What I write about when I am not writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can explore the quilts for yourself here:

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

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

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

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The readers’ wrath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing can give me succour at a time of difficulty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The vilifier is back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How liberating. 

 

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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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