White man, you’re on your own

A year ago, I knocked myself out in a fall. Afterwards, I looked exactly like a battered woman: black eyes, missing teeth, split lips. In this state, I swung into a petrol station minutes after load-shedding cut the power to the pumps. The man who came over to explain this was black and working class. He reeled at the sight of me: “Haai, mami! Shem shem shem. Yoh! Askies, mami. Askies.” His distress and compassion were palpable.

I drove round the corner, parked, put my head on my arms and wept. The question kept ringing in my head – one I’ve asked repeatedly as a white South African, especially during this past year of heightened violence against black bodies, the growing discourse of decolonisation, #BlackLivesMatter and student outrage: Why are black people so nice to me?

You could argue that the attendant who was kind to me on a dreadful day was simply brainwashed or servile, but you might be erasing his agency, ignoring his empathy and humanity.

But not much milk of human kindness flowed between different race groups (which, for simplicity’s sake, I’ll refer to here as black and white) in 2015. Black citizens have given voice to their experiences of racism in new and visible ways. Outrage has been performed differently. Scathing, strident, intense, disinhibited, sophisticated, often agonising and sometimes witty, these voices spill all over social media.

Predictably, the disruptive new narratives about privilege, race and decolonisation have often been classified as “outbursts”, “black rage” and “reverse racism”. White South Africans have responded with wailing defensiveness.

Those called on racist behaviour and attitudes tend to disavow their own racial privilege, or distance themselves from the history of apartheid and colonialism. Or they declare themselves “colour-blind” – itself a privileged position not available to a young black man facing down a police gun.

One problem with these defensive impulses is that they generate so much white noise, they suck up the oxygen of public dialogue. So the first response of some white South Africans, myself included, has been not to talk, but to listen. As writer Fiona Snyckers said in a thought leader piece: “I would rather chop off my typing fingers than start whitesplaining. I am not a protagonist in this story. I have a nonspeaking, walk-on part that requires me to shut up and listen.”

The realisation that black South Africans should no longer be expected to do the painful, infuriating and thankless work of educating white people about their own privilege, of submitting their experiences of racial discrimination to be picked apart, of sharing realities only to have these emotionally colonised (“Me too! I know exactly how you feel!”), has meant a dawning and often uncomfortable awareness that white South Africans need to talk to each other about these matters.

Some have found themselves at the coalface of these issues because their partners or children (by adoption or birth) are black – intimate relationships that rip away the veil camouflaging a morass of everyday racism.

One Facebook commenter describes how she is asked, in front of her adopted daughter: “Is that your maid’s child?” and “Shame, does she have Aids?” Wrestling with these scenarios also brings their own white privilege into stark and disconcerting focus.

This is how Martina Dahlmanns found herself working to educate others about privilege. “I am an adoptive mother of three children of colour. I had no choice but to wake up to aspects of my children’s experiences that I had been clueless about, and had no idea how to address. I realised how white-oriented my entire world was, and started reading up on white privilege, white superiority and institutionalised racism.”

Like several others determined to share their explorations of racial privilege, Dahlmanns set up a Facebook group, This Dialogue Thing, which has “800 members, with a lot of useful input, honest dialogue and surprisingly few trolls”.

“We are working on ways to initiate actions – we are thinking about dialogue events and film screenings with discussions, so we can reach more people,” Dahlmanns has written, describing the page’s focus.

The group started out as a collective of women who would meet to talk about race and racism. But a crisis point came when, as Dahlmanns explains: “Whites were getting a lot out of this dialogue and black participants [were] feeling that their lives were being workshopped so that some rich white ladies could feel better.

“We had to rethink our approach. The bottom line: us white people have to face our inner racism and start educating other white people. The idea is to create resources and collect material so we can all educate in our private circles rather than sit silent at dinner parties and school meetings, when white privilege asserts itself once more.”

Kirsten Kennedy
Kirsten Kennedy works with businesses keen to enhance transformation. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Kirsten Kennedy, a freelance social and economic development consultant, has worked with businesses keen to take transformation further, but has found that, “in spite of high levels of compliance organisational cultures still tend to convey the message that ‘white is right’ and ‘better than’.

“And because of our privilege [systemic and individual], we don’t have to see what it’s like to be on the receiving end of these messages, which are all-pervasive.”

People like Kennedy don’t preach; rather, they hope to take others on journeys similar to their own. She says: “I did not fully appreciate the distinction between racism and inequality. So it wasn’t until I heard stories about the daily subjection of blacks to racism that I started to learn about the institutional/systemic as well as individual nature of racism. Naive, I know, but the beginning of a journey to understand my own racism, privilege and centrality.”

Kennedy acknowledges that hers is a challenging task: “What’s hard to work with is a kind of denialism that diminishes or censors the experience of most people in this country, as if it doesn’t count. As if the only legitimate experience is mine – my fear of loss, of anger, of annihilation.”

As a result of student protests triggered by rising fees, but expressing long-simmering discontent with institutional racism and the tortoise-like pace of transformation on campuses, South African universities have been catapulted into this arena, and it’s going to be interesting to see how these topics are rethought and taught in curriculums in 2016 and beyond.

Some are a hop ahead of the curve; Wits University’s Centre for Diversity Studies, chaired by Professor Melissa Steyn, offers not only graduate programmes, but also short courses on race, diversity, social justice and transformation in organisations for individuals and groups. The Centre for Conflict Resolution think-tank held a well-timed public dialogue on Transformation Struggles at South African Universities in November.

Given how hollow the phrase “the rainbow nation of God” now rings, it’s reasonable to ask what faith-based organisations should be doing. Linda Martindale works for the Warehouse, a not-for-profit organisation that helps churches respond to poverty, injustice and division: “A growing number of churches are trying to create safe discussion spaces. I’ve been asked to speak on white privilege, social justice and restitution to mostly white Anglican churches in Cape Town,” she said.

Although some congregants fear division as a result, Martindale explains: “While the law of apartheid is dead, its spirit lives on. Our hope lies in our having the courage to talk about issues of race-based poverty/white privilege and deep-seated racism, the ‘superiority’ of all things white and Western. And the commitment to make the changes that follow on from those conversations in our individual and communal lives.”

Social media provides flexible platforms for whites undertaking to challenge other whites. It helps that most middle-class whites in South Africa have easy access to the internet through their smartphones, laptops and tablets, and many are active on social media.

The Facebook group Anti-racist Education and Allyship is one example of the kind of online resource, for (mostly) whites by (mostly) whites that has sprung up in response to the sharpened debates on race in 2015. Part of its mission statement reads: “This is a space for deepening our understandings of racial injustice. It is primarily aimed at educating white people on our role in perpetuating it, through our white privilege … and how to confront these issues in ourselves and others.”

Groups like these are usually “closed”, which provides participants with fairly safe spaces in which to test out the waters of new race talk. They are also maintained by volunteer administrators who keep an eye out for trolls and facilitate sometimes painful discussions.

Of course, it’s easy for whites to be self-congratulatory about dipping into social media to “like” the occasional blog. No wonder the Anti-racist Education group says on its page: “This learning space is not a substitute for self-education, nor is this space meaningful if it does not lead to action.”

There is the irony that these attempts at education and action reproduce (mostly) white cliques, but this is not new. After decades of being derailed and distracted by men who become noisily defensive every time feminists critique patriarchy, many insist that men concentrate on peer (men-to-men) education, instead of expecting women not only to deal with gender oppression, but also to explain each step to them.

However we choose to educate ourselves, one thing should be clear: it’s not about us any more. We need to stop assuming our stories will always be front and centre. We need to stop expecting fellow black citizens to shoulder the burden of educating us.

It’s our turn to say “Shem, askies”.

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