Category Archives: Racism and prejudice

‘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

 

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?

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

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.

Follow me on Twitter@writerclb

 

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

 

 

“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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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)

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Is culture just a polite word for power?

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Last week, while having breakfast with a French friend at her home in France, I filled a croissant with scrambled eggs and ham, and tucked into it, sandwich style. My friend looked at me as if I had just bit into a baby.

“That’s not done,” she said.

“Well I am doing it, so it can be done,” I replied.

“Well yes, but we don’t do it. It’s not French.”

A little story. Une forte mentalité. For the past 15 years I have quietly rubbed up against the French, learning their language and often visiting the country. My frisson began with admiration. France seemed a much more cosmopolitan reality than the one I had been born into – a working class Yorkshire girl who had been chucked out of England and into apartheid South Africa by Margaret Thatcher’s iron fist. Who were these sophisticated, exotic creatures who treasured food and style? I wanted what they were having.

But as the years went by, and my fascination with cheese dwindled, something else began to grate. The French have a favourite expression.

“C’est normal,” they say. It’s normal.

They use it to describe why some things are difficult (convoluted French bureaucracy), why some things are fabulous (an entire supermarket aisle dedicated to cheese) and why some things are just not worth commenting on (another glorious day of sunshine).

“C’est normal” is the punctuation mark used to put a stop to any conversation that raises an eyebrow at French culture. And to a person who came of age with the end of apartheid and the fall of the Berlin Wall, “C’est normal” is like a red flag to a bull. My only normal is change and more change. Which is perhaps why France was so attractive for a while. The lure of a solid, sure-of-itself culture.

Last week then, as I munched on my croissant, and my friend dropped into the conversation that hers was one of the bon families of France – and by bon, she meant wealthy, respected and influential – I found myself wondering: is culture just a polite word for power? A pretentious way of saying, I’m in, you’re out?

I started a dialogue with myself in my head. What does culture give you when you embrace it? A shortcut to who you are. (This is how I eat a croissant). A sense of belonging. (This is how we eat croissants). A shortcut to who others are. (They are just like me, look how they eat croissants)

And there’s no doubt that us humans like shortcuts. In his brilliant book, Thinking Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman (who was co-awarded a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science in 2002 for his work on psychology of judgement and decision making) explores in detail how the brain doesn’t like to do any more work than it has to, always setting up easy-to-access short-cuts to help us navigate the world and thus survive.

And then I wondered: what does culture take from you when it stares you in the eye and declares: “hey you, you are not one of us”?

Can culture take from you the same thing it gives: robbing you of your sense of self, sense of belonging, a sense of feeling connected to others?

It’s unpopular to say this now, but at the outset apartheid was envisioned as a way to create a society where different cultures could flourish side by side. Where it got it horribly, drastically wrong, was in the way Afrikaner culture treated those outside its culture – with disrespect, hostility, brutality, inhumanity.

Confucius wrote: “Behave to every man as one receiving a great guest.”

What kind of country would South Africa be, if we treated those who are not of our culture, with grace, interest and respect? If culture was not used as a means to wield power and exclusion?

And one wonders the same about France. Right now the country is in a State of Emergency. It has become a prime target for IS-inspired killers, and to date, nearly all of these men with guns are French nationals.

Why are these men attacking the country that raised them? Is there something within the culture of the country that they have grown up in that has undermined their sense of self, of belonging, of feeling connected to a wider community?

This is not an essay on the value of homogeneity. In nature beauty exists in diversity. The most beautiful forests are those in which different trees grow side-by-side and small flowers flourish in their dappled light. But rather I find myself pondering, how do we shape a world where not only do we aim to treat each other as guests of honour – but where it is possible to act with such grace?

I held this question in my head on a train from Marseille to Paris at the end of my French holiday. I waited for my next train in a café outside Gare du Nord, where Romany gypsy girls spend the day begging. Dressed in flowery skirts and headscarves, they thrust their cupped hands at everyone passing by, stabbing their palms expectantly with their finger. Between begging stints they laugh and chat aimlessly, like young women between customers in a clothing store.

Watching them beg, it struck me that the crisis between cultures often comes when one culture demands or expects something of the other. When one is no longer content with being treated as a favoured guest, but begins to set an agenda.

I mentioned this to my husband and he told me a story he had heard about a Bedouin tribe. In the desert in the days of old, a traveller was welcomed into a camp and could have anything he wanted for three days. The wife included. At the end of those three days, the host could kill him. It was the caveat that made sure that no one ever abused the hospitality of another.

I thought back to my visit to my French friend. Her older sister had railed against those Muslims who abuse the French social welfare state by not working, having many wives, expecting the French system to support them and their families. Her big brushstroke views had made me squirm with liberal discomfort, but whatever the truth or falsity of the accusations she was making, her voice was unmistakable: a voice of anger and resentment. The host whose hospitality had been abused. She was on day three and ready to attack.

For a long time the liberal left have kept clear of talking about what happens when cultures collide – that was reserved for the right-wing racists. But as Europe (and many places throughout the world) finds themselves on a knife-edge, perhaps its time we all posed ourselves these two questions:

Am I being a good host?

Am I being a good guest?

After all, we’re all just passing through.

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

Shattered pasts

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(South African war relics, Marie Rawdon Museum, Matjiesfontein, Karoo)

A few years ago, while tapping away on my laptop during a flight to Cape Town, the woman sitting next to me asked me if I was writing a book.

I was. She asked me what it was about. At the time, my answer changed, depending on who was asking. I decided to give this 60-year-old white South African woman the long answer.

I had been an Open Society Foundation fellow. I had spent three months in the old Transkei investigating what democracy had – and hadn’t – brought to rural South Africa. During that journey I had run headlong into my own fears, prejudice and ignorance. I was writing a book confronting the racist shadows in me, a 38-year-old English-speaking South African.

“Would you read it?” I asked her.

She sighed.

“It’s very difficult for me to pick up one of those books and read,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Tangled emotions of guilt and regret and deep, deep sorrow.”

I waited quietly, waiting for her to say more.

“We’re in a bit of haze, perhaps we’ve had to develop that to survive. I’m sorry that we are so dulled, that there is a dullness of interest, it’s just as though…” she thought for a while, “I think we had to fall asleep. For survival. To live with guilt and regret is too painful.”

Her words echoed something I had read in Jonathan Jansen’s book Knowledge in the Blood. In it he discusses Shattered Past, research that examined the behaviour of post-war German communities. The research found that even after communities had come to have direct knowledge of the killings and torture of Jews, “the majority of the population rather preferred to cover its own complicity with merciful silence”.

For close on twenty years many whites South Africans acted similarly. Silence was the norm and when you did address “it”, it was often reduce to two words: “white guilt”. Go out of your way for a black person and a colleague might mockingly chide: “white guilt!” Turn away from a beggar, pretending that neither of you are there, and your conscience would taunt the same. Try raise the topic of apartheid and its link to poverty, poor education or crime at a braai, and the reply would be: “Enough of the white guilt already.” White guilt didn’t like to chat.

Recently, I found myself reflecting on how the conversation has shifted, how 21 years later, silence and white guilt are no longer in charge. Since late last year, “whiteness” and “privilege” have become the new buzz words, and the uncomfortable thing about these new labels are that they are being put upon us. People who are not us are describing our behaviour, defining our ordinary, every day, sometimes shitty, sometimes amazing lives as a stolen good.

“How dare they?” come the retaliations. “How dare they judge us? After all, we all know how the thieves are around here, don’t we?”

Oh yes, the dialogue is shifting. Our culpable silence is being broken, and white South Africans are feeling exposed, defenceless, uncomfortable.

What are we supposed to do now?

Well, if the Shattered Past research is anything to go by, what is happening now is very similar to what happened in post-war Germany. Just over twenty years after the end of the Second War, as the old Germans begin to die, a space opened up for a new generation of thinkers and writers who were able to observe the past with a new critical consciousness.

Cue – in South Africa – the Frantz Fanon, RhodesMustFall, EFF generation.

And if we keep drawing the parallel, what the Shattered Past research found was that “the capacity for perpetrators to change arose only after the political elites recognized more than one pain and ‘the link between the suffering of the victims and the perpetrators’ was established.”

In other words, for society to heal, it had to start setting aside some compassion for the bad guys.

In post-war Germany, the blanket of silence had meant Germans had been stopped from processing their own war wounds: the rape they had suffered at the hands of the Russians, the death of their solider sons, the intimidation and fear culture that had been Nazi Germany. Yes, the Nuremberg trials (Truth and Reconcilliation Commission) had held those with actual blood on their hands to account, but the rest of the Germans had been left alone to deal with their losses.

In 1960s Germany, the new youth consciousness heralded a phase where the personal losses and griefs of the past were permitted to be aired and dissected.

And I find myself wondering: is that what South Africa needs too? Do those white South Africans with their fortress houses and 4x4s who don’t seem to give a fuck about anyone but themselves, need to be given an opportunity to express their unresolved pain?

Admittedly, it’s often hard to feel anything but contempt for some white South Africans. On Valentine’s weekend I was at the Vaal River and felt like washing my hands of any further attempt at inter-racial healing as I witnessed the selfishness of those white South Africans, with their jet skis and speed boats who drive drunk and reckless on the river without a care for anyone but themselves. How does one even begin to have compassion for people who seem to treat the world as just a giant playground, hoarding all the toys? Who are these people?

But later, as the sun set over the river, and I connected once again with the deep peace of the land, I also found myself wondering what lurks beneath all that bravado and shiny toys and heavy drinking?

In his book Jansen remembers how destitute the white Afrikaners were at the end of the South African War. They had been chased from Europe because of their religious faith, and then they had been defeated again on this new soil as they had tried to build a new home. Out of this defeat they rose again, this time determined to create a nation that no one could destroy, and they lost control of that too.

What lies inside people who have lost and lost and lost?

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

The noise of the world is made of our silences

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Why do I write about race issues? Sometimes I think I am crazy. Sometimes I am sure of it. Why admit to and reflect on dirty prejudices that haunt the shadows of the mind? It’s probably safer to poke a snake with a stick.

I found myself reflecting on this, this weekend, while reading All Quiet on the Western Front, a book that documents the horror of war and that was banned in Germany in the lead-up to World War 2 on the grounds that it painted Germans in a bad light.

For twenty years, South Africans subconsciously banned talking about racism. There was a collective belief that it didn’t support our Rainbow Nation’s war effort, namely the fight inside ourselves to forget the past and move on as quickly as we could.

That’s not to say people weren’t branded racists. “Racist!” became the punctuation mark to end any unwanted conversation. It was the silencer of choice used to quieten any unsolicited criticism, often of the government. But there it got stuck, at the level of insult, never probing, never advancing any deeper understanding.

That is, until March 2015, when the Born Frees woke up and called us on it, adding whiteness and privilege to the concepts to chew on.

The other day, a white woman from Kempton Park asked me to explain #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall.

“What do they want?” she asked.

I explained that because of income and education disparity, begun by institutional inequalities in the past and perpetuated by inequalities in the present, many black people continue to feel second-class citizens in their own country. Locked out.

“But it was hard for me too,” she said, going on to document the years of strife as she worked two jobs to pay her way through university, clawed her way into male-dominated work spaces, struggled to get promoted, be recognised, be seen.

“Then you understand,” I said.

One of the greatest crimes of apartheid was that it taught us not to have compassion for people who do not look like us. Compassion was for the person who sat next to you in church. Pity was for the maid.

We are still stuck here. We may shake hands, call each other bra and dance with petrol attendants, but we are still clawing our way to the place where we see each other as people.

That’s why I write about race relations. Because if I stand naked, and lay myself bare, you’ll start to see me. And we may start to see each other.

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