistically expected to change the life of the person in your path. The white supremacy myth.
  2. The one who is hated, rejected and mistrusted with a glance. Guilty before proven innocent. The same way the racist white treats black.

Try to protest the first role and you were dismissed as mean, try to protest the second and you were derided with a new phrase: “white tears”.

Recently at Joburg airport, I had overheard a young white woman crying because someone told her she couldn’t call herself South African.

“I was born here. No one has the right to tell me what I can call myself,” she sobbed.

But in the face of continued land dispossession, black South Africans were taking back the one thing they owned outright: an African identity.

And mocking the tears.

Apartheid had dehumanised black people and denied them of their identity, and revenge was turning out to be the same dish, served cold, 21 years later.

Outside on the streets of Soweto, it was growing dark and every muscle in my body was urging me to stand up, walk through the door, stride out into the street and not look back. I wanted to be away from them, from their judgements, from their labelling, from this prison. Being white in South Africa was not a life, it was a life sentence.

Just like being black.

At last we were equals.

I sat in silence as the dialogue continued.

There was anger at apartheid’s land policy that had turned black men into migrant workers, disconnecting people from their fathers, families and selves.

“I never knew my father. I don’t even know who I am.”

There was surprise from the Zulu princess who could trace her lineage back into the history of the Nguni migrations and who admitted that only now was she beginning to understand the alienation that plagued other black South Africans.

And then, finally, as the darkness was solidifying outside, a quiet voice steered the conversation back to my outburst. Gigi is a mixed-race American: Amish mother, Puerto Rican father, who had grown up in a black neighbourhood in Los Angeles and married a Zulu. She is oft heard saying, “I ain’t never been white a day in my life ’til I came to live in South Africa.”

Gigi’s experience of becoming white overnight has given her an insight into the burden of the white skin, without the emotional connection.

“Girl, it’s hard, but you need to accept that for some people, you will always represent whiteness, and there is nothing you can do about it. You have to learn to separate the truth inside you, from the truth that is inside other people. When they throw anger at you, you need to learn that it’s not about you, but about the history your body represents. Try to take yourself out of it and see the oppression that they are angry with is the same oppression that you are angry with. And no one can run away from it. Not you. Not them.”

Her words were soothing, the wisdom of a mediator who can sit in the space between conflicting pain, but they also seemed to demand the impossible. How would I ever grow big enough shoulders to be able to carry the burden of whiteness without being crushed by it? It felt like a final task for the white supremacy myth: Think you’re special? Then deal with this. The problem was, as Grandad Jack knew all too well: “We’re common we are and there’s nowt wrong wi’ that.”

Unless you’re a white in South Africa.

This essay was longlisted for the Notting Hill Editions 2017 Essay Prize.

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

 

What I write about when I am not writing

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I am nursing a wound. You can’t see it, but I can feel it. It’s on the lower right hand side of my heart. Sometimes it spreads to my solar plexus and it hurts to the touch. Sometimes it sinks lower and makes my belly ache and churn. Today it is a cold whisper, as if my heart has caught a chill.

I prefer not to write from this place. To write from here is like giving oxygen to embers allowing them burn me up all over again. But I also know that to ignore this place entirely is fuel of another kind. Ignore it long enough and it’s as if someone has tossed paraffin on the embers while everyone was out. The house burns down.

I know the content of the pain. And I understand that one of the reasons I can’t write about it is because of that content. Beneath the ache and the chill is hurt and anger towards those in South African society who, on some days, not all, have treated me with a mixture of haughty righteousness, lack of consideration and rudeness. The hurt and anger are linked to how I can never seem to find the right words to stand up for myself because there is some unspoken rule that because I am white and these people are black, that I am being given a taste of how black people are treated all the time, and that this treatment is part of my learning/punishment.

I am finding it difficult to find the line between what is fair and what is not, what is playful mocking and what is meanness, what is a lesson I need to learn and what is punishment for my behaviour or that of some other person with a white skin, and so I have pressed pause for a while on trying to fathom things out through words and have turned to my other ways of working things out: silence and craft.

Silence is an old friend of mine. Growing up in a house full of anger, silence was where I went to be safe. Speaking was dangerous, it was so easy to say the wrong thing and to become a victim of wrath, so instead I would curl myself in patches of sunshine, on my bed, or close to a tree, and sit alone, in silence. As an adult, I have learned, slowly, not to just sit in the silence but to allow that silence to move through me, for that silence to fill up in me, like hot water in a cup, and allow that silence to dissolve the hard grains of those feelings, so I can feel them fully, and then allow them to pass out of me. That is the practice of meditation that I have learned, and continue to learn, with the help of the Buddhist teachers Pema Chodron and Tara Brach.

Craft is also an old friend. I started patching pieces of African fabric together from the around the age of 15. I loved the bright, chaotic designs of African wax prints and working with it felt like I was bringing the pulse of Joburg into the sleepy South African suburbia where I grew up. It made me feel connected. This week I picked up a book on my bookshelf by the Californian patchwork and colour guru, Kaffe Fasset. There was one quilt in the book that particularly struck me – it had bright, clashing colours and wasn’t a complicated repetitive pattern but was rather long strips placed in an irreverent, who-needs-rules kind of way. The accompanying text said it took its inspiration from the Gee’s Bend quiltmakers.

Within a Google heartbeat I was down the rabbit hole into the world of Gee’s Bend, a remote community in rural Alabama surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River and inhabited by descendants of slaves. The African-American women of Gee’s Bend have been making quilts here since the middle of the 19th century, in a style labelled “my way”. Guided by personal vision and creativity, rather than by rules and patterns, the Gee’s Bend quilters create abstract, improvised quilts with unusual designs, colours and rhythms. Think Mondrian on ecstacy.

You can explore the quilts for yourself here:

http://www.soulsgrowndeep.org/gees-bend-quiltmakers

An hour later I was upstairs, scissors in hand, remnants of treasured fabrics scattered across the bed. A pillowcase from my friend Jolene. Discarded purple batik from Jolene’s mum. A piece of pink embroidered silk I found in Florence when researching Gucci for a writing assignment. Polka dots from Ikea. A piece of sequinned fabric from Delhi, bought on the weekend I spent alone, shopping in the city, after a Buddhist pilgrimage. A piece of jacquard from my favourite flea market in France. And of course, an African wax print from downtown Joburg. All the pieces with a story, and all the stories being patched together to become another tale.

Quilting reminds me of writing. When you write, you take little chunks of thoughts and feelings, and piece them together so that they solve a puzzle of meaning and make sense of the world that little bit more, for yourself, for others. When you make a quilt you pick and place, move and shape, until something inside you clicks and it feels right to the eye, and right for the soul. The words and behaviour of others are not ours to choose or change. But how we respond to them is.

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The readers’ wrath

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A few years ago I visited Salinas in California, where John Steinbeck grew up. At the end of a quiet street with a burger bar and a few boarded-up shops, is the Steinbeck Museum.

Steinbeck first came to prominence in 1939 with his book Grapes of Wrath which documents the exploitation of displaced and destitute mid-western farmers at the hands of the wealthy land owners of California.

These were the early days of industrialised farming, and the small-scale farmers of the mid-west had been attacked on two fronts: by a devastating drought that turned their land into dust, and by the arrival of mechanised tools that they could ill afford.

Grapes of Wrath follows a family as they cut their losses and head west, only to find that beyond the desert is not a land of milk and honey, but a place where their poverty ensures that they are despised, ill-treated and exploited.

It is a damning portrait of America and when the book was published it was met with outrage. The Associated Farmers of California dismissed the novel as a “pack of lies” and “communist propaganda”, copies of the book were burned, and the FBI put Steinbeck under surveillance.

This summer, Lost Where I Belong: Trying to Escape Apartheid’s Shadow, will be published. The book has been praised for being confronting and challenging, and rejected for not being saleable enough, and so like Virginia Woolf who stared her own press (now Bloomsbury) because the publishers of her day thought her writing too feminine, I have decided to go it alone.

Thanks to Amazon and the like, self-publishing is no longer considered the vanity press it once was, and has been repackaged as “indie” publishing, and a way to circumvent the spinelessness of traditional publishers. But without the stamp of approval of a third party, I am left alone with this thought: how will this book be received by South Africans? And what would it feel like to have your writing rejected by your nation because it is out of step with the way the nation wants to see itself?

Twenty three years after Grapes of Wrath was published, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception”.

But far from celebrating his success, again America baulked. How dare this book that vilified their nation and portrayed the ruling class in such a vile light, be awarded such an important prize? How dare this book be lifted up high for the world to see?

Grapes of Wrath is a confronting book. It is a book that every South African should read as it drives home the point that land ownership matters, really matters. Drought may have pushed the mid-western farmers off their land, but in South Africa it was white immigrants who created laws that banned black people from owning land, and until that disenfranchisement is dealt with through some form of satisfactory compensation and restitution, South Africa will never find peace.

When I set out to write my book, I did not understand the land issue. My book is about an awakening to the realities of a country I ill-understood. The book is about a journey from ignorance to the beginnings of understanding, and there is no doubt that it will get South Africans hot under the collar. I know, because it already has. And those people were my friends.

The Steinbeck museum is book-ended by two poignant exhibits. The first, when you enter the museum, is a film about mechanised farming. The camera runs through jolly wheat fields, shows happy labourers picking fruit, and the clean and smooth processes of conveyor belts carrying shiny produce. It looks like a video that was produced by the Associated Farmers of California for their annual 4th of July picnic, and feels like an attempt to sow doubt in the the twisted mind of the Grapes of Wrath reader.

The last, just before you leave, is a green camper van (pictured above). After he won the 1962 Nobel Prize and America spat at his victory, Steinbeck was concerned that he had lost touch with his country and had the camper van built so he could take to the road with his dog Charley, and write about America. Travels with Charley is a writer’s book. It’s a book more about what it is to like to desire to write about your country, and fail and doubt and lose interest, than it is about 1960s America. Steinbeck never again wrote about socio-political issues.

Steinbeck is far from being the only writer to be publicly lambasted for daring to write about that which others did not want to acknowledge.

A Woman in Berlin, published shortly after WW2, documents the Russian occupation of Berlin and how all the women were raped, how the German men were incapable of protecting them, and how the women accepted the rape in order to survive. The book is written with a light-hearted, deft touch, and after its first publication, it was met with such public anger in Germany, the author refused the book to be published again until after her death, and then only anonymously.

Contemplating these books, on the eve of publication of my own work, made me ask myself: what is it that nations expect of writers? It is easy to get a handle on what individuals expect. I just have to think of myself, as I sit down with a book.

Writing can give me succour at a time of difficulty.

It can shed light of clarity on things I do not understand.

Good writing can point me to something that I have not noticed before.

It can entertain me, creating an escape route from myself.

It can critique the way things are, and remind me that they have not always been this way, that there are other ways.

Writing can be like a hall of mirrors, that reflects me back to me, sometimes stretched, sometimes magnified, sometimes exactly the way I am (which can be the worst reflection of all).

But what do nations want? What are the forces that guide a collective consciousness to revere or deride a book at a certain point in history, and then to change their mind, or not, decades later?

I don’t have an answer to that yet. Maybe you do?

 

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The vilifier is back

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I took a break from Unpopular Essays for a few months because it can be exhausting writing essays that you know will stir up bile in others. Sometimes you just need to walk away so you can breathe again.

The trigger for my break was a piece I wrote in March, in which I reflected on two Consciousness Cafés that I had recently been part of – one that I had co-facilitated, with a mixed group of 70 South Africans on Human Rights Day, and one that I had facilitated alone with a small group of white South Africans who wanted to experiment with having a whites-only conversation about the legacy of apartheid.

As a facilitator, my job is to guide the group to find the deeper wisdom that is trying to emerge (none of us know what this wisdom will be when we begin), and what had struck me was, despite the fact that the cafés were held at opposite ends of South Africa with totally different groups of people, similar wisdom emerged from both groups.

The wisdom was that privilege, in whatever way we have it or define it (and it was agreed privilege was more than just wealth), is not something that we should destroy, but something that we should become aware of and use to the advantage of others, not just ourselves. Careful use of our personal privilege was the ticket to a fairer society for all.

I thought it was a powerful and insightful reflection, and I wrote a piece about it, and then asked my Consciousness Café colleague if I could share this essay on our Facebook page. The heartache came when she said no.

I immediately understood why she refused. As she saw it, this was not a perspective that would sit well with the black radicals. The growing narrative from the black radicals was that privilege was unjust, and white people, especially, should be stripped of their privilege. The way to a more fair society was through restitution and to some extent, revenge. To post an article that was counter to the black radical narrative on the Consciousness Café page would enrage them and potentially be bad PR for Consciousness Café.

My arms became heavy. I slunk down on the couch and felt that giving-up feeling.

This wasn’t the first time in history that the wisdom of the crowd was to be ignored or silenced. It happens all the time, every day, around the world. Shifts in consciousness begin on the fringe and it takes a long time for new collective wisdom to be born. In South Africa, the voice of the black radicals was relatively new, and it was claiming centre stage. And fair enough, grab the limelight while you can, but to silence a point of view because the current populists won’t like it is a mistake.

South Africa veers from “one solution” to another. Apartheid. The Rainbow Nation. The Frantz Fanon Approach. It is a society that abhors complexity and nuance – to its detriment.

Interestingly, in the few months I took away from the page, I received some amazing teaching from the world.

I went to India on a yoga retreat, and found myself, at the ashram, surrounded by 15 people who I couldn’t get along with, and who didn’t like me. This never happens. My husband always laughs that I could make friends in a toilet, but I had travelled all the way to India, hoping to find solace in the company of like-minded yogis, and had ended up the pariah.

I then went to a global WorldWork training event in Greece, and again, found myself in a group of 15 people who labelled me “the vilifier” and “the judge”. For the whole week, until a breakthrough on the last day, they detested me because I was pushing them to confront uncomfortable truths within themselves.

When I reflected later, I realised that the two experiences were connected but different. In India, I was disliked for no obvious reason, a personality clash. In Greece, I experienced being loathed for a reason. And I can say with confidence, I prefer the latter.

So I’m back. With a bit more chutzpah and insight. I am certain that at times, Unpopular Essays will upset friends, allies and enemies, but my aim is not to make you like me, but to give you something to think about.

How liberating. 

 

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

 

Unpopular Essays is on a break

Unpopular Essays will take a break from April-June.

How can we use privilege to influence change?

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After a year and half of being the white facilitator in Consciousness Café, a pop-up dialogue café in which people of all races, nations and cultures, come together to examine their own feelings – and consequently actions – on the topics of racism, privilege and injustice in South Africa, I started to wonder if an additional conversation was needed.

I had noticed a growing call from black South Africans for white people to “do their own work”, “cry their white tears somewhere else” and “to stop asking black people for the solution”, and so when someone called and asked if I would host a dialogue, in Cape Town, for white South Africans, I agreed. I titled it “An Uncomfortable Conversation” and invited people to email to request an invitation.

We met this past Saturday afternoon in central Cape Town. The keys to the venue we normally use had not been left in their hidey-hole, so we began the dialogue in the lobby of a nearby hotel, ten white people, sitting in throne-like chairs, the gold curtains drawn against the glare of the afternoon sun. The irony was not lost on us.

We had just agreed on the topic: “What do we need to give up in order to have a more equitable society?” when someone arrived with the key to The Bookery and we decamped to worn chairs in the room where people work tirelessly towards to correct the unjust educational legacy of the past by building libraries in schools. Poetic justice.

I used the same format of transformational dialogue that we use for Consciousness Café, a method developed by the South African NGO, the No-Name-Initiative. As with every café, we began by flipping the topic, and began to dream what a truly equitable society would look like.

“I would no longer cut the price tags off my new clothes so that my domestic worker wouldn’t see how much I spent,” said someone with brutal honesty. The kind of thing a white person would never say out loud in a mixed space.

“Land and resources would be distributed fairly.”

“Our appearance would just be information and a subject of curiosity, not equated to our value.”

“Suffering would be a tool for personal growth, not everyday survival.”

South Africa’s inequalities were not lost on anyone in the room. They saw them daily with wide-open eyes, but until now the only emotional response they had was guilt and shame, shame and guilt. Plugged, blocked and stuck, shame and guilt were fuels that ran out early and took no one anywhere.

And so we probed deeper. How else would this equal society be?

“It would be a gentler world.”

“I would no longer be disconnected, from myself, my body, the earth, humanity.”

And what would it feel like to connect? Why is it not happening?

“If I connected my life as I know it would end.”

“All of South Africa would come flooding in and I couldn’t bear to feel it.”

“If I connected I would feel my powerlessness in the face of South Africa.”

“If I connected I would become unsafe.”

“If let go of that belief that I am in some way better, then I have to face up to the fact that it’s not fair that someone lives in a shack and I don’t. There by the Grace of God go I.”

“I don’t want to live in a shack. I can’t live in a shack.”

“I am scared. I am scared.”

One man in the room told us how he had radically tried to connect. He had given away all of his material possessions and moved into a township. So desperate for an authentic connection where money was no divider, he had left his safety net and tried to throw off his privilege.

And what had he discovered?

That he could not shed his white skin and that which others associated with that skin.

He could not shed his family who, despite finding him an uncomfortable presence, still have him over for Christmas, and who would throw him a safety net if he needed it.

That as soon as those he tried to get closer to, realised he had no resources, many of them turned their backs.

On the wall of The Bookery is a poster that reads: “Learn from the mistakes of others. You don’t have to make them all yourself.”

Realisations were budding. Privilege wasn’t something to be thrown away. Someone with fresh water doesn’t pour it into the sea because others are thirsty. That is where death lies. Privilege is a resource, something within us as well as without, and for a more equitable society, we need to share privilege, not destroy it.

The insights were poignant because they echoed realisations that I had heard earlier in the week at the Consciousness Café we held at Constitution Hill on Human Rights Day. Then, 65 people of all races, cultures, nations had come together to discuss the topic:
“How do we use privilege to influence change?”

On that day in Joburg, the group began to interrogate our narrow definition of privilege.

Privilege did not just describe economic resources, it described everything of value, they said.

And what else has value?

Culture has value. People have value. Networks have value. Insight has value. Throughout the afternoon, the wisdom of the group revealed that there is more value and power in each and every one of us that we are admitting to. And if we just see privilege as “establishment power”, and then expected it to fix things, then we are just re-empowering old power structures, and that was not what we want.

So what do we want?

We want a better society where everyone matters.

We want a better country where everyone can recognise their value.

We want a society in where privilege isn’t an elite and exclusive good, but a network of value that can be tapped into by everyone.

A week later, in Cape Town, similar realisations arrived like the first rain. For a more equitable society, it is not that we have to give up our safety nets, rather we have to extend them, widen them, share them. We have to stop hoarding them for ourselves.

Every conversation ends with the partcipants choosing a personal action, something that they would like to do differently, based on the discussion. These are some of the actions from these two separate, but related cafés:

“I am going to build our organisation of young urban women, and let the Born Frees understand the weight of African knowledge.”

“I am going to listen to myself.”

“I am going to make a podcast that talks about these things.”

“I am going to take this discussion into my school.”

“I am going to urge my peers in the Indian community to think about their privilege, and I am going to write about it.”

“I will start a project in my community for young girls to realise their power and use that to better themselves.”

“I am going to develop my name so it will be an inheritance and privilege for the generations to come.”

“I am going to continue to support black business and grow black money.”

“I am rewriting and investigating my family history.”

“I will never employ anyone again without a contract, and will pay the best I can – everyone deserves security.”

“I am going to going to get my Masters in Law so I can continue to fight for others for equal pay for work of equal value.”

“I will give up my privilege of only using and knowing English and Afrikaans. Even if I only do it quietly and for myself – ie. not for the affirmation of being a ‘good kind of white’. I will make sure I can understand and speak isiXhosa on an intermediate level.

“I will ask my domestic worker if I can visit her in her home, which I helped her to purchase but have never seen.”

“I need to discuss with my spouse and engage with what we can do as a family to bring other people into access to opportunities. I will sit in the discomfort of this country openly.”

What could you do?

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The space within

I am struggling more and more with the South African story. With the current sentiment  that to be a conscious white, you must be a silent white. That unless you are a representative for the views of black people and acting as an ambassadors for “their” pain, you are a racist, or at least, deeply mistaken. I am feeling stymied and stifled and I feel my consciousness shrinking rather than expanding.

After a weekend of sitting with an anguished mind, I asked the universe to send me a wise man, and yesterday it, in did in the form of L, a fellow dialogue facilitator and a black man. We sat under a tree in the oldest garden in South Africa and he told me about his recent diagnosis of diabetes, and with his struggle with being labelled “ill” and feeling ill. He did not want either to be true, but both were, so in his wise, way, he leant forward towards those feelings,  while at the same time asking himself what he could do to get better. Both accepting and seeking a solution at the same time.

He then talked of other people he had recently met who had been sitting with diabetes for 15+years and how he was dismayed by their resignation to their fate. He then shook his head and wondered if it was a cultural thing, and went on to talk about a “victim mentality” which he feels is ingrained in the majority of black people’s consciousness.

“It’s hardwired into us,” he said.

He gave a metaphor. “If someone has R30 of airtime on their phone, they will spend R25 complaining about the problem, and only R5 trying to find a solution. But by the time they get to that R5, they are so exhausted by all the complaining, they have run out of energy and give up. The laws of attraction say that you get what you give, and black people frequently operate within a negative consciousness.”

I recognised what he was talking about. Someone has to fill in a form but they would rather spend 10 minutes complaining about having to do it, instead of just doing it. Why not just do it quick and celebrate that it is over? I do not see it as exclusive to Africa though. I have seen it plenty in Scotland. But L felt it was more prominent in the black consciousness.

“Our celebration comes before. Complaining is our way of making ourselves feel better about the fact that we have to do it at all,” says L.

I told him he should write about this, but he joked that he would be castrated for saying it. He added that whenever he suggested to black people that they lean into their pain, ask themselves what really lies under the pain around filling in that form, they go crazy. They reply that black people are always in pain and it’s stupid and wrong of him to suggest that they feel their pain even more deeply. Also, they will say, they know what causes the pain. The white man. The lack of opportunity. The poor living conditions. Things that others have caused and others have not fixed. The pain comes from outside. The problems are not in me. They are out there.

I realised something else as we sat under the tree.

L and I were talking about the structural challenges of co-running an organisation like Consciousness Café, and L asked me why I did this work. Didn’t I need to admit to myself that I was in it for profit?

“No,” I said. “It might be hard to believe but it’s not profit that motivates me, it’s belonging. I want to belong here. I want us to be able to see each other. It’s another form of selfishness yes, but that’s what is driving me.”

My Consciousness Café colleague and I had talked about this the previous weekend and she had told me that I had to accept that this would never happen: “If you expect the black movers and shakers of Joburg to accept you and not see you as privileged, you need to know now that this will never happen. Never. You need to accept that. And then you need to ask yourself again why you do this work.”

Speaking to L, I realised that my own desperation to belong was blocking my compassion. Not in the dialogue space, there my compassion flows with ease (perhaps from years of being a journalist who is naturally interested in the stories of others), but when it comes to the structural positioning of this work in society, and the relationship with others who do this work, some of whom have got out their guns and criticised me for trying. When it comes to those encounters, I realise my compassion is thin. My compassion dries up because it feels like they are screaming “YOU DO NOT BELONG!” while I am begging to belong.

It becomes all about me.

I thought I had learnt this lesson already. At my 40th birthday I told a crowded room that I had made peace with belonging. That I accepted that I had to find belonging in writing, in creativity, in my craft and in nature. That since I was not a nationalist, I had to stop looking for belonging under the South African sky.

I thought I was there, but I was just flirting with this new consciousness, it had not bedded in yet, and this fledgling consciousness had buckled and bent under the level of anger currently being directed at white people.

Yesterday, as I sat under the tree in the oldest garden in South Africa with L, he helped me lean into it, name it, see it, and as I did, I felt it lift off my chest.

I may wish to belong here, but the fact is, in the eyes of the majority of the people of this country, I do not truly belong. Not a day goes by when someone doesn’t ask me: “Where are you from?”

So once again I commit to letting go – or at least, lightening my hold – of my need to belong.

And as we create a little bit of space between ourselves and our deepest desire, our compassion grows and we can breathe again.

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Don’t take it personally

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When we first started holding Consciousness Cafés – the pop-up dialogues in which we encourage people to talk about the racism, divisions and injustice they experience in South Africa – we would sometimes take part, rather than be facilitators, so that we could ‘burn our own wood’ (ie. face our own shit) and remind ourselves what it is like to feel exposed and vulnerable.

A year and a half ago I participated in a dialogue in Soweto where the group chose the topic: ‘why is there no space for black anger’, and then six months later I participated in a dialogue in downtown Joburg with the topic ‘who is responsible for our freedom?’.

In both dialogues I used the space as it is meant to be used – to get things off your chest, challenge things that you don’t understand or agree with – and in so doing I upset some black people in the room. It wouldn’t have been a problem if I was just an ordinary punter, but because they knew that I was a facilitator, it was. To them, it would seem, I was supposed to be Switzerland. A big mountain with broad shoulders, covered in pure white snow. And there I was, exposing myself to be a gutter, still running thick with effluence.

Very recently, I heard how these two people met in a separate dialogue space and exchanged criticisms of me. I don’t know what they said, but hearing second-hand how they were still talking about these incidents over a year later, took me off balance. It is one of the reasons I haven’t been writing publicly lately. Instead I have been taking long walks, scribbling in my journal, doubting my role in this war of attrition.

The other day over a glass of wine, my black Consciousness Café colleague cautioned me.

“You need to realise that because you are white, and because of where we are at this point in history, whatever you say on the topic of racism will be taken out of context and most likely to be misunderstood by black people. And you need to learn not to take this personally.”

It’s a Catch-22. There we are, the ordinary humans of 2017, standing with 400 years of oppression on our shoulders. The ordinary black humans are carrying the weight of the victims, the ordinary white humans are carrying the weight of the perpetrator, and both labels are ill-fitting in this shifting world where the former black president of America is more popular and highly regarded in many spheres of power and influence than the newly enthroned, overtly Xenophobic white president of America.

It is becoming clear to more and more people that our identities can no longer be polarised according to our skin colour, which is a great thing, because that is exactly what we are fighting against, and yet what is so frustrating is that when black activists hear a white activist say something that is not on the racial justice script, their anger is swift and unforgiving.

Through Consciousness Café I have come to realise that racism is the red herring. The real fight is against the myth of white supremacy. It is this myth which black – and white – activists want to see committed to the dustbin of history.

The irony is though, in order to get there, white people are often expected to symbolically hold the space for 400 years of oppression and never complain or cry about it. The white person must listen, speak and act with impeccable insight and wisdom. The “woke white” must always get it right. Which is a bit like expecting the white person to be superhuman. The übermensch.

Now where have I heard that before?

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When right feels so wrong

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I have never been the kind of journalist who rushes to the scene of the car crash. I have always been the one to hang back, observing from a distance, more interested in what happens long after the moment of impact, than the mangled metal.

Which is probably why I haven’t put fingers to my keyboard in the past month. Right now the American presidency feels like a multi-car pile-up, and I am standing on the verge, watching while the first-responders – the lawyers, human rights activists, protestors and opposition politicians – are trying to help the victims.

Although I take heart that somebody seems to know what to do, I also find myself feeling as wary of the jaws of life, as the wreckage itself. It feels like we are veering from one knee-jerk reaction to another. No time to stop and think.

The other reason I haven’t been writing UnpopularEssays is because I am on a deadline. Together with a fellow journalist, I am writing the Secret Joburg book for Jonglez’ “local guides for local people” series, which involves hours and hours of digging around in obscure corners of the city, meeting the city’s champions and guardians, documenting the forgotten and quirky treasures.

Johannesburg has always been a contested place. With its near-perfect climate, its fertile soil and its dense underbelly of gold, it’s a city that has lured every kind of fortune hunter, from every religion, nation and race group, and it’s all of their treasures that I am attempting to capture.

Not wanting to leave anyone out, today I headed out far west, or rather, far right, to the towns of Roodepoort and Krugersdorp – the old bastions of the Boers. My guide was a lovely old amateur historian who showed me the first shop ever built on the Witwatersrand – it sold liquor – and took me, in the pouring rain, to a cemetery where women and children who died in a British concentration camp of the second Anglo Boer war lie in unmarked graves.

As our morning progressed, it became clear that my guide was a man with right-leaning politics, and we gently and politely disagreed with each other until he said: “I was going to say something, but I probably shouldn’t”.

“Go on, please say it,” I said.

“I was going to say you probably wouldn’t have voted for Trump,” he said.

“You’re right,” I said. “Would you have?”

“Definitely. Something has got to be done,” he said.

“About what?”

“Well for a start, America is a Christian country, and they can’t even teach God in their schools anymore,” he said.

I looked at him baffled out of the corner of my eye. This is a country where some schools teach Creationism. Since when has there been a blanket ban on religious education in America? I didn’t choose to debate the facts with him though, instead I asked him why this mattered. If you want your child to learn about the Lord, can you not teach them at home? Why is it up to the school and not the parents? And if you want it to be up to the school, then should you not opt to send them to a religious school?

He conceded that it was a point worth considering, but continued to say that teaching about Jesus in schools is what teaches morality and discipline. And the problem with the Muslims is that their religion doesn’t teach morality. In fact, it doesn’t teach them how to treat anyone but themselves.

I was trying to find the right way to ask how Trump’s Christianity was any different, but his conversation had already moved on to the Muslim refugees in Europe.

“What are they doing there?” he asked.

“They are running away from war,” I replied.

“Which war?” he asked.

“The war in Syria,” I replied.

“If they were running from war, there would be women and children among them. Where are the women in children?” he asked.

Eighteen months ago I wrote about the refugee crisis on the Greek island of Kos for the British newspaper, the Independent. Women and children, whole families, crowded the shoreline.

“I saw them with my own eyes,” I told him.

“But then why are we not being told the truth?” he asked.

“Maybe the more important question is why do we believe, without question, everything we are told? Why are we so keen to soak up facts that support our prejudice?” I probed.

I dropped the West Rand historian back at his house and drove away, feeling sad. He was a nice fellow. A kind fellow. A fellow who says he became an amateur historian in his retirement because he loves sorting the lies from the truth. And yet, he is also a man who openly harbours a blanket mistrust of black people and Muslims based on alternative facts.

It doesn’t add up.

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Poem

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I am Afro-Celt but neither

Not born in either

Leopard legs

Tartan heart

Sometimes here

Often far

A world citizen? No

The phrase seems thin

The craving is, for belonging

I see you

But do you see me?

Trying to become

What it feels to be

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb