End of the race

There is a chasm between the actual world and the world of ideas, and the writer’s job is to build a bridge to connect the two. These bridges are bastards to make. Just as you think you’ve woven a sturdy section, a thought slips out and tumbles a thousand feet. Just as you tentatively take your first steps on a finished bridge, it sways dangerously and you have to go back to the beginning. Which is why I find myself here this morning, starting again.  

Yesterday I tried to write about a Consciousness Café that I co-facilitated in 2017 at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. Consciousness Café is a dialogue café that I co-created with Keke Motseke and Anisha Panchia to bring South Africans together to talk about the issues that continue to divide us. Con Hill, as we affectionately call it in South Africa, is a place where transformation is in the walls, literally. During apartheid it was a political prison and its bricks were later used to build the Constitutional Court, the highest court in the land that can hold even the government to account (and frequently does). Among its parapets are spaces where citizens are encouraged to play music, show art and have discussions. 

The topic at a Consciousness Café is decided by the people in attendance. Racism and racial justice usually find their way onto the agenda, and that day 65 people, from all race groups, chose to discuss: “How can we use privilege to influence change?”

The dialogue lasted four hours, the conversation built in heat and intensity, and one of the most powerful insights of the day was this: “If we expect ‘privilege’ to be responsible for the change we want to see, we are giving more power to old power structures, and not growing the power in ourselves.” As that idea arrived in the space, the room fell totally silent. A moment of collective realisation. 

How had we got to this point? We had begun the dialogue by asking ourselves what “privilege” was. We agreed the received definition of privilege is a rank endowed on you by your gender, skin colour, nationality, language, sexuality, material wealth, family connections, educational status. The more rank you have, the more you are able to move with ease through the world. 

We probed further: what was privilege really
We decided it was a kind of resource that society ascribed value and power to. 
And so we asked ourselves: what resources did we have in our individual lives, regardless of whether society valued them or not?  The answers from the room were wide and varied. Parents that loved us. Mental health. Physical health. An able body.  A quick mind. A sense of humour. A talent. A fiery temper. A knack for empathy. Culture. 

And what then followed was a tentative redefining of privilege. Not as something that exists beyond most of our reach, but something within all of our lives.  Personal resources that we normally didn’t value because society didn’t value them.

We had set out to ask “How could we use privilege to influence change?”, and now we found ourselves wondering whether trying to leverage those typical things of privilege: white skin, male gender, immense wealth, elite education to influence change, was part of the problem? Were we in fact re-empowering these structures, giving them the light and putting ourselves in the shade? Wouldn’t real change come when we recognised and harnessed the power within ourselves, a power that might look very different?

There was no doubt those four hours were transformational for all those who participated. But as I tried to write it down yesterday all I could hear were the trolls. I tried to reason with myself, saying that I was just documenting what had happened. That my job as a writer is to push a pin into the corkboard of our collective history in order to frame it, reflect it back to the world, and create a space for others to reflect. But over the past few years, the rise of identity politics has made me wary of putting my white fingers to the keyboard on any topic linked to racial justice. When the recent Black Lives Matter protests swept through the world, an Indian friend asked on Facebook why her white friends were not engaging with this topic. Where were our solidarity posts? Why were we silent? 

She was right. I had purposefully remained quiet. One aspect of this was personal. As mother to a breast-feeding toddler and wife to a man whose cancer seems to be trying to ebb back from remission, lockdown had been both beautiful (much-needed family time) and tough (my milk-bar was open 24/7). But that wasn’t the whole story. After five years co-facilitating racial justice conversations, I knew how quickly white allies can find themselves misunderstood, chastised for not getting involved enough (a luxury that black people don’t have) or berated for getting too involved and thus centring themselves. It’s a balancing act that requires constant consciousness that, as I argued in my essay Common As Muck, most white people, myself included, don’t have, because we really are just mere mortals trying to survive, protect and thrive, aren’t any better at this thing called life than anyone else, and to suggest we should be, is a weird legacy of the white supremacy myth. In short, it’s messy, I am shit, please stop shouting at me. 

Recently there was a discussion on the BBC Front Row radio programme in which the presenter asked where were the white writers writing about race? I raised my arm even though no one could see me. Which is apt. My non-fiction book, Lost Where We Belong, in which I tried to examine the unexplored prejudice within me, nurtured in my apartheid childhood, gained very little attention. 

When I started writing Lost Where We Belong, I really had believed in a kumba-ya future. I was a child of the Rainbow Nation, and had bought into its vision, hook, line and sinker. Ten years later, I am utterly disillusioned. It’s an ideal that is too far from reality to be useful. There is too much hurt, too much economic injustice, too much need for restitution and desire for revenge for us to all stand side by side and cheer together for longer than a football match.

And whereas previously I saw the battle for racial justice as a battle for equality, now I see it as a battle for power. That doesn’t make it a bad thing, it makes it a human thing. We are all motivated to survive, protect and thrive. The more power we have, the easier it is to survive, protect and thrive. Humans try to be altruistic, but people mostly don’t like to contemplate that uncomfortable point when we turn our backs and get into tribal formation.

“Yours is a book everyone should read, but they won’t,” my Afrikaans friend told me, after she had finished reading it.  I realise now how right she is. And I now think there is actually very little point in white writers writing about racial justice. Black people resent you for taking their air and white people mistrust you. Writers need readers, and if readers don’t see you as a credible narrator, it’s futile. But before I go, I decided that I would share that insight from that Consciousness Café because you know what, it isn’t tosh. 

“Check your privilege!” has become a war cry of the racial justice movement. It’s a political way of telling the establishment to “Shut up and listen!” but all it serves to do is make white folk ask “So, now what?”, and reminds those outside that perceived establishment of their lower rank. Disempowering all round really. 

Better calls to arms for everyone would be to “Check your Prejudice!” (because although everyone might not be able to be racist by the Frantz Fanon definition, everyone can definitely be prejudiced), and “Use Your Privilege!” – use the resources at your disposal, even if they are not the big ticket ones that the rest of the world fancies, to make the world a better place. Privilege is a resource. Find yours, leverage it and share it. It will make the world better. 

And with that, I sign out. Love. Respect. Try be kind.

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 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 BelongTrying to Escape Apartheid’s Shadows, which although had the backing of a respected London literary agent, was 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 spoke fluent Zulu and 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 from 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.

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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Where were the white people?

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Yesterday we held our 21st Consciousness Café of 2016. Our venue was the Penthouse at Joburg Theatre. We chose this space not only for its floor-to-ceiling views of the city – an inspiring backdrop for a Day of Reconciliation dialogue – but because it has safe parking and a bus stop outside. It’s accessible to pretty much everybody. When we arrived the lifts were full of little blonde children clutching their parents hands, on their way to watch the pantomime, Robin Hood.

As the classic tale of the hero who takes from the rich and redistributes to the poor took to the stage, upstairs 50 South African citizens gathered in a circle to have a 4-hour group dialogue about what real reconciliation would look like, and what’s stopping it from happening.

Among them were 46 black people and 4 white people. Four.

Where were you?

We joked that you had already gone to your holiday home. We reassured the room that white people had come in bigger numbers before – for example, when we held a Consciousness Café in the ’burbs. And yes, in fairness, by ratio there should have been less white people there. We are in the minority. We make up only 19.1% of the population of Gauteng* (out of a total population of 13.2m at 2015 census). Stick to the maths, and only 9.5 out of 50 should have been white.

But the room was not content with our explanation because this was the Day of Reconciliation. This was the day it mattered. This was the day that has been set aside for us to rip the plasters of apartheid’s still suppurating wounds, and instead, what most South Africans – of all races – prefer to do is have a lekker time.

Let’s reconcile ourselves to another six pack of beers. Let’s reconcile ourselves to loud music and a braai. Let’s reconcile ourselves to another year of being divided so political elites can trample all over us. Let’s reconcile ourselves to the status quo because my life is fine and how do you expect me to care about your life – after all, I don’t really know all that much about it?

Earlier in the week, the Department of Arts and Culture had tweeted: “”How do you reconcile with other races when there is only one race at these dialogues, national days, imbizos, etc?”

And for once, the government is right.

I’ve never wanted to be the finger-wagging white because I know it’s pointless: white South Africans don’t like being told what to do. It’s the colonialists’ complex (and the real reason why Brexit happened). The former top dog doesn’t like taking orders or suggestions from anyone. No one must call us on our behaviour. No one must tell us to reflect on the past. We already pay our taxes, what more do you want?

Well, after co-facilitating Consciousness Café dialogues all through this year, I can tell you what some black South Africans want.

They want you to listen to them.

They want you to come into a safe-enough space so they can tell you how apartheid and the myth of white supremacy fucked with their minds. And how it’s still a daily struggle to tell themselves that they are good enough.

They want to tell you how hurtful it is when people say that “they must just get over it”, but how nobody ever says that to a Jew about the Holocaust.

They want to tell you how shit it feels every time a white woman clutches her handbag when she walks past a black guy. How offensive it is that you can’t tell the difference between an engineer and a thief.

That racism is real. It’s still happening. Every day. In a black majority, black-ruled country.

They want to ask you why you are so scared of all black people (not just the criminals) – after all, what nation of black people has ever invaded a white nation?

They want to tell you that retribution does not mean war. But the effects of the 1913 Land Act (that banned black people from owning land) and forced removals are a giant stinking hangover – worse than the one you have today.

They want to tell you how infuriating it is when you are studying philosophy at Wits and the subject of the African philosophy of Ubuntu comes up, and 4 of the 5 set readings are written by white men, even though there are at least another 20 recommended papers written by black writers.

They want to tell you that they are sick of feeling like unwanted guests on the land of their ancestors. They want to tell you that you are the settler.

And they want to tell you that you do belong here. But you’re not African. And your system of doing things is not necessarily the right or the best system for the health, wealth and wellbeing for the majority of the people of this country.

And you may have a lot of things you want to say back. But you only get to say them, if you actually come along.

Stop hiding behind the Internet.

PS. The two young Jewish mothers who hired babysitters and came from suburbia, got to say something back. The dialogue was fierce. Black anger and white fear squared up to each other. Together we stood in a raging fire, and everyone left with their consciousness altered.

Our next Consciousness Café will be on Saturday, 28 January 2017. Venue TBC.

Follow Consciousness Café on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/consciousnesscafe.co.za

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

 

 

“How many white liberals are in South Africa?”

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So there I was propping up a barn in Sweet Auburn, Atlanta. I was in town for a conference about racial justice (or the lack thereof) with my Consciousness Café colleague Keke. Two days before, Donald Trump had been elected president of the US, and the conference was a churned-up sea of angry, bewildered activists. After yet another day of high-intensity discussions, we’d gone out in search of beer.

Our taxi dropped us off on the corner of Edgewood and Boulevard, where a helicopter was whirring overhead, and police cars were parked up. In the distance we could hear drums and see flags waving, and as they got closer, we saw it was one of the many #NotMyPresident marches that were taking place across the US that day. There were probably about 300 white people, with a smattering of “people of colour”, being followed by a CBS news van, which was broadcasting this march live. The police stood back with their arms folded, watching bored, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the black faces had outnumbered the white faces, would the police have been so relaxed, and would the media have described it as peaceful? But I digress.

Within moments of entering the bar we immediately befriended two guys, one black, one white, who by some weird cast of fate, both had spent a lot of time in South Africa.

The white guy’s grandfather was Morris Nestadt, the former mayor of Benoni, the East Rand mining town where I had grown up, and he spent all his childhood summers there.

The black guy, LeJuano, was a mover and shaker who had spent six months living in Joburg’s trendy suburbs of Parkhurst and Maboneng, checking out the scene.

It was LeJuano, who, a few beers later, posed me the question: “How many white liberals do you think they are in South Africa?”

I hesitated. Contemplated. Took another sip of beer.

“That a difficult question,” I said.

Keke rolled her eyes. “Why is it difficult? Just answer the question,” she said.

“It’s difficult because it depends what you mean by liberal? Is it someone who believes in giving back the land? Or are you a liberal if you never say ‘I hate kaffirs’?”

“Mara,” says Keke. “Why are you complicating this?”

“Because it is complicated,” I said. “During apartheid, a white liberal was someone who didn’t support racial segregation. Back then, the DP – who are now the DA – were the liberals. But nowadays if you’re white and you vote for the DA, you are not seen as a liberal. In fact, liberal has become a dirty word, and those who would consider themselves the true liberals nowadays are what others would call the radicals. Those who fully support the EFF and “give back the land”. And if that’s the definition we are reaching for, then I’d say there are probably zero white liberals in South Africa. Or maybe ten a push.”

At which point LeJuano threw back his head and started laughing.

“You South Africans!” he said. “You’d never hear people in America talk like this.”

To which Keke rolled her eyes and demanded we stop talking about politics and order some more beers.

And so we did.

But ever since I’ve been promising that I would write about this because it has been on my mind a lot over the last six years. I initially wrote a whole chapter on liberalism for my book, Lost Where We Belong, and then took it out because I felt like I was posturing. Who the hell was I to stroke my beard and pontificate on liberalism? I didn’t even know what it really meant.

Which is perhaps, in essence, the problem.

Liberalism is a broad brushstroke. If you believe in tolerance, respect, freedom, dignity of the individual, multi-party democracy, the rule of law, accountability and the separation of powers, then you can probably call yourself a political liberal.

And by virtue of our Constitution, South Africa is, in essence, a liberal country. Most of these values are the founding values of the new South Africa, and surprising as it may seem, this nation of crotchety, recovering racists is actually collectively signed up to a liberal agenda.

But just like God gets a bad rap from the awful humans that sometimes do heinous acts in the name of God, so liberalism has got something of a bad rap from its association with a nation of recovering racists.

That said, often the real grind with liberalism in South Africa is more concerned with attitudes towards economic liberalism. Critics would argue – and I would agree – that a laissez faire approach to the economy only serves to benefit those who already have established networks, education and access to resources. And because of our unjust past, there is no equal playing field in South Africa, and so if we want to see a just and fair state – and not just a liberal state – then some level of state intervention is required.

This, of course, this brings us to the difficult conversation of what kind of state intervention is just and fair. And this is where it gets uncomfortable, and brings up the other “L” word: Land.

The 1913 Land Act forbade black people from owning land in South Africa. Throughout apartheid black people were forcibly removed from land close to the city centre, and forced to live away from desirable resources, networks and infrastructure.

For restitution to take place, for justice to be attained, it is believed that actions are going to have to be taken regarding reappropriation of land which are mostly uncomfortable, threatening, terrifying and unpalatable to the white people who live on that land.

And if the topic of “land” makes your mouth dry, your heart beat faster, and your eyes shut, does it mean you can no longer call yourself a liberal?

And if you continue to call yourself a liberal, but get sweaty palms at the mention of “land”, is it liberalism that is at issue? Or is it something else?

My favourite definition of liberalism comes from the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who wrote in his book, Unpopular Essays (after which this blog is named): “The essence of the liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment.”

No one ever says to a Jewish person, “get over the Holocaust already”. They know the facts and the facts continue to stun, shock and horrify. But again and again, we hear white people say that black people should “just get over apartheid”. But if we were really prepared to engage with the facts about how unfair, cruel and destructive apartheid was – and how its legacy continues to be – would people really say that?

Which is why, right now, it doesn’t matter how many liberals there are. What really matters is how many listeners there are.

*Our next Consciousness Café dialogue is at the Joburg Theatre on Friday, 16 December, from 2-6pm. Free event. Full details here

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

“I hate white South Africans”

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There’s a bar in Glasgow called The Old Hairdressers. It’s down an unlit back lane, the plaster and paint are peeling off the walls, and it’s a favourite of art school graduates and their brethren who huddle around circular tables to have beard-stroking conversations. It’s the kind of place where I look around me and think: “hello my people.”

Last Saturday I met up with my art-school graduate pal to drink copious amounts of red wine and listen to two singer-song writers. The first was a neo-grunge, tuneless wailer, who poured his lyrics into the microphone without ever looking up. The drone was so intentional and unbearable, free earplugs were handed out at the bar.

The second was a punk version of Cat Stevens called The Rebel. His satirical lyrics contain the kind of banal and yet poignant thoughts that you sometimes think to yourself, but rarely say out loud: “Why won’t Thatcher let everything be free? Why must I play for a fucking cup of tea?”
I thought he was brilliant.

After the gig, I got into conversation with a young white Scottish woman who had been fan of The Rebel for over 20 years. She told me that she was an anarchist, and while watching the gig she had looked around at the audience with despair wondering: “Am I the only one who really understands The Rebel?”

It was the cry more commonly heard from teenagers who feel they’ve overtaken their peers and their parents, and discovered eye-rolling new truths that everyone else has missed.

Not to be a bitch, I tried to empathise and said that this was the first week that I had ever looked at the government and thought: “Oh fuck, I might be smarter than the people running this country.”

(This was the week that Theresa May and Amber Rudd had announced they wanted British companies to draw up lists of their foreign employees, implying that hiring hearts, minds and hands from another country, was a shameful act.)

I then went onto say that I came from South Africa. That I am part of a collective that hosts dialogues confronting racism and injustice, and my wish is that people would start to value diversity, rather than condemn it.

Her response: “I hate white South Africans.”

And then she walked away.

I stood there in silence, slurped my wine, shook my head, stifled a laugh.

A few moments later, she came back, and introduced me to her black, Scottish, one-armed boyfriend (talk about being a minority) who was so drunk he could barely stand up. He then proceeded to engage in a slurred monologue about how he doesn’t get hangovers, and that maybe it’s because he is an African, while she watched me out of the corner of her eye. It felt like a bizarre test of “prove you’re not a racist”, and as the moments passed, I felt my disbelief growing.

Why is that people – especially so-called radicals – believe that it’s perfectly legitimate to say out loud: “I hate white South Africans”?

Think about it. This is a woman who clearly believes it’s wrong to judge people on the colour of their skins and their disabilities. She would never say: “I hate blacks”.

This is a woman whose who does not see herself represented in the values of mainstream British society and the current Tory government, and firmly believes that the individual is separate from the state. So how can she justify hating me based on the fact that I grew up in a racist state?

Yes, it is entirely possible that I could still share the views of that racist state. But it is also entirely possible that I could not.

We live in confronting times.

This week Mcebo Dlamini, a student from the University of the Witwatersrand who has been very visible in the #FeesMustFall protests – protests that I have a lot of empathy with because I too struggled my way through the financial pressures of an expensive university education – reiterated that he loved Adolf Hilter because: “Hitler took white people [and] starved them to death, the same way they did to black people. That’s why they hate him. I love Adolf Hitler for that.”

Also, this week Donald Trump continued to insult Mexicans and women.

The world seems to be a place where the self-righteous believe that they are entirely justified in forcing someone else’s identity upon them. Where the radicals and would-be heroes feel that they are entitled to reduce someone else’s identity to one they can pinpoint, hate and dismiss.

But we all know that our personal identities are much more complex than that.

When we will begin to extend that same awareness to the dreaded other?

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We are not the same, are we?

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A koan is a statement that is both true and not true. The Buddhists contemplate koans as a way to reach enlightenment. Put simply, koans are head fucks.

For the past month, I have been getting uncomfortable with this koan:
“We are all the same in so much as we are all shaped by our history, but because all our histories are different, we are not the same.”

Another koan you can make out of this is:
“We are all the same in that we are all unique.”

Why does this make me uncomfortable? Because as a child of the Rainbow Nation which has non-racialism enshrined in its constitution, I have spent the last 22 years trying to undo the apartheid conditioning that drummed into our conscious and unconscious minds – through stealth, subliminal messages, structural inequalities and spatial positioning – that white people were different to black people. In fact, according to the message, we were so different, it was imperative that we were kept apart, and that we only inhabit the same spaces when we needed something from each other – mostly a labour-cash exchange. The only permitted relationship was transactional. For everything else – friendship, love, sex, laughter, worship, contemplation, education – you must stick to those who look like you.

Nelson Mandela’s vision changed that. We were catapulted into a new age where we were encouraged to not give any meaning to the colour of someone’s skin. We were encouraged not to make assumptions about someone based on their skin colour. Our new goal was to become a colour-blind nation. A goal long-since adopted by countries like the UK.

A month ago I interviewed a Fallist – the South African students leading the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall protests – for a piece I was writing about the shifting South African narrative. She agreed to speak to me as a favour, because, as she bluntly put it: “We are done with white people telling our story.”

She then went on to tell me how she hates non-racialism. That non-racialism is just a license for the privileged classes to enjoy a clear conscience while turning a blind eye to the continued suffering and economic struggle of black South Africans who have ended up there because of historic racism.

As a wealthy, successful black woman I know in her 50s, puts it: “Everytime someone says ‘I don’t even think of you as black’, I want to scream. I had to crawl on my hands and knees to get where I am today. When someone says they don’t see my skin colour, it makes me feel unseen all over again.”

I thought about this a lot over the past week while in Bulgaria on a travel-writing assignment, travelling around by steam train in the carriages that once belonged to King Boris III, the monarch/dictator who was murdered by Hitler’s acolytes in 1943 because he refused to send the 50,000 Bulgarian Jews to concentration camps. He was posthumously awarded the Jewish National Fund’s Medal of the Legion of Honor.

Bulgaria might be the ugliest country on earth. Not in terms of its natural beauty – it has its share of mountains, trees and a lovely spot on the Black Sea – but in terms of post-Soviet urban decay. Everything that was once believed to be grand, is cracked and crumbling. Apartment blocks with windows like eyes in mourning, mascara streaming down their face. It is not kind to make fun of another’s poverty, but being in Bulgaria is an aesthetic onslaught, your eyes constantly darting around, desperate to find a shred of beauty. You take pictures of flowers to ease the panic.

The Bulgarians have had a tough half a millennia. For 400 years they were oppressed by the Ottomans.

“We were slaves in our own country,” said the tour guide who showed us around the old town of Plovdiv, one of the few pretty enclaves in the whole country.

The word slave actually comes from Slavic, which describes the languages spoken in this part of the world.

In Sofia, the tour guide showed us a stone church built into the ground.

“The roofs of our churches could be no higher than a Turk on horseback,” explained the guide. Mindless, humiliating oppression. Your god must be lower than our people.

When the Bulgarians finally got rid of the shackles in 1878 they adopted an advanced democratic constitution though had to ask the Russians to help run the administration because they were without the skills and systems.

Later, during the first and second world wars, the Bulgarians made the mistake of siding with the Germans and after the second war, found themselves under the control of a new leader – the Soviets. And so entered a new period of repression under Communism. When the USSR began to collapse in 1989, 2.5 million Bulgarians – the so-called intelligentsia – left for Canada, USA, Europe and Australia, doubting that this country would thrive under democracy.

“Romania and Bulgaria were the only European countries who didn’t try and rebel against the Soviet state. That tells you something about the mindset,” says a Bulgarian physicist who I meet later on a plane. He fled to Canada in 1989 with the implosion of the USSR. “This is a nihilistic nation. Negative thinking runs deep.”

Which brings me back to my koan.

“We are all the same in so much as we are all shaped by our history, but because all of our histories are different, we are not the same.”

In the past year, at Consciousness Café – the pop-up dialogue café I co-run in South Africa to encourage frank conversation about racism and other ongoing injustices – black South Africans speak often about internalised oppression and the burdens of self-doubt and inferiority that people carry, often unconsciously, because of the legacy of apartheid.

Epigenetics – the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself – has even started to find that it is true, that we carry the anxiety and emotional strife of our parents in our DNA, just as much as we carry their facial features.

So where does this leave us, as we try to push forward and build a world where we treat each other with equal respect? How can we be both conscious of the long-term effects of the historical oppression on the psychology of members of our society, while at the same time, not always judging them on their history?

How can we be non-judgemental while also being conscious of the story that may lie behind someone’s race or gender, class or culture?

Koans are not meant to have answers. They are meant to be sandpaper for our minds. To make us continually aware of the complexity of existence and of how there are no absolute truths.

So I leave this here. I have no prescription. Except to always question authority.

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

 

Fuck white people?

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How do you react when you attend a public lecture in which an intellectual, journalist and influencer argues that the slogan ‘Fuck White People’ is an artistically beautiful form of protest? Do you clap? Offer a standing ovation? Roll your eyes? Mutter ‘fuck black intellectuals’ under your breath?

It is something I’ve contemplated over the past week, since attending the Ruth First Memorial Lecture at Wits University, where Lwandile Fikeni, freelance arts journalist and Ruth First fellow, presented his case for why the slogan ‘Fuck White People’ is a “highly aestheticized form of critiquing South Africa’s social ordering”.

Fikeni looks back over the year and a half since the student protests began in March 2015 with the flinging of human shit at the statue of Cecil John Rhodes in Cape Town. Rhodes was the arch British imperialist, who in the late 1800s, turned much of the land of South Africa into a Company to be exploited for profit. His statue has become a symbol of white supremacy.

Fikeni argues that because the majority of black South Africans still live outside the political, social and economic life of the country to which they are supposed to belong and because the Rainbow Nation is a myth that benefits only a privileged minority; grotesque acts of rage are an inevitable, justified and necessary means to attack the symbols of white supremacy.

Hear hear, I say. Throw the shit.

Fikeni then goes on to argue that there is something else worth lobbing – the phrase ‘Fuck White People’.

He quotes the African-American writer, dramatist, filmmaker and critic, Frank Wilderson, who says: “There’s no vocabulary, no language to articulate black suffering. That means white people have screwed us to a point that is beyond discourse, that’s beyond political language, that’s beyond respectful, understandable, engagement; so fuck you.”

Over the past year, ‘Fuck White People’ has appeared on walls and T-shirts. According to Fikeni’s reading, these words are not an incitement to harm nor an attempt to start a race war, but rather a grotesque necessity deployed to capture the discourse. So ‘Fuck white people’ is an expression of fury, an incitement to introspection, and a poetic lob of shit at the status quo.

And again I get his point.

If everyone is asleep, you need to make a loud bang to wake them up. And to date, no white people have been physically – or materially – harmed in the making of these protests.

But will ‘Fuck White People’ make white people “woke”? Or is it just another layer of oppression?

The analysis used by Fikeni and The Fallists (the self-appointed label of the student protesters) to critique the post-apartheid state is rooted in economics. They argue, correctly, that the shift to democracy did not do enough to transfer economic power and opportunity to the majority black population and thus has done little to redress the inequalities established by the apartheid state. I wrote about this in my book, Lost Where We Belong, in which I report on frustration (mine and others) with the continued disregard of the black majority by the elites – an elite which includes many within the ANC government.

But there is another value system that matters to humans, and which is overlooked by these critics: moral goodness. As humans, we don’t only value ourselves according to how financially secure we are, but also on who we think is the good guy and who we think is the shitbag. You can be poor and still be respected for being good. And to many of us, being thought to be the good guy matters more than being wealthy.

So where do white people fit into the South African moral hierarchy? For the past 20+ years, we’ve woken up daily on the wrong side of goodness. We pour shame on our cornflakes, and sprinkle it with guilt, and try not to choke on it. We are the archetypal shitbags of the world. White South Africans have been tolerated for their economic contribution to the country, while being morally looked down upon for our part, be it active or passive, in the apartheid state.

A black friend told me about a black guy she briefly met who steals phones from revellers at nightclubs popular with white South Africans in Pretoria.

“How can you do that?” she asked.

“It’s no big deal. It’s not like I steal them from people,” he replied.

In his view, white people are not people.

Recently, online forums have been thick with debates about who can and cannot be racist. According to the current consensus, black people cannot be racist. Why? Because racism is not just prejudice, it is a form of oppression, and only those with economic power can oppress.

But where this argument trips up is that it uses only one value system to measure our power and our worth: money. The same value system that many black South Africans (including The Fallists) say is an abomination and not truly African.

So what happens if we acknowledge the importance of moral goodness in our human hierarchies? If moral goodness matters, and black South Africans have the moral upper hand, then it is possible for black people to use their moral power to oppress whites. Which is kind of how “Fuck White People’ feels.

It might sounds aesthetically pleasing to Fikeni and people who look like him. But from where I am sitting in my white skin, tanned by the African sun, it feels like racism and hate speech, which flouts any recognition of the efforts of redress – however big or small – that white South Africans have made during the 22 years of ANC rule, often with our hands tied because, as individuals (I’ll leave the corporations out of this), we have had very little political power.

So yes.

Fuck white supremacy.

Fuck white elitism.

Fuck white patriarchy.

Fuck white corporations.

Fuck the ANC.

But Fuck white people? No. Go fuck yourself*

(*All in the spirit of debate, Lwandile Fikeni)

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb