The cold white shoulder


On Youth Day weekend, thirteen South Africans gathered at a retreat centre in the Underberg to experiment with Insight Dialogue as a way of dealing with the pain and anger caused by the racism and prejudice that is thick in our country.

We were one Indian woman, 6 black people (all women), 6 white people (including two men), and a cat. People had travelled from all over the country. Everyone had come of their own free will.

Insight dialogue is a technique that draws on the skills of meditation – concentration, breathwork and mindfulness – to guide deeper conversations about difficult issues. Working in pairs, every dialogue has a pre-set topic. Every time you notice a “me too” narrative or you starting thinking up a reply, the instruction is to notice, pause, breathe, relax, and come back to what the other person is saying. The belief is that the more deeply we listen, the more we are able to connect with the truth of others – and our own truth.

In the first race dialogue of the retreat I found myself paired with a white man. I could sense his disappointment. Often at Consciousness Café we notice white people aren’t interested in connecting with other white people. Their urge is to bridge the divide and hear something new. Sometimes there is an added desire to distance themselves from the other ‘guilty ones’ – a wish to not be sullied by association.

In this moment, I found myself relieved. Some of the black women had already shared how hurtful and offensive white people’s views can be, and I wondered if, so early in the weekend, it was better that a white woman be a buffer for a white man’s views. Little did I realise that what was about to happen would bring me to tears – and impact the whole room.

The topic for the first dialogue was: describe your culture to the other person. We are both English-speaking white South Africans. Same culture. The person closest to the door was instructed to speak first. In our pairing that was the white man. He shook his head and admitted that he had drawn a blank. He had three minutes to speak. He ran out of words. “White English-speaking people don’t have a culture,” he concluded.

My turn.

“We do have a culture. Ours is a culture that equates your worth as a person with whatever it is you do for a living, and what you have achieved. It’s a culture that values good schools, nice houses, productivity. It’s a culture that ranks rationality and logic over emotions. It likes order, which it calls fairness, and it regards justice as when things are ‘just so’, everything in its right place. It is a culture that believes its way of doing things is the right way – and that everyone could take a leaf from our tree. Our culture might seem invisible to you, but that is because our culture is also patriarchal and as a white man, it gives you preference, and because it’s the dominant culture in this country. The reason you can’t see our culture is because you are it. We can’t see the woods for the trees.”

As I spoke, I saw his eyes widen in recognition and realisation. But he was not permitted to speak.

In the second round of dialogue we were instructed to speak about what it was like to listen to the other. We were to repeat some of the key things they said, not paraphrasing, nor interpreting. I repeated to my partner what he had said, about how he had drawn a blank, how he didn’t think we had a culture, and he used my language to describe white, English patriarchal culture to me.

As he spoke, I felt my body soften, a sense of deep relief in my gut, like the door had opened and soft light had fallen into the room.

In the third round of dialogue we were instructed to speak about what it was like to speak about this topic – effectively to talk about our emotions. My partner spoke about he had been so certain of his view about our lack of culture, and how he now felt embarrassed at his ignorance, and felt an enormous desire to reflect further.

At my turn to speak, my voice cracked, and tears I did not expect, came to my eyes:
“It was so strange because this never happens. You never listen. Whenever I try to speak to white men about how I feel about this country, you either get defensive or angry, or shut me down. Ag man, just light the braai. Leave it alone.
I am supposedly one of your women, part of your tribe. You are these big, strong, caring guys, you see yourselves as our protectors, but because I question and probe and think deeply about what we did, how our behaviour and attitudes continue to affect our fellow South Africans, you mock me, you isolate me and you push me out.  Do you know how lonely I feel? It’s like I have no people. Like I don’t belong.”

He told me after that, while listening to me speak, he wanted to reach out, squeeze my hand, make it better, but he couldn’t, all he could do was sit there, in silence, breathing, relaxing, listening deeply.

A few minutes later we were asked to share what happened with the whole group. I told them honestly about how unfamiliar it felt to be properly listened to by a white South African man. I had long thought that my sense of feeling lost in post-apartheid South Africa was because of my sometimes successful, sometimes failed attempts to connect with other cultures. Now I realised that the deeper loss was from feeling rejected by my own so-called people.

My words landed heavily in the room. Especially among the black women.

One black woman put the feeling into words:
“When I saw two white people put together to dialogue, I thought, what’s the point of that? They’re all the same. I always saw you as one white mass. But now I’m thinking… there is so much we just don’t get.”

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1 thought on “The cold white shoulder”

  1. Thank you for sharing. Beautifully written. I also believe in the power of dialogue, especially the listening. And learning to really listen. And the healing power of being heard.

    As I read “We are both English-speaking white South Africans. Same culture.” my thought was “No. Not necessarily.” I believe there are nuances to our culture depending on our age, whether raised by parents who are immigrants or many generation SA’s, our religious affiliations, our income level and probably some more aspects.

    I understand that there isn’t just one black SA culture either. My friends, colleagues and clients have spoken about different culture along tribal and religious lines.

    When I worked at SARS many years ago we had a big staff event for Heritage Day and the Commissioner spoke about understanding the culture of our colleagues. I had already initiated a group that met regularly for dialogue so we decided that once a month we would focus on cultural practices. Anyone could suggest a topic. Some that we discussed were things like “how our community celebrates child birth” and similarly one on death. It was very interesting to hear from everyone. Sometimes we did know about the other person’s practices, other times it was a complete surprise. In the work place it had great relevance to respecting the other person’s needs around the time of say a death in the family.

    I’d love to encourage others to start small dialogue groups in their work and community spaces.


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