I started writing about race relations in 2010, long before people – and by that I mostly mean black people – started insisting that I confront my privilege and my white centrist view of the world. These were the carefree days before anyone had shouted at me in anger and frustration, before anyone openly showed their contempt for me because of what my skin represents to them. These things have since happened.
When I first started writing I felt isolated and alone. At the time my fellow white skins were still living under the illusion of the rainbow nation, the belief that if we all just kept smiling and shaking hands, the past would eventually vanish, that Mandela had done the hard work, and we didn’t have to. No one I spoke to wanted to share this interrogation with me. Close friends rejected the project.
“I don’t need to go there.”
“Ag man, light the braai.”
So I sat alone in a shed at the bottom of my garden tapping on my computer, trying to make sense of why I felt so lost and confused in the place where my green identity documents say I belong, and simultaneously trying to bat away the hissing, doubting, chastising voice in my head: “Who are you to write about this? You are nobody. You were not a struggle leader. You were not there. You will never understand.”
Silenced by the weight of history. Silenced by my tribe. But I did not stop tapping. I was trying to write myself back into South Africa’s story.
There was something else that was fuelling this quest. Something I only realized earlier this year. I was trying to become a Good White.
I thought that if I could make sense of everything around me, and fix something in me, then good whiteness would make its mark on me in such a way that it would be noticeable from the outside and I would be forever free of the racist stain of history. I was trying to write myself clean. I had no idea how fraught that idea was – and how it was a further barrier to the healing of this country.
Last year, I became part of Consciousness Café. We are three women – Keke Motseke, Anisha Panchia and myself – who create spaces for South Africans to come together to have deep, honest, transformative conversations about race, identity, injustice and all the other gnarly topics that affect our lives. A TRC for Everyman. Last November we were invited to host a café in Soweto. Because Keke is black, she was the host and Anisha and I were among the participants.
At every café the participants choose the topic, and on that day the topic that came up was: “Why is there no space for black anger?” Why is it that whenever black people try to express their hurt and fury with the past, and with how those injustices continue to bear down on the present, white people cannot listen. Instead, we always try and prove how we are different, that we are not racists, that we are the Good Whites. The story becomes about us, trying to show that we are better, different, purer that the other really awful whites.
That day, in that space, my “me too” dialogue was shot down and shut down. I was forced to listen, and to realize something that I could hardly bear to hear. That no matter how much I wrote, how many Consciousness Cafés I hosted, how many black friends I made, how good my Zulu gets, we are all threads of this age-old tale and the actions of one person – me – cannot free me from the collective burden of history.
To black people on the street, black people who have never met me, black people who meet for the first time, my white skin will always appear as an enviable safety net that greases my path through the world. I’ll always be guilty before proven innocent.
And what’s more, my desperate attempt to prove myself a Good White is a category error. Whiteness in this country is steeped in a long and sad history of power abuse. Whiteness in this country doesn’t automatically go with good.
Now that’s an awful thing to have to face up to. Everybody on earth wants to be seen as good. Even ISIS thinks they are the good guys. That’s how we work. So to contemplate that in South Africa, my skin colour precludes me from ever been the good guy at first glance, that’s a heavy truth to bear.
That day in Soweto, I realized that I had to grow very big shoulders. That to be whole in this country was not to seek the moral highground, it was to be brave enough to sit with the sadness, the anger, the complexity and the uncomfortable truths. I could never become a Good White, but by slowing down and listening, I had a chance of becoming a good person. Though nobody may notice.
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