This is a response to yesterday’s shared anonymous letter, What About Bob? and so if you have not read that yet, start there and then come back here and continue. Alexa is a good friend of mine who has been involved in many of the conversations we have had on race, reconciliation, restitution and other terms that may not begin with R but this is stuff she is passionate about and doing her best to live well. She has also contributed to this blog on a number of occasions such as sharing about one person who gives her hope in South Africa, a personal shout out to South Africa as well as some thoughts from a married person to the single people in and around here life. So if you enjoy this, please go and check those out…
But in the meantime, here are some of her thoughts in response to Bob
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I read your letter to Brett and heard some of your frustration. Much of what you expressed are common themes that I have heard amongst the white community.
Just to contextualise me:
White, female, CpTownian, Have lived in a desert wilderness, have lived and working in Mozambique, have lived & worked in a corporate context in JHB, have worked in impoverished communities too in Cape Town & JHB. In South Africa, very sadly impoverished correlates with black and coloured.
One of the most helpful things I have ever heard said was that we need to talk about poverty and race without being racist – the reason I mention this is that the majority of people calling for change or transformation are people still living with poverty which looks and feels exactly like it did under apartheid. Yes in terms of the constitution we are all said to be equal but in terms of what life looks like we definitely don’t have the same starting blocks for whatever life journey we want to pursue. We need to recognise South Africa’s intersection of race and class if we are wanting to understand some of the current frustrations: Yes, it’s been 21 years, so it’s not ALL about what you or I do anymore, and we have leaders who serve themselves often rather than the country, but we also need to recognise the following:
Saying that “I am sorry, this was wrong,” doesn’t mean that I am guilty of implementing something bad. It does mean that I see your hurt, your anger and know that purely by being born into the family I was I had different starting blocks. Saying I am sorry is about recognising the untold hurt of the past and the frustrations of the present – many of which are due to the past.
Saying I am sorry or acknowledging that this was wrong goes beyond just ‘sorry’ – it’s also about being willing to ask and engage with how do we repair the past? Relationally, economically, socially?
Bob, as I read your letter, I was reminded of a conversation that I had with a (white) friend recently. Her statement to me was:
“I am not ugly to people, I am not just going to be friends with someone because they are different to me (that doesn’t feel sincere) and why can’t we be nice to each other? I am not political and don’t want to get political but I am tired of be past being hauled up and people looking at me when I wasn’t a part of it all.”
This friend really does believe that all people are equal and has been in situations where she was often the only white person at a party while she was studying, but as years have gone by, her friendships circles have shifted into areas of interest and remained quite pale in their diversity.
Parts of our conversation that unfolded after this was as follows:
* “If we truly want to see healing then actually we do need to be willing to befriend people whose stories are different to us. We need to be willing to be the uncomfortable ones who don’t always understand or fit in. It might not seem genuine initially but we can’t begin to understand the perspective or where we fit or don’t fit if we aren’t willing to listen and to hear and to be in spaces where things are understood differently to people who think like us.
Putting it differently if it came out that a friend had been in an abusive relationship for a long time and we weren’t aware of it, we would want to do everything we could to help that friend heal, to be safe, to get a GOOD fresh start and want to support and understand.
If we aren’t willing to start engaging with a friend whose story we don’t know or understand, even if we don’t identify with being abused or being the abuser, it is very hard to actually be a part of their healing.
The people we care about are the ones who we want to engage with. If we aren’t meeting and forming relationships with other people it’s really hard to develop any understanding of their story”
The reality is that the cracks in our story of unity are showing. We celebrated freedom together, but we never really healed together.
As the white community, very little about our lives actually changed, other than an increased competition in the workspace and perhaps seeing a greater mix of people (depending where we are in terms of relationship as well as geographically) socially.
Our story of unity for the most part has been a one sided story for most of us. We still weren’t, unless we asked to be told and were able to sit with the answers, aware of the cost to most of our peers and the broader South African community. In order to create a shared narrative, we need to go through the frustrating for some, redevelopment of a story where those were quiet get to speak and those of us who have already spoken get to listen.
I hate that before I have opened my mouth, perceptions exist about who I am or what I think. The reality though is that from a race perspective this has been there for years and the filter towards people of colour (regardless of their ethnicity) has been marred by different stereotypes or beliefs, which weren’t always positive. I think that as the white community we escaped this for the longest time due in part to the sameness of most of our contexts and now we are needing to recognise that we ALL have filters.
Ironically race has been the proverbial white elephant in the room and yet it’s us, as the white community who struggle to engage with it. #RhodesMustFall highlighted this in many ways – Shaka was violent yes, but in a very different context and story and all we seem to do by responding with Shaka is reveal this struggle.
Too often I have heard that the black community has been gracious, over and over, in wanting to engage and waiting for any kind of indication that the white community is wanting to see transformation and engage with, but that we aren’t standing up, and asking how and showing willingness to engage in these spaces. Too often I have heard it’s because we don’t want to let go of the benefits we enjoy still so that we can share the space better.
Anger and unresolved, unspoken, deep hurt from the past has to go somewhere – and if aren’t part of the somewhere, through listening, through being willing to be present with, then we will lose our sense of purpose in this.
I get frustrated, I get hurt at times when I perceive the anger to be switching to a place of hate but I am realising more and more that the more I engage, intentionally and listen, in these spaces that hope is returning.
We need you Bob and we need your wrestling. We need you to be asking the question of where and how you can contribute. We need you to stand shoulder to shoulder with the rest of us wanting to see this change. We need you to stand quietly and listen and maybe even weep with us when people share their realities. We also need you to be speaking up and out and shouting that I want to be a part but I am not sure where.
We need you.
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