On Coming to Terms with Our Arseholery

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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.


221 thoughts on “On Coming to Terms with Our Arseholery

  1. Shoo, this blog really bothered me Discopants Queen and now that I have responded I can move on.Well done! Well done on making people sit up and think and reblog and lie awake at night trying to solve problems of the world and eat normal sandwiches….xxx
    Responded with a link to yours on my blog. nikimalherbe@wordpress.com cos I had a lot to say and felt it best to do so there.
    Not sure what reblogging does…..???/will try it too and see!

  2. Hi All

    I am sorry for entering a “random” line of thought like this ,but i believe it must me said , because i have grown tired of all the bullshit doing it’s rounds.

    My honest opinion is as follows and I believe everyone to know this to be the truth deep inside themselves:

    Africa is basically screwed in the context of it being westenised to the level it is currently at.The facts are as follows and I don’t care to branded a “racist” for this statement as it is the God honest truth.

    Evolution ,for whatever reason , has granted certain races with different traits and Africans (blacks) have unfortunately drawn the shortest straws on intellect ON AVERAGE.—THIS IS FACT based on empirical scientific research.(and plain common sense and history)

    Africa is poor ,underdeveloped, and SA is going , and has slowly been going, down the shitter since 1994 , because of this.Don’t still blame apartheid or colonialism for the state Africa and SA is in currently ,blame IQ!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I left SA, not because of the crime ,but beacause of the utter stupidity and incompetence of the government and my bosses who were appointed based on the fact that they were non-white and not based on their abilities. SA is more racist or at least as racist as it was during apartheid ,but countries like Britain are keeping theit trapps shut due to political correctnes beacause SHAME , poor f-in blacks!

  3. Reblogged this on Lee-Bell Family in Perth and commented:
    Well written piece echoing sentiments that may have been spoken, but may not have been heard by white Zimbabweans at a similar juntion in our own history.

    “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.”

  4. Reblogged this on deadlikemeblog and commented:
    I loved reading this post on discopantsblog.

    Such honesty and what she says applies not just to South Africa but countries around the world, does not just apply to white & black society but to the society that is a mosaic of different races, nationalities, religions, sects, sexual orientations, sexual identities, languages…
    She sums it up for the world what’s actionable, “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”

  5. I’m glad I ran into your blog Susan and I’ve read several of your posts.

    Racism is the most “convenient” form of discrimination. It is the most obvious and the quickest way to get a “high”….when “high” means a feeling of superiority.

    As a non-South African proud and lucky to call South Africa home (but does Cape Town really count? It feels like an European resort at times), I’ve experienced all kinds of racism first, second and third-hand.

    (For lack of space and the correct PC terminologies, I use “black” here to refer to anyone not lumped into the politically category of “white”)

    There’s white on black racism (no need to elaborate, you already described it so well. And what is up with the word “domestics”? It sounds like one is referring to dogs. Someone even referred to herself as a “maid owner” in one of the comments. Really? Do we “own” maids in 2015? Nothing funnier than a white person bitching about blacks who have a sense of entitlement)

    There’s black on black racism. (It’s ok for me to wait on “them” but certainly not on you…and, on the other side of the coin, similar to “white on white discrimination”)

    There’s black on white racism (White people are all the same and the cause of all personal, political and other problems)

    White on white discrimination (what we would be left with if the whole world were made up of people of the same color. Discrimination based on wealth, education, the bigger house, the better “domestic”, the better plastic surgeon, the bigger penis….)

    You are right, we are all racists. Perhaps if we look at ourselves in the mirror and admit it, we might offend one person less everyday for the rest of our lives. We might really look past the skin of of people to realize that there is a person inside just like us, even if they do things differently from us. I always think of Sting’s “Russians love their children too” when I think or racism. Perhaps the little dent we start to make might start to make some real difference.

    We should also dare to speak our mind and speak up against discrimination. Many people tend to stay quiet when faced with or when they witness discrimination. Silence unfortunately often comes across as agreement.

    Yes, we are all racists and one type of racism does not justify another. We can work on the racism that affects us and that which we cause other people.

  6. Wow, thanks so much for this insight! I’m eager to explore more of your posts. As a long-distance surrogate dad to a South African settlement youth, my focus has been keeping him safe, healthy, and getting him through college. (Mission accomplished!) But in the background I’m always distressed and surprised to learn of the inequities and challenges that occur in the country.

    The little I know of SA politics is that 20 years post-apartheid, my “son” shouldn’t be living in a shack with no water or electricity. His siblings shouldn’t attend an unheated public school that has no library or computers. It’s shameful. (And I also wonder why the Sandton library — in the shadows of gleaming corporate towers — has one tired computer and dated books. Everyone must pitch in and bring opportunity to generations of young people languishing in SA.)

    Happily, my young charge is on a good path. In the last election, he supported the Democratic Alliance and lamented people who voted for the ANC just out of “history.” He knows the country needs to change. He’s also a service leader at City Year Joburg (team captain and corps rep!) — helping tutor young township kids even though he himself has little. But he does have vision, and hope, and drive. I can’t speak to the atittudes of white middle-class SA — but kids like him will hopefully bring the change the country needs.

    To learn more about our story, check out my latest blog post. Hopefully I can inspire others to help young people. Thanks again! http://long-distance-dad.com/2015/03/15/the-book-an-update/

    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment and share your story. It’s a complicated issue, the ANC thing. I think people vote for a party and not a particular leader. It was the ANC who freed people and gave them their rights. The DA is still perceived as a white party. Had I been a person of colour during the apartheid years I’m not sure I would vote for a white party, either. But we live in interesting times, and the race discussion is going on in full force down here as all our nascent racism is getting aired big time :-) All the best to you and your family.

  7. I was born after 1994 so for most people born in 1995 and there after life is so racial but those few people who choose to see black or white are narrow minded as a young person being black or white in this country isn’t something that’s going to slow anyone down get over it, yes it happened but it did not affect everyone

    1. I think it’s hard to argue against the fact that even in 2016 black and white South Africans are not afforded the same opportunities. But maybe you’re in Joburg? In Cape Town we still have huge economic apartheid that’s not about to change anytime soon. I’d be interested to hear more of your thoughts if you feel like expanding on that. Thanks for writing :-)

  8. Sometimes I want to run away from it other times I know I have to work through it. Because racism and being so aware of race in every context is entangled with every other part of our existance. Being non-racist is not about ignoring race in SA, it’s about acknowledging it, and not being one of those people that says “when is this not going to be an issue”. We don’t have the luxury of seperating race and class. Both here in Jozi and in CT, our city is planned based on race seperation and I know here that JDA and other organizations are working toward changing that. And many other aspects of race and it’s role in our society can’t be ignored although ignoring is almost instinctual like a survival mechanism. We all believe in change because we have watched it happen, you have to be dillusional I think not to see people putting in that small effort to change things. Everyday people making small everyday changes to make everyone feel at home is what I see. I have lived here my entire life and the thing I’ve realised is that diversity rocks! Oh and I am a gay white and I still try everyday to hold a mirror up to the gay community who I believe has much much growing to do both in Jozi and in CT. We need yay-sayers not nay-sayers. :)

  9. Damn good piece! I know a couple people there and we had this conversation.

    You gotta get the kids! Period end of story, you gotta get the kids to make the changes.

    Affirmative action doesn’t work. There are people of colour, blacks, what ever term you care to use in the United States that will attest to that.


    Equal opportunity with the promotion of excellence is what works. Granted not an easy objective.

    An important thing to consider in the third world is that third world problems are first world problems as well. The first world isn’t running to the rescue like it used to. Part and notice I said “part” of the reason is because the third world just doesn’t seem to learn. Part of our attitude is this, if you aren’t going to step up and clean up your own house why should we waste our time and resources helping.

    It would take me a week to write everything of relevance and I just don’t have the time.

    The world is still watching.

  10. This is great!! I agree. However I do worry that for some just noting privilege is quite passive. It’s not a solution. It’s necessary but it’s not the answer. But I really like this post.

  11. I really liked this post, and I must agree you need to sit up realise that even though we do not outwardly express racism we are still racist in thought.

    BUT I do have one problem, that being youth (black and white). The white youth basically just want to leave because they feel they will have to support an ever increasing black population that is unemployed. Black youth have the two extremes the few that want to do well and work really hard to get there, and then the majority that expects to be given things, play the race card where ever possible and are planning to take advantage of corrupt tenders.

    I understand the older generation having these segregation feelings and the need for BEE/BBEE ect at that level but I am sorry it is WRONG that at a youth level two young gentlemen looking for a similar job the black youth will always be chosen first based on race without considering anything else. And you basically saying to us encourage the white youth to stay in a country where you will not get a job! Please I will tell them to run, get out, if you can get a job outside of an increasingly racist country – leave!

    But again this may just be my racist tendencies that I need to sit up and acknowledge. Thanks for the post I will be following and reading more of your work.

  12. Well this is an insight into racism from the white perspective and every enlightening. As a black SA citizen racism is seen differently. But this is good info. Cool girl!

  13. “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.”

    Yhoo! Susan i am Black i know and have experienced these kind of reactions. One day i was at Haward Center in Pinelands, standing in a Que behind four White ladies whom were not comfortable around me at all they kept on turning their heads and fake smiles at me. I could not stand that Sh#%, i walked out without buying………..

    Susan Job well done!…That is a Post and a Half. I so hope that every South African could have access to this Blog and learn a Life Lesson.

  14. I don’t necessarily agree – this is a bit like “My Traitors Heart” revisited. But you know – I don’t know many South Africans (white, that is) who have moved back there after leaving. Which is always a choice. It depends upon the circles within which you move, and the insults – well, I understand what you mean – it insults one’s intelligence the way Some people talk and walk. I left to avoid conscription…a long time ago. Clearly it is a case of Aleuta Continua.

    1. Personally the other night day after New Years Eve Jesus touched my heart and ask me to give 50 dollars a month to help the little babies out in South Africa and so far all kinds of good things have happened to me and my family? I don’t know many South African People in The City of Charlotte. But the ones I know are very nice at church? Now I don’t know if I would move back, if I use to live there. I would If I was rich I could help out a lot? THANK YOU FOR LISTENING: JUDY PAYNE:

  15. a great read Susan, well done! I’ll be taking up your challenge to closely “look at myself daily” and to encourage my wife and kids similarly, to see how we can all make a little difference in the wonderful country of ours.

      1. It’s such a big deal for me right now. I’m on the threshold of student life and applied to places like Stellenbosch and Tuks, but I’m arguing with myself about applying in the UK too. South Africa is breaking hearts at the moment…

  16. I’m not from SA…I’m in Canada. And I agree with what at least one commenter said: This applies to all countries. In Canada, we’ve arrogantly considered ourselves as “open” and devoid of racism, well, relatively so as we compare ourselves to what we see in the news of our neighbours to the south. We conveniently forget the reservation system (upon which, I believe, SA’s apartheid was at least partially based – something we should be proud of, for sure), the Japanese internment camps, residential schools, and so on. Point being…it’s something that applies to all of us, everywhere. We should all stand in front on a mirror (literal or metaphorical) and really do some thinking. Thank you!

    1. Agreed! When I lived in Sweden I was amazed at how racist people were once I learned to understand the language and what they were saying. Even now as a South African I will cringe at some things friends and family members say. Many people in so-called egalitarian northern Europe aren’t nearly as politicized as we are down here; as aware of what is okay and what is not okay. I found myself teaching them sometimes. Which is quite a thing when you think about how we grew up.

  17. This blog makes me hear the Avenue Q “Everyones a little bit Racist” song in my head (look it up on youtube if you haven’t hear it). I agree we all must recognise own on racism no matter how subtle it is especially when living in multicultural countries. Recognising that most people regardless of their colour and background essentially want the same thing for the country in which they live is a good start.

  18. This is just crucial society! Racism is a creed. Being Indian I know how it feels. Just another word in india is castism or outcast. I just loved your blog especially point on child’s security. Why can’t we just teach our children cosmopolitian theology?. Young minds are sensitive as i have always believed. One more thing you’re write we need to look insidie ourselves to revolt the changes we want.

  19. I spent two months living in Cape Town, and I certainly felt like their was a socio-economic divide between whites and blacks. Things need to change, definitely. And it’s nice to see someone writing an article about this important issue. Good job.

  20. Reblogged this on here i stand upon shoulders of giants and commented:
    Undoubtably, we are children of a very connected world. The problems faced in South Africa are everywhere but only nearer boiling point. I pray that your leaders take heed of the many concerns the populace has before any violent upheavals follow. Too easily electoral rhetoric becomes engrained in the minds of those in poverty leading to a focus on our differences rather than our similarities.

  21. Reblogged this on Everyday Voices and commented:
    An insightful thoughtful piece about racism written by a “middle-class” white woman living in South Africa. I don’t know if reading this piece and her other piece about what life is like living in South Africa’s Townships makes me feel better about the sad state of affairs in the US but it’s food for thought. I suppose we are every bit as corrupt but in a less visible way.
    I don’t know enough about the ANC (pre and post Mandela) and South Africa’s current political situation (besides that it’s really “messed up”) to comment much.
    But from reading this lady’s blog, for the white minority in her country, the narrative went from white people was doing this to you during apartheid and that was awful and unforgivable but now apartheid has ended for 20 years and every president since Nelson Mandela has been black and a member of the ANC, and South Africa is still messed up and even more messed up according to some people, so you (meaning blacks) are just incompetent and are doing it to yourselves now and we white people can wash our hands clean of one of the worst crimes in history. In fact, the same could be said for most of Sub-Sahara or black Africa. They wanted colonialist and imperialists out, so they out they went. The sub-saharan Africa has been independent from white colonialists and imperialists for about 50 years and what have they done with themselves in the 50 years?
    This piece points out that it’s not quite so simple. Specifically referring to whites in South Africa, racism is a birthright. White supremacy is a birthright. Access to good schools, good jobs and living in safe good neighborhoods is a white birthright, so ingrained that not one white person gives it a second thought. And it’s a birthright that’s not been given up just because apartheid ended. De jure apartheid may have ended, but de facto apartheid is still alive and well.

    “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.”

    And just for perspective, as of 2011, Whites comprised of 8.9% of the population in South Africa, Blacks are 79.2%, Coloured are 8.9% and other Asians and Indians are 2.5% and less than 10% of 50 million people control all of the wealth and access to wealth. The current unemployment rate is 25% and even with these appalling numbers, its neighbors are still flocking to South Africa to find work.

  22. Brilliant❤️ “This whole black thing is such a crock!”? ….sounds like what some people in my little, ignorant town would say. I, on the other hand, have (mixed) black kids. I see the difference in how people act when it’s just me vs me with my kids. Racism or “the black thing” is very real. And, yes, people need to own up to it. But then, they’d have to care first to do so.

  23. I think it is time South Africans should stop letting down there founding father Nelson Mandela and make some tough choices about racism in that country. I can’t imagine myself being ridiculed in my own country because of my skin colour.

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