Unpopular Essays will take a break from April-June.
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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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
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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I have never been the kind of journalist who rushes to the scene of the car crash. I have always been the one to hang back, observing from a distance, more interested in what happens long after the moment of impact, than the mangled metal.
Which is probably why I haven’t put fingers to my keyboard in the past month. Right now the American presidency feels like a multi-car pile-up, and I am standing on the verge, watching while the first-responders – the lawyers, human rights activists, protestors and opposition politicians – are trying to help the victims.
Although I take heart that somebody seems to know what to do, I also find myself feeling as wary of the jaws of life, as the wreckage itself. It feels like we are veering from one knee-jerk reaction to another. No time to stop and think.
The other reason I haven’t been writing UnpopularEssays is because I am on a deadline. Together with a fellow journalist, I am writing the Secret Joburg book for Jonglez’ “local guides for local people” series, which involves hours and hours of digging around in obscure corners of the city, meeting the city’s champions and guardians, documenting the forgotten and quirky treasures.
Johannesburg has always been a contested place. With its near-perfect climate, its fertile soil and its dense underbelly of gold, it’s a city that has lured every kind of fortune hunter, from every religion, nation and race group, and it’s all of their treasures that I am attempting to capture.
Not wanting to leave anyone out, today I headed out far west, or rather, far right, to the towns of Roodepoort and Krugersdorp – the old bastions of the Boers. My guide was a lovely old amateur historian who showed me the first shop ever built on the Witwatersrand – it sold liquor – and took me, in the pouring rain, to a cemetery where women and children who died in a British concentration camp of the second Anglo Boer war lie in unmarked graves.
As our morning progressed, it became clear that my guide was a man with right-leaning politics, and we gently and politely disagreed with each other until he said: “I was going to say something, but I probably shouldn’t”.
“Go on, please say it,” I said.
“I was going to say you probably wouldn’t have voted for Trump,” he said.
“You’re right,” I said. “Would you have?”
“Definitely. Something has got to be done,” he said.
“Well for a start, America is a Christian country, and they can’t even teach God in their schools anymore,” he said.
I looked at him baffled out of the corner of my eye. This is a country where some schools teach Creationism. Since when has there been a blanket ban on religious education in America? I didn’t choose to debate the facts with him though, instead I asked him why this mattered. If you want your child to learn about the Lord, can you not teach them at home? Why is it up to the school and not the parents? And if you want it to be up to the school, then should you not opt to send them to a religious school?
He conceded that it was a point worth considering, but continued to say that teaching about Jesus in schools is what teaches morality and discipline. And the problem with the Muslims is that their religion doesn’t teach morality. In fact, it doesn’t teach them how to treat anyone but themselves.
I was trying to find the right way to ask how Trump’s Christianity was any different, but his conversation had already moved on to the Muslim refugees in Europe.
“What are they doing there?” he asked.
“They are running away from war,” I replied.
“Which war?” he asked.
“The war in Syria,” I replied.
“If they were running from war, there would be women and children among them. Where are the women in children?” he asked.
Eighteen months ago I wrote about the refugee crisis on the Greek island of Kos for the British newspaper, the Independent. Women and children, whole families, crowded the shoreline.
“I saw them with my own eyes,” I told him.
“But then why are we not being told the truth?” he asked.
“Maybe the more important question is why do we believe, without question, everything we are told? Why are we so keen to soak up facts that support our prejudice?” I probed.
I dropped the West Rand historian back at his house and drove away, feeling sad. He was a nice fellow. A kind fellow. A fellow who says he became an amateur historian in his retirement because he loves sorting the lies from the truth. And yet, he is also a man who openly harbours a blanket mistrust of black people and Muslims based on alternative facts.
It doesn’t add up.
Follow me on Twitter @writerclb
I am Afro-Celt but neither
Not born in either
A world citizen? No
The phrase seems thin
The craving is, for belonging
I see you
But do you see me?
Trying to become
What it feels to be
Follow me on Twitter @writerclb
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