A whiter shade of pale

I’d rather endure bumper-to-bumper exhaust fumes in silence than sit through another tedious radio talk show on the topic. I hear the word “race”, I turn the dial. Goodbye SAfm, goodbye 702.
Hello Bob Dylan: tell me something that hurts.

For years I stayed tuned, listening on in the hope that someone would say something fresh and dazzling. But then I stopped listening. Because there is something about the bi-polar topic of race that results in South Africans checking in their personalities at the door.

Public discussions on the topic quickly descend into a dull hum of platitude-swapping as Brian from Bryanston and Sipho from Soweto haul out all the exhausted old phrases and hand-me-down ideas that clog the drains of contemporary wisdom. The politicians and the pundits don’t come close to the mind-blowing range of racial experiences that punctuate the everyday realities of the average South African. Humbling, enervating, mystifying—race is a twisted choreographer that plays silent havoc with our days.

But when the dinner party cacophony veers towards the topic I’m the first to stop drinking and volunteer to take the gravy-soaked plates to the kitchen. Because that’s the moment when idiosyncrasy and surprise leave the room and everyone reverts to his or her monologues. Having been knocked around by three guys with AK-47s in his own home, my usually riveting father becomes a predictable bigot in the face of my equally predictable zealot. Gay friends turn into ranting Republicans. My brother becomes an instant Zulu blanc, ululating at the altar of Jacob Zuma. And my husband starts becoming nostalgic about the favelas of Brazil, where race is as passé as Havaianas, and the infrastructural demands of a city with a mega-population as big as São Paulo’s are more Beijing than Ipanema.

I invariably get stuck somewhere between the socialist gangbang idealism of my pre-1994 toyi-toying days and the frigid cynicism I feel in the wake of the conservative cultural essentialism that defined the Mbeki era. The African renaissance was an ideological party that rocked on to Timbuktu without me. I seemed to get left behind with my SPF60 and my astronomical electricity bill.

So there I am, driving home from Hyde Park mall after blowing some ebucks to ward off my recession blues, when I get a call from the Mail & Guardian. The piece they’re after? It’s my own personal tokoloshe come home to haunt me. You can’t put your bed on bricks forever. “How does it feel to be white in South Africa now?” How does it feel to have hayfever on the first hot day of spring, to be childless, 40, slightly hungry, stuck in a traffic jam and moderately saddened by the death of Patrick Swayze?

I know how being white doesn’t feel. It doesn’t feel like kwaito. None of that relentless, throbbing desire to announce oneself. It doesn’t feel like Allen Ginsberg yelling his tumbling, hallucinatory anthem, Howl, over the rooftops of New York City in the summer of 1955. My sense of being in my skin, in my country, isn’t half as ballsy and declaratory as all that. It’s an altogether quieter, more stoic kind of an affair.

Witnessing Helen Zille toyi-toying in the run-up to the elections made me feel skaam to be white. Like a babalaas flashback, it reminded me of myself when I was 21 and bok to belong. But my skaamness didn’t stop me voting for her. (Basic instinct: power must be checked and balanced.) And voting for her didn’t stop me feeling like an unspoken-for outsider.

Sometimes, being white is just about carrying on. But sometimes the news flash bleeds right over the edges and you get fired-up and indignant all over again. Take the half-baked diplomatic “outrage” that got aired in response to the sprinkler salesman from Mowbray being given Canadian refugee status. There’s no denying the fact that more black people than white people are victims of violent crime in this country. But with close to 3 000 farmers having been murdered in tens of thousands of farm attacks since 1994, it’s not as though we are living in an extended-play version of Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s Ebony and Ivory either.

How does it feel to be white? It doesn’t feel like a version of JM Coetzee’s Disgrace. For a while, in the late 1990s, it did. But we’re beyond that now. Beyond the drama department, there’s an expanse of days to be lived through. Race is an unpredictable and felt everyday transaction, not an apocalypse.

In my “dancing on the Rockey Street rooftops” days I used to be the first to diss my prissy Wasp roots, almost militantly seduced by the idea of the metropolitan métisse. But I’d outlived the phase before the term “wigga” came into currency and these days I’m less inclined to deny my European cultural imprint. Modesty, understatement, not blowing your own vuvuzela—these are English traits that I think are worth carrying forth into the postmodern meltdown that is the future.

I often feel heavy with privilege. Still. After all these years, I drive along and see not one, not two, but one-hundred-and-seven black women who could be my mother or my grandmother toiling along the peri-urban pavement on a Wednesday afternoon. So what am I going to do about it? Angst? Kvetch? Probably. But I’m also on the board of an orphan outreach programme that supports about 300 child-led families in Soweto. I don’t do a zillionth as much as the women who run the place but, between struggling to pay my bond, I try to do what I can to regularly disrupt my assumptions. I’m the first to depress myself with the idea that white liberalism gets you nowhere. But depression is a static state. I choose to keep moving and connecting.

With the odd exception (like the riveting local mini-series, Noah’s Arc, about a Xhosa doctor who loves his family but can’t shake the memory of the beautiful Afrikaans girl he once loved 30 years ago), it feels boring being white when I watch SABC—like I’m trapped in a version of South Africa that doesn’t match the energy on the streets. It’s like the African renaissance version of The Truman Show. Must Nigerians always be the bad guys? Are white people doomed to play forever the stereotypical dumbass racist, like Wickus van der Merwe in District 9 or the interchangeable hapless whitey slotted into Vodacom ads?

At a dinner party in Sophiatown recently I met a man in a Panama hat who works in a kosher food production facility. As it turns out, he is also a South African sumo-wrestling champion. What can I say? Long live the nuance. Somewhere out there, beyond Top Billing and Generations, lies a tangible universe of magnificent possibility. But you’ve got to be willing to flip the channel. Otherwise, you could just stay tuned to black and white until the end of history.

Alex Dodd is an independent writer and editor

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