Some histories to keep our interracial friendship honest

Milisuthando (Delwyn Verasamy/ M&G)

Milisuthando (Delwyn Verasamy/ M&G)

Dear Kim,

So I have been asking my white sisters (Maude and Beth and now you) about the idea of care in interracial friendships — how possible it truly is in friendships between black and white people, especially if, as in our case, there’s an age gap.

The reason for my interest in this is because I was thinking about the 1990s and the experience of first democratic intimate contact between white and black people. As little black nine-year-olds, we were placed into the hands and “care” of white women as teachers, aftercare minders, coaches etcetera all day long. (I’m referring to my own experience here; there were also white men in other people’s cases but they have not featured much in my intimate life.)

And although there were some tender-hearted teachers like this teacher I had in standard four named Mrs Henchie, a lot of them were a combination of acerbic-natured disciplinarians and high-voiced disciples, devoted to shouting — always correcting and reinforcing a standard for which we should sit, walk, talk, sing, learn, play, be! In other words, they were superlatively controlling and behaved in a manner that sought to mould us and bend us into palatable shapes according to the standards at these Victorian schools.

My experience of white women has been that this need to control, no matter how subtle or unconscious, to correct and to enforce something upon another is fundamental to how they have constructed and maintained their realities in relation to black people, something that is inherent in how we relate to each other today even as the country is changing.

I’ve never actually acknowledged and allowed myself to process how unfair the power dynamics were between us as children facing these grown-ups, these relics of colonialism, alone and in a way that our parents could never understand. How both exhilarating and brutal it was.

I remember one of the most feared and cruel teachers smelled of lavender. Can you imagine how confusing it was that a person with such a sweet smell could also be as fluent as she was at breaking our burgeoning spirits, in seven-hour shifts?

What that did to us as children was to make us either desperately want that approval and act in service of it, or resist it in childish protest, unwittingly defying everything it represented. A lot of us fell into the former, including me — the making of the good black. It’s not that I wanted to be white. But I wanted them (the white teachers and white girls and boys) to accept and like me and I was all too happy to jump through the hoops.

There were perennial hoops, Kim.

I need you to know that our friendship exists somewhere within that prism of jumping. My question now is: What happened to that fear that was so well nourished between white women and me? And what has 25 years of this done to my relationships with my white friends?

I’ve had a handful of close white friends over the years, but I left the relationships with some of them in the past five years because they do not know how to know me as a complex African person. They only know how to relate to me as their agreeable black friend. Mine and your relationship is deeper because you can meet me where I’m going and, up until now, we have had an understanding. Now I have new questions.

When it comes to people like you, and Maude and Bee, whom I have met in my adult years as Milisuthando and who understand whiteness and its determining powers — I wonder if you as a friend are truly capable of caring about me as a friend if our friendship from my end is experienced through this labyrinth where fear and approval and wanting to be seen are still a thing even if it manifests itself in the most subtle ways today?

Can there be true care and a true love between us if this is not something you even know about me and about our interactions?

I also don’t know your experiences of this question from your end, which I am sure has its own contours unique to your reality as a white person. But I know more about the white world and the construction of its realities than you know about the construction of black realities, and African realities on top of that.

So how should care be practised knowing that this gap might exist between us forever? There has to be a lot of trust between two people for this conversation to occur in its purest form. I feel like you can handle it even though I know you will feel a need to be strong in front of me, to ward off any tears that understand the fact of this distance because of the power of your tears in the general racial dynamic between us. But. You and I also have the kind of relationship where we can cry other kinds of tears, beyond shame tears, even though we never have.

I also need you to know that it’s very difficult for me to be this vulnerable in front of a white person, even someone as self-aware as you. There’s the fact of black people withholding information and feelings and remaining silent about a lot of things in our interactions with white people. You know and respect this because you know that some knowledge should not be known by those who cannot be trusted. I practise this withholding too and wonder what it means for our friendship, which is still relatively new. In my quest to be umntu again, and not only a black woman, this is a real concern.

Five days ago I had a fight with my best friend who is a black woman. It was operatic. We were screaming at each other, moving from room to room in my apartment for about two hours. Our souls surging like waterfalls. It was both a horror show of female potency and a beautiful display of truth. I was crying because that’s how I get when I experience the pinnacle of any emotion, be it joy or anger. And she was frustratingly firm in her stance. We were arguing about something that is intrinsically about our relationship, something that binds the two of us in a way that is so perfectly human. There is a closeness there that allowed both of us to unravel in safety. It was as real as it can get after 21 years of friendship. While fighting, we both knew that we were going to be fine because our friendship is not fenced in by a historically imbalanced power dynamic.

But it is not because we are both black that we were drinking tea and laughing three hours later. It is because everything that happens between us occurs on a plain where light can reach. I would like that for us too one day.

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardian's arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project. Read more from Milisuthando Bongela

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