On Coming to Terms with Our Arseholery

sa flag 4
Nobody wants to think of themselves as being a bad person. Bad people are ISIS fighters, child molesters, Shrien Dewani. They do horrible things which are blatant and obvious and talked about in the media. But in the last few months I have found myself in spaces where I’ve had to take a long and careful look at who I am in the world, the attitudes that have formed me and how I conduct myself in certain situations. And to say that it’s been an uncomfortable awakening is an understatement. Because many of you who follow my blog know that I’m relatively outspoken about race issues in this country. I have strong feelings about the socio-economic disparities and the white attitudes that feed them, and while I sit behind my computer screen in my nice study on the Atlantic Seaboard it’s easy to wax lyrical about egalitarianism and the way things ‘should’ be in SA. When I write these words, which I wholeheartedly mean, I can nonetheless distance myself a little bit from the ‘racists’ out there; convince myself that I am better than they are.

But the truth is I’m not. I am as guilty as the man who went up to my neighbour’s friend who was recently walking in a supermarket with his newly adopted baby and said, ‘oh look, a special little kaffir.’ The other man who asked a couple who have adopted two HIV positive children of four and six why they are ‘wasting their time.’ The inhabitants of the shop in the town of Oudtshoorn who openly snubbed our white friends because they walked in with their black baby daughter. I could go on and go – there are so many incidents of this kind of thing that happen all the time in this country. But there’s another thing too, and it’s this that I’m guilty of. The white arrogance and sense of entitlement that follows us wherever we go and is so ingrained we aren’t even aware of it. It’s the tone we adopt when the black teller is taking too long to ring up our goods (my ‘madam’ voice). It’s the secret panic when the pilot is black. It’s the us-and-them way we were taught, from the youngest age, to divide the world. This stuff is in our DNA, and the more we deny it, the less chance we have of making it go away.

I regularly hear white South Africans say the most outlandish things: ‘It’s just a pity when it’s the blacks turning on the blacks’. Blacks who? What homogenous entity are we referring to? My char? The heart surgeon at Grootte Schuur? Oprah? What does the council guy who comes to my door asking for R5 for his daughter’s netball tournament have in common with President Zuma? I can tell you: fucking nothing. I have more in common with Zuma than he does. We are both middle class South Africans with a big, fat sense of entitlement. Or, they say: ‘I’m not interested in politics and race relations.’ Oh, you aren’t? Could that be because you have a big house with a lawn and two cars and eat out a few times a week and go to Bali for Christmas? How lovely for you that you’re privileged enough to be apolitical. And for me. And for all of us who live lives of charm and delight, tweeting about SONA over a second bottle of Beaumont Shiraz because fuck sakes, this country is surely going up in flames in five minutes. Please pass the dip.

I don’t mean to be unfair and beat up on white people. Some of my best friends are white. We are all just human beings doing our best in a political situation which scares us to the very marrow. We love this country and – with good reason – are terrified of what the ANC is getting away with; what this recent malarkey means in terms of our constitution and our future. But we all need to do a big, fat audit of our attitudes and the racism we hide even from ourselves. We need to remind ourselves, daily, that our disappointment in our government has nothing to do with the countless black people in South Africa just trying to get by in a country where the structures of apartheid make basic survival a daily struggle. The legislative bit of apartheid might have ended 20 years ago, but it is not white people living in cardboard boxes beside the highway. For those countless people, apartheid is alive and well – only they have no hope of anything ever changing. For them, the cycle of poverty is as entrenched and ongoing as it’s ever been.

Let us make a point of remembering how incredibly privileged and lucky we are to live the lives we do in this extraordinarily beautiful part of the planet. Let’s stop sitting by passively and moaning to each other over skinny lattes about how messed up everything is. We – the ones who enjoy economic power as a birthright – must start speaking up for those who have no voice. And it starts with admitting our racism to ourselves and becoming acutely aware of how it plays out in the day-to-day; how, on subtle levels, it keeps the status quo in place because thoughts lead to words which lead to actions. Truth be told, we can be a stupid, obtuse tribe of people. The other day a young woman who belongs to the Neighbourhood Watch group I had to leave because of comments like hers said, ‘This whole black issue is such a crock.’ I mulled over her comment for days, and in the end I didn’t have enough words for that level of ignorance and myopia. And the saddest thing of all was that everyone agreed.

So, I propose this for each one of us who grew up during apartheid or at any point in this socially and economically segregated society and has been rendered a little bit mad as a result: we need to stand in front of a mirror, look ourselves in the eye and say, ‘I am a racist.’ Then we need to make a daily decision that we are going to challenge these stupid, retrogressive views which are based on nothing but ignorance and fear. In whatever small capacity we can we need to counter our arseholedom by doing selfless things, spreading goodwill and taking the hand of friendship black South Africa – against all odds and to my ongoing astonishment – holds out to us, its arrogant oppressors. Because we have the power to do so much good if we can look up from our iPads long enough.

The morning after the State of the Nation address I went to Clicks Pharmacy to buy Panados for the red wine I’d gulped down when the sound went off for the seventh time. I asked the (black) woman who was ringing up my things if she had watched the madness the previous night. She had. She started telling me how angry and disappointed she was in our government. Her colleague joined in the conversation. Their voices grew so loud a small crowd gathered to hear what they were saying, and they were much more radical in their condemnation of the ANC than I dare to be. They went on for such a long time I almost regretted asking, but it was a very important reminder for me – and I suspect for all the white people who stood there, listening – that we are on the same side. We all want fairness and accountability by the government and a president who is a leader and not a crook. We all want to live in a country where our children’s futures are secure. Let’s do what we can to stop the divisiveness that’s growing in our society like a cancer, and the first step towards achieving that is taking a long, hard look at ourselves.

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221 thoughts on “On Coming to Terms with Our Arseholery

  1. This resonate with me today. Today I saw race. I saw black and I saw white. And later I was seen as a white and handled in a very specific way.
    But I also saw humanity and the ugly trait of fallen man to fearlessly and ferociously defend his/her own SELF.
    And I was saddened to my spirit.

  2. Awesome article! Very well written. You have described the thing so well. Truly its amazing

  3. Thank you so much for this article and allowing me to see inside your experience. I was in college as President Mandella was released from prison and attended protest rallies at Colorado State University. I had a very limited view and knew no one that lived in Africa. I feel very fortunate there is a venue for this unfiltered dialogue. Thank you. Be safe!

  4. Divisiveness that’s is human err. No one tries joining everything. We need that joining force nowadays to evolve as a race. Nice post. I don’t know the reality there but share the feeling.

  5. This is so refreshing to hear. Living in New Zealand us ‘whites’ are still stuck in the attitude that Maori are the lesser. We poke fun on TV at them to the point where mostly they poke fun at themselves now too.
    Poverty rates are much higher among Maori and suicide rates for Maori youth are much, much higher. It shames me that New Zealand’s history is so short and yet we are here in 2015 still keeping the ‘natives’ down and we haven’t learnt a damn thing.

  6. This is absolutely truth. So many of us need to wake up and pay attention to the world around us. Rather than sitting on our pedestals looking down like we could never have it so bad. Ohhhh that kind of thinking… is why the Titanic sank. American will sink too. If we keep our heads in our iPads.

  7. I love the honesty and passion. My husband and I both actively fought against apartheid in the 80’s and he has the scars to remind us (inflicted by white people) We also both lived in shacks for a while and now that we live in suburbia we are not yet sure if we comfortably fit in. Things have become a bit strange – white people feel we are too friendly with the black people and black people just see us as white people and make assumptions… here are my thoughts on the SONA https://undertakerstories.wordpress.com/?s=Cry+for+my+beloved+country

  8. Very well said. It’s a global problem definitely. I empathize with your country as we have the same issue here in the U.S. And of course it’s not just a black and white thing. It’s ignorance fueled by fear of the unfamiliar. I see and hear it every day. I too am guilty of being a racist. This is something that I’ve stepped back and looked at about myself numerous times bc I know it’s wrong and I must change it so that others can change this attitude as well.

  9. Reblogged this on Definitively Expresive and commented:
    Truth is that racism is somewhat within all of us, even blacks against blacks. I get scared whenever a black person walks past our car and I’d rather accept a lift from a white stranger than from a black one which really doesn’t make sense because my mother never taught me that a white stranger is better than a black. She just told me never to accept car rides from strangers period! But somehow being racist against anyone who isn’t my friend (black, white, Indian or coloured), is something I find myself doing more and more often. I lay sad and unfair generalizations on people that I don’t know based on the colour of their skin. I own up to it, I hope you do too.

  10. “The white arrogance and sense of entitlement that follows us wherever we go and is so ingrained we aren’t even aware of it. It’s the tone we adopt when the black teller is taking too long to ring up our goods (my ‘madam’ voice).”
    Calling yourself out is the first of many steps toward challenging the preconceptions and attitudes you’re raised with. I’ve witnessed so much white arrogance and unfounded sense of superiority and entitlement to say that you’re a unicorn among white horses. I’m a fan.

  11. Reblogged this on demetrius13 and commented:
    Brilliant. Looking in the mirror is the most uncomfortable, but effective and direct, way to make a change. Thanks for sharing!

  12. Thanks for such an amazing post. I too think a lot about racism, given that I face it on a frequent basis as a multiracial woman. Your message can absolutely be applied to all parts of the world, because racism is everywhere. I think in addition to really looking at ourselves we should also strive to engage in dialogue about these things. It’s hard for people to address their own flaws or weaknesses, but once they do that and can open their hearts to dialogue with others, we can progress leaps and bounds.

  13. I’m not from South Africa so I will never have an understanding of the issues faced there by people from all races. But I want to say good on you for having the courage to look in the mirror, and for challenging others to do the same. I truly hope that together you guys can build a better future.

  14. Well said. It takes a lot to question your habitual motives and thought process daily, but I think that’s what it will take to eliminate races, and snap judgments against anyone for any reason.

  15. A wonderful soliloquy full of emotions of the right kind fighting against the lifestyle of the wrong kind. Lincoln’s, Gandhi’s and Mandela’s may come and go, but attitudes, the wrong ones, remain the same. Habits die hard and wretched habits never die at all!

    Could never understand wtf color of one’s skin had anything to do with mankind and its struggle or continuity of existence on earth?

    Why can’t the racist protagonists ever realise that the color of humans and their geo-placement is all a handiwork of God Almighty or call it Mother Nature or simply Nature, and that the poor souls, black or brown or whatever, are in no way responsible for the color of their skin in as much as the racist scums are not responsible for their own fate, that is, birth and death?

    The present day global tension and turmoil certainly calls for an encore of the Genesis flood to wash away the dirty attitude of all these dumb racist shitholes, and start all over again, God willing!

    Thanks for the outspoken post of a fiery outburst – keep it up!

  16. I am so glad I woke up this morning and stumbled on your article. It is honest and challenging. I thank you for that. Also, I admire the fire-brand in you.
    I live in America, Black but not poor. Since I have never visited S.A, I cannot comment on the issue on a personal and eloquent manner as you do, but the difference between our experiences is just a matter of degree.
    I have a hobby blog and address the matter of racism by focusing on the structure rather than the occurrences at the micro live, where life is lived.
    Racism is not ignorance and it is not useless. There are people who benefit by its continuance while you and I are at each other’s throats.
    Thanks again. I have linked as a follower.

    1. Thank you very much, Leyland. It’s so cool and exciting that the blog resonates for people across the racial bar and living in far-flung corners of the world. I grew up with a huge inferiority complex as a white South African, and believed it was the only racist country in the world. It was a big surprise for me moving to Scandinavia and realising how racism was certainly not relegated to my place of birth, but was alive and well and, perhaps more insidiously, not acknowledged or addressed. We just need to keep talking. There is not enough dialogue around this stuff. Thank you again, and all the best! :-)

      1. Hi, surprised you felt inferior but who knows the limit of ways one could be affected. When I came to America, my problem was being in queue with white people on line behind me. I’d feel anxious and hurry to do my business.

        You may notice on my hobby blog, that race is only one issue that separates us and it’s profitable too. I take my advocacy further, that is to say, every “ism” that stands in the way of equality. So, I gave up feminism. For me it’s TOTAL EQUALITY period! Seems that once we start segmenting, insularity and exclusion arrive. Thanks for responding.

        1. Well, apartheid was very shameful for we white South Africans. The whole world hated us. We hated ourselves. It was this bizarre situation we were born into, and I think for most ‘ordinary’ people (I was a child at the time) we wouldn’t have had a clue how to go about changing things. Of course, there were activists and people involved in the struggle, but for working class people like my parents… well, that kind of critical thinking/ awareness was just not something they possessed. Only later, once censorship of the media was abolished, did people kind of go, ‘oh my god, that was happening?’ implausible as that sounds, even to my own ears. And then when the truth came out about how black South Africa was really being treated, the guilt was immense, still is. I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to shake it. And I’m not sure we should. It keeps us remembering and on our toes, in a sense. It’s a weird, complicated country this one.

  17. Hi there, Disco

    You’re making me home-sick in the very best way! I’ve spent the past 2 days combing through your blog posts, and let me tell you, I LOVE your writing!!

    I was born in SA, but have lived in Texas for the past 19 yrs. We left SA when I was 16, and your writing about home, life in SA, and little bits of Afrikaans makes me remember so much about everything that was wonderful about childhood and my home.

    Keep writing, I’ll keep reading and loving it!

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