On Having No Black Friends

Many years ago when I was living in Sweden, an African American friend asked me if I had any black friends back home in South Africa and I had to answer, honestly, no. And while he let me off the hook by saying, ‘I suppose, during apartheid, you didn’t know any black people, really,’ it bothered me enough that I still think about that exchange to this day. And while, yes, I was born in the seventies and went to school and university during the height of apartheid when having black friends meant you could be arrested, apartheid ended a long, long time ago, and the people I count as my besties are still white as the driven snow. And I’m not alone in this. I have one friend who works in the arts and has a number of black friends but, for the vast majority of friends and acquaintances in my age group, we just don’t socialise with black people.

In fact, the first black South African friend I had was when I lived in Sweden. He was my age exactly which meant, compared to me, he had a really rough deal growing up, and we spent some very memorable hours drinking strong coffee together in a little café down the road from my apartment and talking about our respective histories and the country we loved and were so far away from. And even though our experiences growing up there were very different – him in a shack in Soweto where, if he ate breakfast it meant there wouldn’t be food enough for his siblings, me in a house with a swimming pool in Somerset West – he felt like home to me as I hope I did to him. We had so much more in common than we had dividing us – two Africans freezing to death in northern Europe and talking about Steers and sunshine and Bafana Bafana.

And if this is the case – that we have so much more in common than we do dividing us – why do we still live in our silos and keep to our ‘own kind’, whatever we perceive that to be? And I don’t think this is about racism per se as much as circumstance and the fact that, growing up, the only black people we knew were working for our parents. What I learnt living away from South Africa (and with no small measure of shock, having believed that South Africans were the only racists in the world) is that most people are a little bit racist. In fact, some of the most blatant racists I’ve ever met would be labelled ‘black’ – a woman I knew from the Caribbean whose family was light-skinned and therefore ‘superior’, frequently said shocking things about people of a darker hue. Somebody else of mixed race whom I used to work with told me once how upset her father was when she brought a black guy home. Her dad had been hoping she would marry ‘up’ – somebody light, like her, or even white. Black friends of mine have been denied access to clubs in so-called colour-blind Denmark. There was suddenly a ‘members-only’ rule. We fear and mistrust what is ‘other’ and we have all internalized that crap to some extent, and we need to recognize this for what it is rather than pretending it doesn’t exist.

When I hear people announce that they are ‘not racist’ (I have a South African friend in London who does this) immediately a red light goes on for me. You cannot have lived through apartheid without being tainted by some of its ideologies. Yes, we move on – yes, we learnt to think critically and understand the brainwashing for what it was – but, this doesn’t mean we don’t need to be extra mindful about the kinds of things we say and do. While our system of institutionalized racism did a horrific injustice to black South Africans (and which we might not even recover from, entirely) it was also an injustice to us whiteys – we were deprived of so much that is wonderful and colourful and interesting about South Africa. We were kept in these narrow, sterile boxes and prevented from learning important things about the different people who make up this country. And now a lot of us find ourselves wanting to reach out and make things different, but not really knowing how.

A few mornings ago I had coffee with a friend who recently met a young black parliamentarian online and they’ve become besties. And he was recounting stories that had me guffawing into my flat white. For example, his friend’s mother is hooked on the TV show ‘Generations,’ where there’s this black guy and white girl who have fallen in love. And when they kiss on screen his mother says, ‘Hayibo! What would Verwoerd say if he could see this?!’ What, indeed. The guy in question loves my blog, especially the Ubuntu piece, and it makes me realize that we’re speaking exactly the same language, and we should be talking more.

When I was working for a magazine not that long ago the office was filled with young, funky black chicks who, with their cleverness and way with words, are leading our country into the future and forging new ways of thinking and being, and I wish, when I was that age, that I had been exposed to women like this and we could have been friends without it feeling forced. I get so worried, when I meet black women whom I admire and relate to, that they’re going to think I only want to be friends with them because they’re black. And it is a factor – we can’t deny that we have issues around colour. But maybe if we could put that out there and be open about it we could finally move beyond it and just be human beings.

And it’s with joy and relief that I find the young black South Africans I meet through work are much less precious than we old school whites are. They take the piss out of race and stereotypes; they laugh at us and at themselves which gives us permission to do the same, and feels really healthy and progressive. My nine-year-old daughter’s best friend is black, and it hasn’t occurred to either of them that they are supposed to be ‘different.’ In fact, Sophie doesn’t even know the word ‘black’ in relation to people (and why should she? We are shades of pink and brown). When she tells me about a new person in her class she’ll say, ‘they look a bit more like me.’ Or, ‘they look a bit more like Kukhanya.’ There is no value attributed to either skin tone. Without a doubt our children are growing up in a different South Africa than we did, and the ease with which these kids of different races and from different socio-economic places mingle and make friends makes me so happy I can dance. I just wish I could share that experience.

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45 thoughts on “On Having No Black Friends

  1. I don’t live in SA so it is easy for me to say, guess. I believe there is a bit of racism in all of us. When visiting in Jo’burg I noticed that the divide between black and white is much greater in the senior population. I believe the younger generation will change that divide and I hope you will make some black friends. Diane

  2. Thank you for this. It was much needed today, I think it is the most awesome thing to uplift many collective spirits through writing, or means really.

    Brennan

  3. Oh you are priceless! The other day my colleagues were trying to explain hatches matches and despatches Lavender Hill style and when i just did not get it, Cecilia said, Oh Megan you are SO NOT A COLOURED. Made my day!

  4. It is our children that will lead this country into a “Race-Blind” era. Unfortunately, it is too late for us 30’s+. We have lived, felt and inherited much of our parents’ doings, both white and black. With each generation, a fragment of our bitter past start healing.

    My boy, now 5, has black and coloured friends, whom he identifies as light brown or dark brown.. just a colour, nothing else..

  5. I have come to realise that you simply cannot ‘know’ someone unless you speak their language and we were never taught an African language at school during the apartheid years. Also, some of the superstitions which is still very strong in some African cultures creates a barrier between the races. The future definitely lies in the hands of the new generation and their ability to move away from those traditions with time.

  6. Racism is embedded in our history, our institutions, our policies, our way of life, our psyches. It is through exposing the white race privilege to one another that we can begin to unpack and unlearn racism. This applies to all races of the rainbow nation including the” Jay Zees lol time for change has come!

    And good on yah Susan for your insight and understanding and for being that platform and voice for millions , your focus on the silences and denials surrounding contemporary issues in South Africa. Let me stop righ here as topics like these can keep me going forever!

  7. I live in the UK where political correctness has gone a bit overboard. I have a beautiful ‘coloured’ girlfriend who used to be the first coloured Miss South Africa and you should see the horror in their faces when we refer to her as ‘coloured’ and then their surprise when she proudly defends her title. Here it is called ‘mixed race’ and I suppose it does sound a little better. :)

  8. Yip, so true and so amazing to see our kids grow up with just friends, no colour involved. So important for us (as parents) to teach them to respect everyone, not to judge based on colour and to avoid even hinting at our own racial prejudices!!

  9. Because I fall through the cracks of white south africa being a single unmarried (ever) mother I find that most of my daughter’s and my friends have been not white but indian, coloured or black – they seem to have the space to accept me that I find lacking among those traditionally married and white peeps.. so through not belonging I belong now elsewhere. I am totally over that driving into townships stuff as well – play dates gonna happen no matter where!

  10. I am 23 and my sister is 25, and we were privileged enough to start going to school just after 1994. My parents, as wonderful as they are, didn’t blink an eye about my sister and I going to mixed-race public schools (even though I can imagine it would have been quite a touchy subject in those days). I have the most amazing memories of my primary and high school years, all of which included my class mates who were of every colour you can imagine. My sisters best friend was Coloured, my best friend was Indian, and I ended up going to the Matric Farewell with my best guy friend who is also Indian. I went to an Afrikaans/English high school which meant I not only had English friends but Afrikaans too, and the amount of laughter we all had over each others accents, races, and cultures was a non-stop comedy show. I visited friends houses to have tea, watch movies, and do school projects together, not realising how much was mindlessly learning about each of their cultures. It never occurred to me how lucky I was to grow up in such an environment until my current year in Europe, where everyone is pretty much the same and people scowl at the African or Arab immigrants – they don’t want anything to do with them. As tough as we’ve had it in South Africa, at least we are through it. And yes, we still have a long way to go and a lot of racism to overcome, but I still find us to be the most accepting nation. We are so nearly there, and I could not be prouder to be part of our incredible nation :)

    Thanks for your amazing blog. You are bringing a lot of important topics to light, and it’s great to discuss them openly. I’m hooked!

    1. Aaaah, what a divine story, Candice! Love this so much. All the best, honey, you lucky thing! And how fab that you appreciate these amazing experiences you’ve had. And by the way, I LOVE your parents :-)

      1. Hi Susan, I love this country as much as any other South African. Unfortunately it’s people living for themselves selfishly and ‘enjoying’ South Africa living in their own worlds with their comforts which is exactly what’s wrong at the moment and the less fortunate and people who experienced the ‘other side’ during apartheid years and their children see the ‘fortunate ones’ (whites) living this way and look upon them with many negative feelings as they drive in their SUV’s and live in their big houses while people are hungry on the streets. People need to wake up and start sharing what they have and look at approaches of how to change and make this country a better place, and not just stay until they can live reasonably unbothered waiting until the ‘victims’ of the past gets finally upset enough to take action like JM is threatening to do. I’m afraid there’s a huge gap in many peoples thinking and not to knock the champagne and your visits to the townships or the fact that you have someone doing the ironing – but If I were looking at your ‘lifestyle’ on Clifton and the way you talk I would also feel very negative if I was a black person who suffered under apartheid to hear to talk about these things instead of talking about how we can build up this country and what you are doing to make a change in your daily life.. and not live your life in comfort and talk about how you have little to no black friends,etc. The time for change is now, before we lose this country to a military state like Zim. With hope and sadness after reading your blog.

        1. Valid points, Francois. Please tell us what you are doing to make these changes. It’s very inspiring hearing people’s stories, and you sound very committed which is heartening. What I am doing is opening a panel for discussion and raising some issues people find uncomfortable to acknowledge, but constitute the reality of where we live and the divides those who care enough are trying to overcome. Maybe it’s not enough, but getting people thinking and asking questions is a start, I believe.

  11. Hi Susan

    I SO enjoy your blog (I lived in the UK for 7 years and have been back for almost 7). Have you by any chance read Hi! My name is Loco and I’m a Racist by Baye McNeil? I think you’d find it an interesting read.

  12. I believe the day we , us “whites”, stop justifying how we look at “black” people,and vise versa, is the day that “racism” stops. And this is the world over, I spend a lot of time in the Caribbean and trust me on this , the locals,who happen to be “black” , do not hold back showing their contempt towards “whites”….I have been told on an island by an immigration officer that they do not want us there ! In front of everybody,
    If you want to keep the racist word alive and kicking, then get used to the fact that it is not an exclusive to “whiteys” ,
    Sure the “white” western people have caused mayhem in the past, but no more than other race has done themselves in history…ask Dingaan how he dealt with his master plan! But it is my opinion time for “white” people to stop making excuses for being white. We as a race today, are very compassionate people, ,we strive for change, we uplift poorer nations that have nothing or have had a natural disaster and need help. And the “white
    ” nations do this across every corner of the world, regardless of skin colour.
    “unda ukuthetha uXhosa nesithuba”

  13. Just so true as always. So grateful to our adult children’s ‘liqourice allsorts’ friends who have brought a lot of joy into our lives over the years and given us a totally different perspective. At present we are based in the Middle East and is definitely the most racist country I have ever lived in. Thanks again for saying it as it is!!

  14. I do like your blog so much. It’s not only because you say what I’ve been thinking (but do not have the skill or chutzpah or cojones to put it together in a readable, engaging format), but also because it’s hugely entertaining and interesting. If ever you decide to head into the country, I am the chairman of Greyton Tourism and would love to know what you would make of us. I hope I’ve given you something to mull over. Kind regards Jenny Duncan ifs@icon.co.za +27(82)8864093

    >

  15. I am loving your blog. I work with 2 young black women ( I am a whitey), both a little younger than me, but they are similar ages, I connect with one lady far more than the other…its not a colour thing, definitely more a personality thing. I am probably a similar age to you Susan, and agree that we lost out as youth. A friend of ours dated a black guy for a while, and I think as a group of whiteys that grew up during apartheid, we coped really well. With a little effort we can rub along nicely, if the politicians would just let us do that, and stop stirring the pot.

  16. Fantastic how children see the person and not the colour. Sadly the adults often pass their hang ups onto the children. I think our rainbow nation still has a long way to go for us all to stop seeing colour first and then seeing the character.

  17. HI Susan. I am enjoying your blog posts, and think that you are asking some interesting questions. What do you think stops your generation ( and I am one of them, too ) from actively making contact with black South Africans? Maybe I am an idealist, but I think that fear and assumptions about what people will think of us is part of it. Maybe it’s time to take some risks?

    1. Hi Janet, you know, I don’t even think it’s that – I think it’s just because we make the majority of our friends at school and varsity (I did, anyway), and when you reach a certain age it’s harder to make real friends. The guy I refer to in the article is gay and meets people online which makes it much easier to meet people from different places. Then, like I said, when I do meet someone I like who happens to be black I’m worried I’m being tokenistic or something. It’s all so complicated! What do you think? :-)

  18. In the nineties, I was lucky. A black patient accused me of being racist. I was rigid with shock. How dare she? Me, a racist? She was beautiful, well-groomed and elegant. I was white and poor. After a night of pacing, leaping about in self-righteous anger, I eventually reached a point where I was brave enough to look into my heart. And I didn’t like what I saw. Because down there in an ugly hole, were the words: she’s black, how can she be better educated, more gracious than ME and sleep in gorgeous pajamas I can only dream about? The next morning I went to her and apologized. It was the hardest thing I have ever done. I suddenly had a new baseline and I learnt that our intension often speak louder than our words. They give us away. I visit my heart every day. If I am feeling jangled, I know that if I dig deep enough and am brave enough, I will find the dislocation that is unsettling me. Of course we are racists. But we don’t have to be. We can try, every day to examine our actions and our intensions and make room for new thoughts, new beliefs and if we are very lucky, new friends.

  19. I have an Indonesian friend who freely admits to being racist, particularly towards the Chinese. I admire her honesty as I think we are all a little bit racist(some more than others). Fo me, it’s not so much about superiority but about being ‘different’.

  20. Once Oscar (my son) was listening to M Jackson’s Black or White and asked me to translate it into Swedish. When I explained what “If you want to be my brother (or baby) it don’t matter if you’re black or white” ment, he asked me :”But why does he have to SAY it?” Right then I realized that the future is safe :)

  21. A friend introduced me to your blog and it strikes a chord in so many ways. I’m an American who has lived in SA (Durban) for three years. When I moved here, I really thought I would meet all types of South Africans but after three years, my circle of friends is pretty white with an Indian or two mixed in there. But funny enough I was just talking about this same thing with a friend this morning — how in Miami (where I lived for 10 years) the Cubans were very racist and how as difficult as it is to admit, many Americans are extremely racist. I too have young children who luckily enough don’t distinguish along color lines and I love that. That’s my hope for the new South Africa — if we could just treat others how we want to be treated. One of the hardest transitions for me about living here has been is that certain assumptions are made about me immediately because of the color of my skin which may or may not be true. Keep up the great writing — your sentiments echo many of mine.

  22. Recently discovered and loving your blog, you express day to day things so well, and with great personal authenticity, thank you!

    I think there’s a definite generational thing to this, and I also think your point -made in a comment- about most friends being made at Varsity and School is really true. My friends born mid to early 70s or before, i.e. Matriculants from the early 90s or earlier, have almost no black friends. Most of my friends – born at the VERY end of the 70s and matriculating mid to late 90s – have a decent number. Then my sister’s generation – born mid to late 80s and matriculating in the mid ‘naughties’, are very mixed.

    Of course that makes a bit of sense if your thought re friends being made at school and varsity is true, which I suspect to be the case. My school, as many, only started admitting black kids in 1992 (a bomb was set off in the foyer by an extreme right wing group on that first day). So people who matriculated before then were unlikely to have had much contact at all. My slightly younger group, had a decent amount, and the next generation and the next obviously has plenty.

    When qualifying as a Psychologist abroad, I researched intergroup contact between Black and White in SA, and that also strengthens my belief that there’s a huge generational gap. This younger generation, generally, is far more likely to integrate. Interviewing those young people was very uplifting, I have to say. May the progress continue! And may your blog continue too!

  23. We have chosen to send our 4 children to the local government schools (as have many of our friends) and now I am able to say that “some of their best friends are black”!! The world of our children changing and all is good!

  24. I think you captured the situation very aptly, and with great insight and humour, as usual :). I also think its amazing that at 9 your daughter is still relatively ‘colour blind.’ It’s heart breaking when small children here are obviously ‘racialised,’ and it makes you wonder what they are learning from their parents.

  25. Susan thanks again for getting SA’ns talking. Its wonderful. I’m on an international health forum, but feel I miss talking to my own about us.

    Wendy I sooo agree with you. It is the politicains who messed it all up, past and present. We need to get the lot out and start over. Racism is there, if a little, about EVERY other race, not only black. Politicians knows its always easier to just ‘use’ it, in order to manipulate.
    Trish, you right, it is about being ‘different’ and people are inclined to stay with their own, but it should be without judgement when you choose to mix freely.
    Its good to see people who have already crossed that bridge effortlessly, at all the malls, restaurants and wherever one goes. Its the-world-in-one! As it was always meant to be.
    After all, it was Mark Shuttleworth who said from space : “there are no lines” looking down at Earth!

  26. I have just recently come across your blog and I love it. So real and true. I am young 22 white south African growing up in south Africa and often find difficulty in how people forget that we grew up in the new south Africa we don’t see colour. The lady that has worked for us my whole life is like my second mom I have shared experiences with her that moulded me into who I am today. So many white south Africans are more then happy to work and leave there children at home to be brought up by there helper yet there is still this huge issue of “black and white” that surrounds us.

  27. My Son, 8 went with my Mom and I to her church to drop some food for the harvest festival. My Son asked my Mom a whole bunch of questions, as 8 year old kids do, but the basic point was that the food was for the poor people in the area. My son said the poor “brown” people, we explained that there were many poor people in the world, including white people. My Son’s response was “I only know 1 white person”, my Mom and I were confused and said 1 poor white person, he said “no, 1 white person. . . Sheamus” (the very pale skinned Irish wrestler from WWE). “Oh and Joshua (his 4 year old brother) is almost white”. When we asked what colour we were, his response – “Peach!”

  28. I discovered your blog yesterday and I’ve been avidly reading through the posts since, particularly those focusing on how us white kids have no understanding of cultures that are not our own. Your posts have absolutely fascinated me, mostly because I have been thinking very similar things over the past few months.

    It is apparent that although we have lived in a our little white bubble of a world, we have started to become awake to how silly this is. A mini sort of renaissance in our minds. And though I can see you still tread lightly (as do I) and still have no idea about many of the other South African cultures (I don’t either), you have begun trying to break this mould that we’ve grown up with. And this is exactly what I have been trying to do.

    I really look forward to reading posts to come. I can’t wait until this change spreads to more of us.
    Because there is so much more to South Africa than Woolworths, the Southern Suburbs, Rugby and Mugg and Bean (and although there is nothing wrong with these, they represent the white mindset about what South African culture is).

    Keep it up, we’ll get there.

    1. Ja, thanks, Rowan, totally. It’s such tricky territory to navigate, and I’m always terrified of upsetting somebody, but I guess that’s kind of inevitable and I’m getting braver. I can only speak the truth as I see it :-) All the best, and thanks for getting in touch x

  29. I think it is important to know you are “sensitized” to the issue of racism. That is the first step, that many never take. You have raised a child to not be a “racists” and that is important to make our world a better place for all of us to live. I really am glad I read your blog and we can be friends online. I have many white friends and started an interracial group of women in Missouri where I retired. I spend winters in Florida and love it but I have not been able make white friends here. The Southern states still have a long way to go, although the laws against discrimination make it possible for me to live here, but you can’t legislate the heart. Their loss. Lizzy

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