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.

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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.