Tag Archive: race conversation


My friend Dre [actually Andrea Thorpe] has been commenting at various places in the ‘What about Bob?’ conversation and so i asked her if she’d be up to sharing some thoughts of her own…

dre

[I’m a white, English-speaking South African. I was born in the Eastern Cape in the ‘80s. I studied Journalism and Media Studies and English at Rhodes University, and later completed my Masters in English at Stellenbosch. I’m now roughly halfway through my PhD in English at Queen Mary University of London. I’m writing my thesis on South African literature, specifically, on South African writers writing in London from 1948 onwards, and so I spend a lot of time, while living in London, thinking and writing about South Africa. (It’s very meta.)]

I’m writing this as a follow-up to ‘Bob’s’ letter that Brett shared. I don’t want to do a point-for-point response as others have already done, so thoroughly. As Tsholo, particularly, has eloquently pointed out, some of Bob’s ideas about progress and colonialism are problematic, probably racist (e.g. that colonialism ‘saved’ Africa from itself.) One of the commenters on Bob’s post said it even more pointedly, calling him “ignorant” and “bigoted”. And I’ve asked, in my comments on Tsholo’s post, whether we should actually entertain or even respond to such conservative ideas? Is Bob reaching out for answers, or attempting to justify his privilege and prejudice?

More than anything, Bob’s post seems almost tiresomely familiar. I’m thinking of inventing a new game called ‘White South African Opinion Piece Bingo (2015 Edition)’, which would include boxes like ‘Rhodes Wasn’t Such a Bad Oke’; ‘What About Xenophobia, Hey?’; ‘Reverse Racism is Totally a Thing’; ‘I Know This is Politically Incorrect but I’m Just Saying it Like it Is’; ‘The Country is Going to the Dogs and All They Care about Are Statues’ and ‘Privileged? What, Me?’

Okay, I’m being facetious. But my point is that perhaps these posts are coming from a common place, a shared emotional, psychological impetus, which is maybe worth addressing. This feeling is best summed up by this passage in Bob’s letter:

“I am white, I am made to feel ashamed of a history I had no control of and no one is interested in what a white person has to say because whatever they say or do is racist or from a point of white privilege” and again ,”I am a racist by association and don’t belong in South Africa”.

I read this as expressing two key sentiments: ‘I feel ashamed, and ‘I feel left out’. And what I hear beneath the rambling about government and Mugabe and statues (by Bob and by others) is this:

1) ‘Poor me, I don’t belong’:

Do you really feel as though you don’t belong, or is that your self-pity talking? You have all the rights of a citizen, and furthermore, you are white and therefore privileged.

During apartheid, black South Africans were forcibly removed from their homes, were often forced into exile and were denied the full rights of citizenship. They were truly made to feel as if they didn’t “belong”. Furthermore, in many places, black South Africans still feel excluded. For instance, many black students are marginalised by the structures and cultures of our elite universities: #Rhodesmustfall at UCT, The Black Student Movement at Rhodes and Open Stellenbosch are therefore focused on making our universities truly inclusive.

I think, as white South Africans, we are included more than excluded by South African society. I personally care more about those who, 21 years after the end of apartheid, still feel materially excluded from key sectors, (especially since it’s my field, in higher education) than I do about Bob’s existential crisis of belonging.

2) ‘I feel excluded from discussions about race because they’re not about me’:

I think a lot of white South Africans try and derail discussions about race (“race isn’t important”, “apartheid is over” etc.) because they feel left out, irrelevant. Bluntly, it’s not about you. Apartheid did not disadvantage you. The global imbalance of power cantilevers in your direction. So while you can listen and learn and contribute, debates about race are not going to put you – or people like you – in the centre.

3) ‘It makes me uncomfortable when my whiteness is made visible’:

Discussions about white privilege make white people uncomfortable because they are used to thinking of themselves as ‘just a person’ and are not used to having their race matter. Of course, race doesn’t ‘matter’ – we shouldn’t stereotype or generalise based on the category of skin colour – but it has consequences in terms of the economic, political and social power it’s entailed, historically. That doesn’t mean you have to feel ashamed about this: it’s just a fact. Also, having privilege does not automatically make you racist: it’s not acknowledging this privilege which is problematic.

4) ‘I don’t like it when people accuse me of racism’:

We’d all like to think of ourselves as tolerant, good people. But even if we try really hard to be non-prejudiced, our immersion in South African society (hey, in the very imbalanced world) has a way of coming out of the woodwork. Racism is not just about disliking black people. Racist ideology hides itself in a whole series of assumptions about ‘culture’, ‘civilisation’, education, the West and Africa, identity and so on. If we want to be better South Africans, better humans, we need to able to acknowledge, and hopefully transform, our deep-seated ideas about race.

I know I can always do better. I make mistakes and reveal skewed assumptions I didn’t even know I held, all the time. Example: I’m not even sure if it’s okay for me to write this post. Maybe it’s inappropriate of me to speak on behalf of black South Africans. Maybe I’ve made generalisations or over-simplified certain issues. Maybe not, but it’s worth asking the question. (So let me know what you think.)

It can be uncomfortable carrying out this mental ideology check, constantly, but it’s essential. Of course it’s not just about ideas: ideology can (and should, if it’s beneficial) translate into action, but your mind is a good place to start, I think.

What ABOUT Bob?

Maybe it’s pointless to respond to people like Bob. Maybe they don’t want to change, because that would mean accepting the possibility of a transformed South Africa which might not fit their needs and wants. But I hope that this discussion, sparked by Bob’s letter, can open our eyes to our own assumptions, and can help us to look beyond our own insecurities and emotions, so that we can truly, humbly listen and empathise.

When our kneejerk reactions to being told uncomfortable truths about race and privilege are defensiveness and self-pity, we miss out on an opportunity to really engage with our fellow South Africans, to acknowledge their pain and our shared, difficult history, and to make our country better.

[This is becoming a long conversation, but there is a lot of greatness and importance in here and so we need to keep on with it – get involved in the comments section, bring your friends to look and if you want to find your way to the beginning of it all with links to all the consequent pieces, click here]

verna

i know not everyone has the time or internet capacity to watch video clips online, but if you do then i encourage you to watch this one.

It speaks directly into the Americaland conversation at the moment in terms of violence from police offers on black young men but also just a greater focus on the bias of society, and particularly white society when it comes to black young men.

i believe it has a lot to say to our present conversation in South Africa as well, so please give it a watch:

Three points that jumped out at me, which are deeply relevant to our country were these:

[1] “Biases are the stories we make up about people before we know who they are.” – this is so relevant to South Africa at the moment – if you don’t have friends from other race groups and cultures, then before commenting on them, intentionally seek to build bridges and pursue friendships with people that are different from you so that the stories you tell and feel can be more truthful and realistic.

[2]  “You’re not going to get comfortable before you get uncomfortable.” – this is perhaps one of the lessons the majority of white folks in this country need to hear. It is incredible to me, how knowing and understanding just a little of the broadest strokes history of our past and how people who were not white were treated, we can expect everyone to just quickly get over it, or that transition would ever be easy. Conversations are going to be awkward and uncomfortable and some actions that probably need to be done are likely to need to be uncomfortable as well. We are trying to fix something that was really really broken and to expect it to come at the wave of a wand or an election, or even twenty years time [in which we have all largely avoided the uncomfortable] is a little bit ridiculous.

[3] “When we see something we have to have the courage to say something, even to the people we love.” – this is huge. The example that Verna gives is the gran or the uncle at the dinner table calling someone something [“We don’t call them that any more.”] or using some kind of racist slur [“We don’t use that kind of language.”] and being bold and brave enough to call them on it. You can still love someone and not find the words or names they use acceptable and this is something we need to do more work on – at the family dinner table, at the water cooler at work, with our mates watching sport. Sitting by and allowing racist speech to happen unchallenged is tantamount to producing it ourselves.

Engage, engage, engage. This is key for me. If you are not intentionally building relationships with people from other races and cultures then i really don’t know that you have the right to comment or that your comments need to be taken seriously. We need to be building friendships which in turn will make building bridges so much easier for everyone concerned.

[For some other thoughts and posts shared on South Africa with particular focus on race conversations, click here]


old man dies
i came across that proverb this morning and it blew me away.

i remember hanging out with my uncle John Fee [my mom’s british brother] a few years ago when they came to visit us in South Africa and we had met up a bunch of times in life, although i was generally of the seen-and-not-heard age and so we didn’t engage in much meaningful conversation… and then this day he was in the lounge and i popped in to be good mannered and we ended up having a conversation of which some part at least related to intentional communities [we were just about to leave for the Simple Way i imagine] and how they had been going on for longer than just the latest fad book that had come out and inspired me, and proceeded to tell me a little bit about some of the history of intentional community over a much longer period of time than i had presumed.

i remember walking away from the interaction thinking something along the lines of, ‘Man, i have missed out.’ what i pity i never got to really know that man. and since then i have sort of made up for it by befriending pretty much all 80 of his children, children’s children and children’s children’s hamsters [or was it a guinea pig?] on Facebook and keeping them entertained with my very silly Dangerous Things You Can Least Expect videos

the point being, that i realised, although maybe not in so many words, that when Uncle John dies [and hopefully not anytime soon] a whole library will have burnt to the ground.

MAKE SURE YOU READ THE BOOKS

and how sad will it be if more people have not at the very least paged through and been entertained and taught and inspired by some of the books before that happens.

this feels like something that should be taught to young people at a young age [ask old people their stories!] and feels like it may be something that happened one time with the focus always being on ‘hey, let’s be nice to the poor old people and let them speak to us’ and with a lesser understanding or grasping of the wealth of experience and life and learning that they might have which might inspire and encourage and teach us so much.

i thought a lot of the same things when reading through the autobiography my dad wrote a year or so ago, or every now and then when he whips out another classic unexpected story from his life.

and i am hoping that this all makes me more intentional in terms of taking time to invite people to share their stories with me, in particular, older people who are likely to have more stories… i think we tend to underestimate the power of stories shared.

in terms of the race conversations we have been starting on this blog, i am pretty sure that story-telling is going to play a huge part in heading us in the direction of reconciliation and resitution…

in terms of the Taboo Topics that i try to find stories about on my blog, it is through stories of journeys people have walked that others are encouraged and strengthened and also hopefully inspired to share their own stories with at least someone, if not with us all…

who is the older person in your life with a story you really need to hear? and when are you going to do about it?

old man ii

sarona

At first I was reluctant to write about this, because it can open up a whole can of worms or feels like kicking a sleeping dog…

But if it’s going to help build relationships across the grey areas of race – then so be it.

Firstly, I speak to white people who generalise and stereotype people of colour. I myself, had to challenge myself to see beyond colour and actually get to know people for who they are. This is a daily challenge, because there will be days when people fit the stereotype and days when they don’t. So before you try and joke with me, speaking in a typical Indian accent – it actually tells me that you see me as stereotype not as a person first. It would be really nice if you tried to see me as a person first.

This also tells me that you are somewhat limited when it comes to having friends of colour and that maybe you have such friends, to keep up with an appearance of seeming socially diverse but really you have yet to build a meaningful relationship with them as people. I think we can all tell when people genuinely see us as people – and often I ask myself the same question when someone disagrees with me, if it is about race or a simply two individuals who share different points of views? I like to think that two people can have different opinions and not have it be about race, because race is that thing that makes us all the more beautiful and unusual to each other.

Don’t assume that all Indians would rip a person off in financial dealings, or that we eat curry every day of the week…I love my Indian culture but I also love being South African. Again I know more white friends who probably embrace my culture more than I do and that’s okay, because I love other cultures too. Sometimes the stereotypes in other people’s culture are beautiful, but I would be sensitive to not mock someone, it just comes across as looking down on them. I know that if I had to do the same to my white friends, it would be awkward…and rightfully so. So why do we do it?

Being brought up in a typical Indian home but also in a time in South Africa when the only way you can heal past injustices is knowing that you have to build a better future. This comes with setting our hearts and minds free from the stigmas that our parents fearfully grew up in. It’s knowing that our identities are not rooted in our racial stereotyping and our kids are never born to see colour and so we much teach them to see people from all walks of life, regardless of race of class as valuable beings, especially if God calls us to love each other as we love ourselves, then we really must challenge ourselves to seek to know the heart of others.

[To read the story of my friend Tsholofelo Mpuri click here]

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