Six months ago, I got a phone call from a white girlfriend of mine. Well … we are not friends friends but we respect each other’s work from an internet-manufactured distance. We like each other’s Facebook posts, comment on each other’s work from time to time and have an unspoken sisterly connection based on our feminist beliefs and practice. She’s cool.
During our one and only phone call, she hesitated before finally asking: “Mili, how many of your friends are on antidepressants?” There was a short, comfortable silence before I answered her: “As far as I know, three.” She then asked: “How many of those are white women?” “Two,” I told her. “What if I were to tell you that nearly all of my friends are on antidepressants?” she asked.
I was in a lift at the Rosebank Mall, en route to pay for a parking ticket. I decided to go straight to my car instead. A long conversation ensued.
She went on to explain how antidepressants, medication in general, is pretty standard among women in her community. That her aunts and people’s mothers have been going to therapy and taking pills for as long as she has known them. Why, was the question she was getting to.
“I feel so lonely with my feminism here. Nobody wants to listen when I want to talk about real issues. My friend literally said to me, ‘just get a boyfriend’, when I tried to have a conversation with her about this subject. White women are so oppressed; they don’t even know they are oppressed.
“I’m sorry that I’m crying. I know you don’t need my white tears in your life but I’m just so relieved to be talking.”
I listened and commiserated as she explained that for a long time, middle-class white women have been silenced by medication and patriarchy in their homes and in public spaces. How they have been drenched in leisure and comfort to stop them from having something to complain about. How, when a woman becomes too expressive of her opinions, there is a lexicon for suppressing the source of those opinions, sometimes established and maintained by other white women. How there are very few spaces where white women in South Africa can sincerely be heard outside the rooms of a therapist. And how silence and repression are an art form in their daily lives.
What does this mean for race relations on a larger scale if the white woman has no real power in her own home, I wondered? Upon whom does she then exercise her power in the social ranking system? I thought about the proximity of white men to other people on the social and economic hierarchy in our society.
As a black woman, I’m three people removed. A black man is two people removed. A white woman is not removed. If the white man’s body represents the proverbial oppressor — she is sleeping with him. She is fathered by him. This is her boetie. What does oppression look like so intimately?
I felt for her. As a Xhosa woman, I do not feel this kind of powerlessness in my community. Historically, I can only name a few figures, white women who have articulated through writing and art, the position of white womanhood in South Africa, but without explicitly singling that identity out and unpacking it. Antjie Krog. Ingrid Jonker. Maggie Laubscher. Irma Stern. Sue Williamson. Penny Siopis. I’m reaching as I try to imagine the white South African female version of Sindiwe Magona’s To My Children’s Children.
In contemporary South Africa, where is white feminism for young white girls who are not starting groups at their schools about the things that are troubling them? Are they still concerned with Ryan and Jared and Luke, as my white friends were in high school while the black girls were starting a Xhosa society? Has enough work been done by white feminists to address these residual identity issues so that my friend doesn’t have to apologise to me for giving her the space to be heard? Beyond individual actions, is there even a white feminist movement in South Africa?
I have friendships with white women that are bonded by our conversations about racism and feminism as much they are by our love for particular authors or lovers. But when I’m not around, I doubt that these conversations about race and gender populate their Shabbat dinners and gym sessions the way my black friends and I discuss race and gender issues during every lunch break, every park walk and single day of our lives.
Since that phone call, I have had this unsolicited conversation over sugarless Americanos with other white women, most recently in the flatlands of the Free State. And my advice is always the same: as a black woman, I can’t give you the answers you need because I do not live your experience. But your feelings are valid. And you are not the only one. Find another white woman who feels the same and have regular meetings.
Maybe even start a group. Maybe then I might be able to share the identity unpacking starter kit with you.
Patronising? Maybe, but it comes from a place of identification with other women in an age where their identity is being silenced and reduced to the loaded moniker “Becky”. Beyond that, white women’s relationships with black people are important to examine in the dissection of how racism and power function in private spaces.