There is a chasm between the actual world and the world of ideas, and the writer’s job is to build a bridge to connect the two. These bridges are bastards to make. Just as you think you’ve woven a sturdy section, a thought slips out and tumbles a thousand feet. Just as you tentatively take your first steps on a finished bridge, it sways dangerously and you have to go back to the beginning. Which is why I find myself here this morning, starting again.
Yesterday I tried to write about a Consciousness Café that I co-facilitated in 2017 at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. Consciousness Café is a dialogue café that I co-created with Keke Motseke and Anisha Panchia to bring South Africans together to talk about the issues that continue to divide us. Con Hill, as we affectionately call it in South Africa, is a place where transformation is in the walls, literally. During apartheid it was a political prison and its bricks were later used to build the Constitutional Court, the highest court in the land that can hold even the government to account (and frequently does). Among its parapets are spaces where citizens are encouraged to play music, show art and have discussions.
The topic at a Consciousness Café is decided by the people in attendance. Racism and racial justice usually find their way onto the agenda, and that day 65 people, from all race groups, chose to discuss: “How can we use privilege to influence change?”
The dialogue lasted four hours, the conversation built in heat and intensity, and one of the most powerful insights of the day was this: “If we expect ‘privilege’ to be responsible for the change we want to see, we are giving more power to old power structures, and not growing the power in ourselves.” As that idea arrived in the space, the room fell totally silent. A moment of collective realisation.
How had we got to this point? We had begun the dialogue by asking ourselves what “privilege” was. We agreed the received definition of privilege is a rank endowed on you by your gender, skin colour, nationality, language, sexuality, material wealth, family connections, educational status. The more rank you have, the more you are able to move with ease through the world.
We probed further: what was privilege really?
We decided it was a kind of resource that society ascribed value and power to.
And so we asked ourselves: what resources did we have in our individual lives, regardless of whether society valued them or not? The answers from the room were wide and varied. Parents that loved us. Mental health. Physical health. An able body. A quick mind. A sense of humour. A talent. A fiery temper. A knack for empathy. Culture.
And what then followed was a tentative redefining of privilege. Not as something that exists beyond most of our reach, but something within all of our lives. Personal resources that we normally didn’t value because society didn’t value them.
We had set out to ask “How could we use privilege to influence change?”, and now we found ourselves wondering whether trying to leverage those typical things of privilege: white skin, male gender, immense wealth, elite education to influence change, was part of the problem? Were we in fact re-empowering these structures, giving them the light and putting ourselves in the shade? Wouldn’t real change come when we recognised and harnessed the power within ourselves, a power that might look very different?
There was no doubt those four hours were transformational for all those who participated. But as I tried to write it down yesterday all I could hear were the trolls. I tried to reason with myself, saying that I was just documenting what had happened. That my job as a writer is to push a pin into the corkboard of our collective history in order to frame it, reflect it back to the world, and create a space for others to reflect. But over the past few years, the rise of identity politics has made me wary of putting my white fingers to the keyboard on any topic linked to racial justice. When the recent Black Lives Matter protests swept through the world, an Indian friend asked on Facebook why her white friends were not engaging with this topic. Where were our solidarity posts? Why were we silent?
She was right. I had purposefully remained quiet. One aspect of this was personal. As mother to a breast-feeding toddler and wife to a man whose cancer seems to be trying to ebb back from remission, lockdown had been both beautiful (much-needed family time) and tough (my milk-bar was open 24/7). But that wasn’t the whole story. After five years co-facilitating racial justice conversations, I knew how quickly white allies can find themselves misunderstood, chastised for not getting involved enough (a luxury that black people don’t have) or berated for getting too involved and thus centring themselves. It’s a balancing act that requires constant consciousness that, as I argued in my essay Common As Muck, most white people, myself included, don’t have, because we really are just mere mortals trying to survive, protect and thrive, aren’t any better at this thing called life than anyone else, and to suggest we should be, is a weird legacy of the white supremacy myth. In short, it’s messy, I am shit, please stop shouting at me.
Recently there was a discussion on the BBC Front Row radio programme in which the presenter asked where were the white writers writing about race? I raised my arm even though no one could see me. Which is apt. My non-fiction book, Lost Where We Belong, in which I tried to examine the unexplored prejudice within me, nurtured in my apartheid childhood, gained very little attention.
When I started writing Lost Where We Belong, I really had believed in a kumba-ya future. I was a child of the Rainbow Nation, and had bought into its vision, hook, line and sinker. Ten years later, I am utterly disillusioned. It’s an ideal that is too far from reality to be useful. There is too much hurt, too much economic injustice, too much need for restitution and desire for revenge for us to all stand side by side and cheer together for longer than a football match.
And whereas previously I saw the battle for racial justice as a battle for equality, now I see it as a battle for power. That doesn’t make it a bad thing, it makes it a human thing. We are all motivated to survive, protect and thrive. The more power we have, the easier it is to survive, protect and thrive. Humans try to be altruistic, but people mostly don’t like to contemplate that uncomfortable point when we turn our backs and get into tribal formation.
“Yours is a book everyone should read, but they won’t,” my Afrikaans friend told me, after she had finished reading it. I realise now how right she is. And I now think there is actually very little point in white writers writing about racial justice. Black people resent you for taking their air and white people mistrust you. Writers need readers, and if readers don’t see you as a credible narrator, it’s futile. But before I go, I decided that I would share that insight from that Consciousness Café because you know what, it isn’t tosh.
“Check your privilege!” has become a war cry of the racial justice movement. It’s a political way of telling the establishment to “Shut up and listen!” but all it serves to do is make white folk ask “So, now what?”, and reminds those outside that perceived establishment of their lower rank. Disempowering all round really.
Better calls to arms for everyone would be to “Check your Prejudice!” (because although everyone might not be able to be racist by the Frantz Fanon definition, everyone can definitely be prejudiced), and “Use Your Privilege!” – use the resources at your disposal, even if they are not the big ticket ones that the rest of the world fancies, to make the world a better place. Privilege is a resource. Find yours, leverage it and share it. It will make the world better.
And with that, I sign out. Love. Respect. Try be kind.